Maybe Melbourne is just growing up: a walk through my city

On my first day as a reporter I arrived in Melbourne on a diesel fume-spewing Tramway bus from Preston’s Northland. In those days every great city had great newspapers and Melbourne had a couple of beauties.

The city was bookended by the Herald and Weekly Times in Flinders Street and The Age in Spencer Street. Late at night you would hear the presses rumble before trucks streamed out, racing to deliver first editions around the state.

The columnists of the day spoke for Melburnians and didn’t yell at them, reflecting what they thought rather than telling them how to think.

It was February 1978 and Melbourne’s population was about 2.8 million, compared with today’s 5.1 million.

The MCG was a daytime venue without light towers, the Australian Open was played at Kooyong, there was a car ferry across the Yarra as the West Gate Bridge was still months from opening, there was no Hamer Hall, Southbank, Casino or City Loop. There were no laneway bars, the coffee culture was largely restricted to Lygon Street, and we lived under strict(ish) alcohol curfews.

West Gate Bridge, Melbourne, May 29, 1978: The moment when the two sides of the bridge met.Credit:The Age

Remote learning was something left to outback kids taught through the School of the Air.

But Melbourne was losing its white bread image, becoming a unique combination of cool and kitsch. A civilised destination with a hidden underbelly.

There was an energy and a vitality. There was a sense that something special was happening and if you wanted to make it you needed to work in the city.

I’ve always felt I belonged in Melbourne. I have reported from Asia, Europe, the United States and South America, but always as an outsider.

It’s hard to believe but 10 years ago authorities were worried Melbourne had become too much of a party town, with unruly drunken crowds leading to police blitzes and a call to reduce vertical drinking spaces. Except for a couple of big economic hiccups, Melbourne has been on a steady growth curve until COVID put the city into an induced coma for two years.

Police seal off the ground floor of the Manchester Unity building after three men were killed during the Manchester Unity jewel robbery on March 17, 1978. Credit:The Age Archives

So what has happened to my Melbourne?

It is 9am midweek when I drive into the 40-vehicle carpark at Media House. There are two other cars there.

Downstairs the successful coffee shop run by Nick and staffed by enthusiastic backpackers is gone, as has the Japanese across the road, where there were queues outside and energetic staff worked shoulder-to-shoulder.

The Purple Peanuts Japanese Cafe in Collins Street has been one of the casualties of COVID. Credit:Eddie Jim

A homeless man with a cardboard sign outside Southern Cross Station sits hunched, looking down, waiting for the sun to move to warm his back. People walk past as though he is invisible. We long ago lost our sense of shock for those clinging to the sides of society.

The court precinct is usually awash at this time. Cops, lawyers, victims, witnesses and those charged, all hoping their version of the truth will be accepted.

The steps of the Magistrates Court are empty. The guards outside the County Court, ready to check anyone entering, stand silent.

A young man on an e-scooter zooms past. He is wearing a non-compulsory mask while his compulsory helmet is strapped to the handlebars.

In the next city block there are two pedestrians and a window cleaner. In Lonsdale Street there is a business selling fashion face masks, a pandemic pivot.

The Public Library in Swanston Street, with its magnificent reading dome, is one of Melbourne’s great spaces. It is where a corrupt NSW cop, the toad-like Fred Krahe, offered a Melbourne detective a bribe to give perjured evidence in an extradition with the underworld inducement “there’s a drink in it for you”.

NSW cop Fred Krahe: As bent as a boomerang.Credit:Fairfax Meida

On the front lawn, 11 people are sitting on benches, seven looking at their phones. Behind them is a sign advertising The World of the Book with free entry.

RMIT is quiet, with many students embracing online learning. You wonder if they know they are missing the best thing tertiary education has to offer: meeting people.

In Russell Street a busload of school kids march to the Old Melbourne Jail. They will not know they are passing another piece of history, the old Melbourne Magistrates Court, where in 1979 gangster Ray Bennett was shot by another gangster in a murder set up by corrupt police.

Across the road is the old Russell Street Police Building, now turned into accommodation. The door to the police reporters’ office that never closed is still there. Now the entrance is protected by a swipe key.

