Labels, names, pigeon holes. Common devices we use to categorise people.
“You’re like that because you fit into this box.” I was a little affronted the other day when a flight attendant said “welcome home” to me when I left a Melbourne bound flight from Sydney. She had made a snap judgement I’m assuming based on what I was wearing. I looked around embarrassed at the time, and saw a lady in white pants and a colourful blouse, a man in scuffed square toed shoes and an ill-fitting microfibre shirt and other frequent flyer types barking into their mobile phones and wondered what other judgements she would make.
We all do it. One of my favourite games as a teenager was guessing what train station people would get off on my line. Short haired, masculine ladies would get off between Alphington and Fairfield. Polished shoes would alight at Ivanhoe or Eaglemont. The black stocking/white trainer combo (usually on a pair of sturdy legs) would almost always be Watsonia or Greensborough. I was of course, the uptight and judgemental bogan leaving the train at Diamond Creek.
This judgement is often how we define ourselves and others. Worse is when it is by where we live. Armadale mums, the Carlton Chardonnay set, Fitzroyalty, Scumshine, Braaaaahton. Then it comes down to that most natural of barriers. The Yarra River.
Northside and Southside. The arbitrary Mason – Dixon Line separating “us” and “them”. Who would have thought a muddy little river could be such a powerful signifier of allegiance. The stereotype is probably best summed up by two “old guard” venues in their respective corners. For the north, we have Atomica cafe in Fitzroy, in tattoos and black skinny jeans. Artisan roasted coffee (on the premises), good food but an assault of attitude and loud music. The coffee is (or was – it’s been a while since I’ve been there), better than what you get in most places in Rome. For the south, we have Scullerymade in Malvern, in a twin set and Alice band. If you don’t know it, this is the place to buy homewares in Melbourne. Copper pots (“Darling a STEEEEAL at $495 for the mini roaster”), a thousand different types of cheese knife and some of the best French porcelain money can buy. I have a sneaking suspicion that this store may have been the original inspiration for Prue and Trude from Kath ‘n Kim.
Of course, both of these stereotypes are fairly meaningless, as are most categorisations like this. They do create a kind of picture – one is edgy, earthy, responsible and hip. The other is exclusive, time honoured and inherently capitalist. These are mostly positive takes and there are many negative ones, usually from those on the other side.
I sit on the fence, or in the river in these instances because I love both (both places described above too). I’ve spent an equal amount of my adult life living north and south, and probably the most interesting thing recently is that the poles appear to be shifting. Today Carlton looks a little like Armadale. Fitzroy has more fine dining eating options than South Yarra. And it’s cheaper to rent an apartment in Toorak than Brunswick.
It’s that magical word that is revered and reviled at the same time. The bringer of prosperity and the breaker of culture. Gentrification. It’s spread across our inner city, blurring the poles and turning our once diverse suburbs into a sea of recycled timber, retro bicycles, white tiles and Edison bulbs. Casualties in the north include live music, affordable housing and cultural diversity. The south has lost its retail and food edge.
Does anyone remember when Chapel Street was at the cutting edge of Australian fashion? Or when the Builders Arms on Gertrude Street had sticky carpet, that fabulous sunset mural and a pool table? Today, the roles have reversed. On a Saturday morning Chapel Street is awash with vomit and broken glass, while Gertrude Street is busy with organic coffee, artisanal bread and BMWs looking for a park.
The north has become predictable while the south has become more affordable. If ever there is a reason for a pole shift, this is it.
There are, of course, the stayers. People and businesses that have been there so long they are institutions in their own right. These businesses focus on doing something consistently well rather than following what’s cool on the streets around them. France Soir on Toorak Road is still delightfully rude and French, while the Vegie Bar and Mario’s on Brunswick Street haven’t really changed much in the last twenty years. They are still full of people though.
These venues represent the real culture of a place. One that lasts and is not just about the latest fashion or “trends” (my favourite word).
As a city and culture I think it’s time we grew up. Melbourne is not Berlin. Our divide was not born of war, it was created by those seeking to differentiate themselves. Cities in this way are a bit like people – everyone has something to offer, but it’s a rare and delightful thing when you meet someone who doesn’t measure what that is, by comparing it with others.