Brunswick Street : Art & Revolution
During the 1950s and 60s the Australian working class became the aspirational middle class and moved in great number to the suburbs. These were mainly prewar babies who, now in their twenties, were getting hitched and raising young families. They wanted more than the dirty lanes and run down terrace houses of the inner city for their own children. They dreamed of quarter acres with proper backyards and new, clean garages for their FB Holdens and Ford Fairlanes to live in. They wanted lawns to mow and driveways and carports and new schools and shops, not broken incinerators in matchbox courtyards, the tired and smelly old schools they used to go to, dark and grumpy milk bars and parking on the street. They were supported in such endeavours by well-paid work in shopping ‘malls’ and freshly built factories, plentiful new planned housing with affordable mortgages and the promise of excellent returns on their investments.
With their loss the inner cities became shadows of their former selves, where only grandparents and deros still lived, and all the struggling businesses and industries finally went under, leaving their burnt out, worthless shells gaping wide to the elements. The deros thought this was sweet and became squatters. The criminals, drug dealers and ne’er do wells were similarly chuffed with fewer people around to witness their dirty work. Inner city house prices slumped and it seemed they might never recover. Inner city rents were cheap as chips.
In Melbourne this left places like Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond, North Melbourne and even Carlton virtually gutted. Flemington, Kensington and Footscray fared not much better with larger and stronger industrial infrastructure close at hand, but on the North East side the times were economically dire indeed. Of course, nothing lasts forever. What happened next occurred first in Carlton, to a small degree, and caught fire in Fitzroy. It is a well-documented social phenomenon that occurs over and again, all around the world, in a fairly similar pattern every time such conditions occur. It is a phenomenon that is spearheaded by artists, writers, actors, potters and creative weirdos of all kinds, who move in to take advantage of low rents and large, industrial spaces that nobody wants or cares about and where they remain free to live as they choose, make what they choose and earn what they choose in the way they choose to earn it, where fewer if any people care enough to try telling them how to live. But as surely as this movement begins it tolls its own death knell, known as Gentrification, which occurs without fail about ten to twenty years later, when all of a sudden the suburban mass begins to hanker for culture, and realises that the inner city is alive with it. Artists are thick on the ground in there.
Thus, no sooner has their creativity brightened and enlightened the joint, and society besides, than the artists who have caused such positive change are forced out by skyrocketing rents and an influx of people who want what those scummy artists have got but have no ability or desire to improve or add to it. Before too long all the people who started the movement are forced to move on, either due to the jacked up rents and property prices, or the loss of peace and quiet prosperity replaced with high demand, demand, demand.
In Fitzroy the phenomenon centred around Brunswick street, which is the subject of a new book by Black Pepper publishing, Brunswick Street: Art & Revolution. The book is filled with the stories of artists and creatives who lived a beautiful life in Fitzroy in the 70s and early 80s, a life full of community and fresh, brave culture, in a place where they could – all too briefly – almost believe they were free.
The process of gentrification has now entirely swamped inner Melbourne. Though a handful of good music venues remain, the last teenage locals, who lived in their parents’ buildings, have left. Once the centre of group houses, illegal warehouses, artist studios, industrial ruins, underground theatres, pirate radio, performance art, and youthful sub-cultures like hippies, punks, goths, ravers, ferals, and not to forget students, with the most educated unemployed people in the land (50% had tertiary degrees), now even the most traditional bohemians can no longer afford to live in the old inner city.
Once they lived gloriously amidst the last fragments of the old 20th century Irish Catholic working class slum culture. Today they are forced to the edge of the tram zone, halfway to the mega-city’s edge. Without cars they are now being pressured towards the scattered disc of Melbourne’s outermost zone. If lucky they live near a train station. Their physical social circles in the world outside Facebook shrink month by month. The last major independent Art School was amalgamated into Melbourne University kicking and screaming as diversity died.
Student-only matchbox dorms are built with security guards at their entrances all night. Yuppies don’t socialize publicly at night and the streets are empty despite the extra people in the many new apartments. Tiny bedroom flats cost $420 a week, often paid to overseas landlords. Rent control is an unknown American concept. The tiny numbers of group houses left have lawyers living in them, not artists.
San Francisco has gone the same way except for Tenderloin and the Mission where rent control allows the final few bohemians and poor to live, while Silicon Valley buses more and more of its workers in and out of Frisco for free in huge tinted-window vehicles paid for by Google and Facebook and other techs. The suburban media doesn’t even see what’s happened in Melbourne, which has suffered Sydney’s fate.
The death of a vibrant living culture spanning from 1965 and before to 2010 isn’t even reported, from the banning of vibrant street festivals to the extinction of smaller representative local councils and the absolute domination of developers politically. Homes for lease have huge expensive billboards; demand by the most affluent is so high. New one-bedroom flats rise in price in Fitzroy in 18 months from $320K to $430K. In this country, this is now as good as it gets.
There is nowhere left for difference to live. The counter-cultures have been killed off as the rich have pushed them away to the outer limits of Melbourne and Sydney where they are dispersed into the physical isolation of widest suburbia and lose their community. Parties with fifteen youthful semi-bohemians who already know each other are the best that can be managed. In the universities management dismantles the student unions replacing them with privatized malls for the offspring of overseas elites.
Suburban barbarians indifferently lick bespoke gelato on the streets before their kids in their thousand dollar prams while the local two dollar polyvalent drug user beggars from the final government tower blocks still not pulled down look on in a daze at a farcical remnant of what once was something akin to Paris in the 1920s. A crazy, wonderful world never fully documented, a world no one who ever lived within it thought would fade.
I heard an 80 year old woman from Frisco tell me in 1997 outside the then Fitzroy Town Hall that the suburb was like her city, with all the human contact of a village but also the excitement of a big city. Now the inner city from St Kilda to Richmond to Collingwood and Fitzroy and Carlton is the ghetto of the very rich and the soul of diversity is lost.
Melbourne still has alternative media and marvellous street art and some great live music but one can only hope that somewhere, somehow, self-sufficiency and technological empowerment could lead us to a world of three-D printed houses and nanotech-assembler products, powered by our own buildings with quantum dot solar tech and cheap hot or cold fusion. In the meantime most young Melbournians live in a monoculture of moveable nuclear families unable to breathe outside of the narrow confines of the workplace and family room, encroached on by the Murdoch media, and perhaps Facebook is the only friend the bohemian can see at an easy glance, and the Internet the only place left to walk in dreams.
This article was originally submitted to Trouble in March 2014, but has remained unpublished until now. It is reproduced in unedited form here, dedicated to the memory of Avatar Polymorph who died from natural causes in September 2015. Avatar is featured in Brunswick Street: Art & Revolution. Photos ‘Are you afraid to make a new culture’ & ‘Living the dream’ by Avatar Polymorph.
Brunswick Street, Art & Revolution is the story of a street that became a culture. Written by Anne Rittman and Maz Wilson, it consists of a series of interviews and colour photographs with and of the people who brought about that transformation. It teems with characters: baristas, hair-cutters, potters, comedians, painters, singers, poets, restaurateurs and more. It evokes iconic places: the Black Cat, Pigtale Pottery, The Flying Trapeze, T F Much Ballroom, Bakers, Circus Oz , Scully & Trombone and the list goes on. It bursts with visual impact: performances, artworks, architecture and the Waiters’ Race for example. Here it is in its true form as a cultural, social and political history. Published by Black Pepper, 2017 – blackpepperpublishing.com