Police rounds Christmas party in the Russell Street pressroom, 1980. SIlvester, wearing an alarmingly wide tie, is in the middle.

The cafe at the front is closed. A lone beer can is perched on an umbrella. There is a For Sale sign.

There is another sign – a plaque dedicated to Constable Angela Taylor, who died after she was caught in the 1986 Russell Street Bombing.

The few people who walk by don’t look at the plaque, seemingly oblivious to the building’s history. Maybe that just means Melbourne heals its wounds.

The plaque for Angela Taylor on the corner of Russell and La Trobe streets. Credit:Chris Hopkins

Around the corner in McKenzie Street, the old Police Club – where future prime minister Bob Hawke was knocked out and the incident covered up – has been enveloped by newer buildings. The club had simple rules: If you punched a fellow cop you were fined $50 and banned from the bar for six months.

There is plenty of empty street meter parking, indicating a lack of short-term visitors.

Melbourne’s most resilient space, the Queen Victoria Market, that has survived depressions, Mafia- inspired murders, droughts and the introduction of air-conditioned shopping centres, is bouncing back. Traders spruik fresh produce and there are queues at the bratwurst shop and the American Donut Van.

The brilliant and troubled chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain wrote Melbourne was his favourite Australian destination and a visit to the market was mandatory: “You come to Melbourne, you go to the Vic Market, you have a bratwurst. This is something that everyone, everyone does.”

In Russell Street there is a line of empty shops collecting city grime. In the Greek quarter most of the shops from Russell to Swanston are open, but there is not one customer.

The sign advertising live seafood seems an exaggeration. In the tank in the window is an upside-down fish as dead as Julius Caesar and two sad gropers, looking resigned to their fate.

The most energy shown is from the small army of stop-go sign holders at building sites, who leap out for no apparent reason to stop traffic. Ninjas in fluoro vests.

In Myer’s ground there are 27 visible staff with seven attending customers. Three staff are huddled with a visitor they seem to know. From a distance it looks as if they are fussing over someone’s baby. Turns out it is a small fluffy dog that sits unconcerned in a baby harness.

At the Bourke Street Mall there are no buskers, perhaps because of a lack of crowds, perhaps because few people carry cash.

The heritage-listed Royal Arcade is pockmarked with empty shops. The Games Shop, which came to Melbourne the same year I did, is permanently closed.

At a tea shop a couple of friends sit smiling and chatting. It is one of the few signs of people who have come into Melbourne for an outing rather than business.

It is not so much the closed shops or the spray-painted tagging, or the lack of foot traffic that makes Melbourne feel sedated. It is the lack of energy, of hustle and bustle and vibrant noise.

It is like a Sunday 30 years ago, but then it felt a relaxed pace, a renewal after a hectic week. Now it feels forced. The people you pass look as though they are there because they need to be.

Flinders Street Station during last October’s curfew. Parts of the city remain deserted.Credit:Eddie Jim

As city lawyer Bernie Balmer says: “Melbourne looks like it has lost everything, including its sense of humour.”

No one is meeting under the Flinders Street clocks and the trains are half-empty. Nearby in Degraves Street the laneway cafes are showing green shoots, with a slight buzz from the laneway tables. No matter the crisis, there is always time for smashed avo.

One element coming back is crime. With lockdowns and curfews, police reduced patrols in the CBD and that void is filled with street crooks.

As Melbourne starts to open up, the crooks take advantage. A couple of weekends ago there were five stabbings – some involving violent fights and others, robberies where even when victims comply they are stabbed apparently without reason.

Last weekend a man was stabbed to death and another left fighting for life. Only big crowds will drive the hoods back into the shadows.

You cannot force or bribe people back. They will return at their pace, but maybe we have split into villages, with our own restaurants, cinemas and gyms. The traffic had become too hard and the alternatives too easy. For many the five days a week commute is a waste of time.

In many great cities the centre is for work, tourism, culture, travel and events. In cities like New York and London, people spend their leisure time closer to home.

Maybe Melbourne is just growing up.

It will always be a great town. It will always be my town. But it will be a different town. It has survived bombings, depressions, gangland wars, mass killing and pandemics.

It will survive this.

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