A friend asked me to write a few thoughts about Melbourne for possible publication. Here’s what I wrote.
Melbourne must seem exotic to most parts of the world. But it’s most exotic to the people of Sydney.
The (two) centuries old argument of which is better – Sydney or Melbourne? – continues to this day. We may never have a consensus, but there is something about Melbourne that is like nowhere else in Australia. It’s little wonder that the rest of the country looks at it, and scoffs.
The biggest complaint about Melbourne is the weather. Decades before global-warming became a catch phrase, Crowded House wrote ‘Four Seasons In One Day’ about their adopted hometown. A morning can be so hot, you wish you could be one of those men who walk around without a shirt. That same night you will find your running for shelter as your socks get wetter and wetter. True Melbourners have learnt to ride it out. The rain wont last. The heat will go. The winds will pass. Change is normal for Melbourne.
It’s biggest compliment is the arts. Sydney has the film studios, the record companies, the government and business. But somehow Melbourne has wrangled the nation’s cool. It’s a city where creativity thrives. Cheaper than Sydney, it attracts the young and creative types in droves. And not just from Sydney, but from all over the country, and especially the country side. If your dream goes beyond having a big office in a skyscraper, then Melbourne is the city in Australia that can make that dream come true.
It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. So much so that even the locals will argue amongst themselves about what part of Melbourne is the coolest.
There is the south, by the water, which has St Kilda at it’s heart. A beach and a famous esplanade frames the area. The it follows a curve around the water, an inviting smile that leads you to another smile – a huge clown face that leads you to the tacky yet charming set of carnival rides known as Luna Park.
The south is relaxed. Days in the sun, on the beach or in the parks. Late afternoons in bars, or in the shops along the super wide roads. Even the sidewalks feel like they are too lazy be too close to each other. Then wind down the nights on the rooftops of someone’s terrace as the sun sets. Travel a bit wider in the south to find Prahan, with it’s hip clubs and second hand shops, which ends at the Astor – Australia’s greatest repertoire cinema.
But many would argue that it’s all about the north! The symbolic heart is the suburb of Fitzroy, with the long Brunswick Street full of all manner of shops. A down-home Asian grocery, an indie rock venue, an up-market pizza joint, an adult book shop – most likely in a row. And hey, why not have some street art that double as benches? It’s where the Melbourne art scene comes to show off it’s colours. Writers, musicians, students and more mingle in the cafes where you can barely find a seat that’s not covered with pamphlets and flyers.
Fitzroy at night is not as glamorous as some places but there is that Very Melbourne thing of choice. If you’re bored of the gallery opening, just wander down to the club that’s having a Japanese noise band night, or watch a local band at any second bar, or find a chilled little wine bar to melt away the hours. Sure, it’s a little pretentious, and maybe even a little proud of it. But it leaves the rest of us looking in, and only a hard heart will not have some sense of curiosity.
The north spreads out too. The Italian area, which has Lygon Street at it’s heart, has some of the best Pasta in Australia if not the world. And the art house cool of Fitzroy has started to drift north into suburbs like Northcote.
But it’s the area known as the City that is the heart of Melbourne. It’s a perfectly set grid – no winding roads here. This perfect grid with the big shops, and then smaller streets with smaller, cooler shops. I’ve spent so much time in Melbourne, but I could walk through a few thoroughfares, turn into an alley here, turn right that way, turn around there, and find myself lost. In the best way. Might as well sit yourself in a little cafe, or check out that little elegant bookshop. You’ll find your way out.
But getting a bit lost is the best way to explore. One of my favourite record shops (Basement Discs) is actually in a basement, below a cafe. My favourite cafe (Cookie) is above a second had record shop. You could walk right past my favourite Italian place without noticing it at all. I’m always being taken up some stairs, around a corner, to somewhere both literally and figuratively off the beaten path.
There are big things in the City too. The big shopping strip which is Bourke St runs through the heart of the City. Somehow they managed to squeeze a world class University, a seedy Red Light district and a Chinatown in there somewhere. Not to mention thousands of tourists.
Best of all, the City has yet to turn into a collection of faceless office buildings – although some parts of it are getting close. But it’s hard to imagine them knocking down the old train stations, the old theatres, the old expensive hotels. It’s part of Melbourne’s character. Again, it’s ever changing. You’ll find an old stone bank building next to a flashy new age sneaker shop, and back again.
And there is so much more. Just outside of the City lies two big stadiums. One is the classic Melbourne Cricket Ground (although you’d call it the MCG). The new and controversial culture park that is Federation Square. And the whole city is linked by the most Melbourne of Australian icons – the tram. It’s slow, it’s frustrating, it’s always full. But if you need to go somewhere and a tram doesn’t take you there, then you probably don’t really need to go there.
Oh, and a big ugly casino. And a murky river. And an international racing course. It’s all in there somewhere, all before you really reach the identical looking suburbs that belong to Melbourne in name, but never in style.
Maybe Melbourne doesn’t have the easy wins that a city usually has. No world famous structures. No great historical resonance. No big business mecha. But what it lacks in the One Big Reason to go, it gives back in the hundreds of smaller reasons. Any given day in Melbourne can be completely different from the next. Depends which way the wind blows, or maybe there will be no wind at all. Change, after all, is normal for Melbourne.