Saturday, January 25, 2014

Amnesia of the inner north. Today there is a ridiculous trend piece by self-proclaimed 'word curator' (actually gossip and social events writer) Suzanne Carbone in The Age, about how the inner northern suburbs are cool now. I know, right? I did not know that.

What annoys me about this generally bad and incoherent article is that it makes no mention of all the other bazillion Age articles alleging the inner north to have become hip. It is an utterly generic article with no insight in it.

The gentrification of the CBD, Fitzroy, Carlton and other inner-northern suburbs has been taking place for decades. In 2011, I blogged about it because a new lot of bourgie apartments were under construction around the corner from my house. (People are now living in them.) And I've also blogged about the way that new hospitality venues often mine the heritage of pre-existing businesses or local personages.

There's a similar 'trend' narrative regarding 'sea change' and 'tree change' moves. I like to joke, in the manner of Portlandia, that "the dream of the '90s is alive in Castlemaine" – well, the hipsterfication of that country town was being reported on as early as 2002.

But it seems the imperative to 'report on novelty' is more urgent at Fairfax than the imperative to contextualise. (I also wonder if this article faced any editorial gatekeeper – any at all!) So I thought I'd find a few older Age articles on the coolsiness of the inner north to correct this amnesia and form a kind of vague genealogy of the 'Age cool trend piece' over the last 15 or so years.

In March 2002, Matt Preston wrote, "North Fitzroy is cool. Humble grocery stores turned into funky cafes are really cool. And the word 'organic' is so cool it's even started to become a bit daggy, spotted creeping on to the shelves at Coles and Safeway. Imagine, then, how cool an organic greengrocer and cafe in North Fitzroy is going to be."

Pretty cool. By June 2009Stuff White People Like author Christian Lander had visited Melbourne and anointed North Fitzroy as the city's whitest suburb – in the sense of offering cultural-capital-acquisitive, politically piquant yet socially unthreatening consumerism. "When a suburb is hip enough to contain vintage shops, but safe enough for white people to have kids in, then it's truly white," Lander said.

In 2002, Guy Rundle rhapsodised on his experience of what was then quite an unusual idea: living in the CBD. A year later, the CBD's cool factor was at an all-time high, according to an article that, for me, reads like an archaeological excavation of my twenties. The Croft Institute! Cafe Segovia! C&B! And Cookie, when it was still named Koo Koo (or 'Chu Chau', as Penny insisted, trying to make fetch happen.) Here, from around the same era, are more blasts from clubland past, including Bambu and Double O.

By May 2008, "Melbourne's bar binge [was] finally over", The Age speculated. "The city's been like a party where everyone's invited, but as the economy cools and the heat rises over binge-drinking and street violence, Melbourne's bar bubble could be in danger of bursting."

LOL. No. By August 2013, The Age's indefatigably snarky Ben Butler was reporting that "nightclub czar" Jerome Borazio – who'd bragged about his unlicensed venue Shit Town in 2008 – had been engaged to handle the catering for the private Kelvin Club, in addition to running the Laneway Festival and his venues 1000 £ Bend and a Chinese restaurant-themed bar, Happy Palace.

Back in September 2003, Rundle had remarked, amusingly, "nowhere else in the world has a bar culture formed so absolutely around one particular retro style, a style that can be summed up with a single motif: the lampshade. … Just as all living cheetahs are descended from a single female in the relatively recent past, so all retro-chic bars seem to have been inspired by the Black Cat, the Brunswick Street cafe that was the first to deck itself out in Laminex tables and kitsch tiki art in the early 1980s."

Ah, the Black Cat, so often cited as Melbourne's ur-hipster venue. In September 2009, The Age reminisced: "The Black Cat is one of Melbourne's most significant venues. Opened by Henry Maas in 1982, it was one of the first cafes on Brunswick Street and was instrumental in starting the strip's rebirth as a centre of inner-city hipsterdom."

In 2009, Fitzroy was still being thought of as cool. Humourist Danny Katz wrote, "NO, NOOOOO don't make me go, I don't wanna go, I'm scared, I don't wanna enter the Nine Circles of Cool, that terrifyingly hellish place known as Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, or as I call it: Danny's Inferno."

And in November 2011, inner Melbourne was being hailed as a hotspot of vintage culture, with Gertrude Street vintage clothier Circa Vintage and the nearby Everleigh cocktail bar mentioned alongside CBD manliness emporium Captains of Industry and Hidden Secrets, a business built on shepherding neophytes around Melbourne's not-obvious shopping venues.

In a September 2013 opinion piece arguing in favour of the east-west traffic tunnel that the current Napthine state government wants to push through the inner north, Richard Cook wrote, "Back in the '70s, Brunswick Street was dead", describing its industrial occupants and shabby local businesses. It's the urban gentrifiers – the 'white people' skewered so deftly by Christian Lander – who have made the inner north what it is today, Cook opined.

"Now, of course, Brunswick Street is an iconic part of Melbourne. On Saturdays and Sundays it teems with people eager to try eggs, bacon and hollandaise sauce in whatever fashion the cooks at the cafes can invent. Lygon Street, East Brunswick, also teems with people. Even Smith Street is shedding its image of empty facades of old emporiums, and is following Brunswick Street's example. And Gertrude Street boasts some of the best restaurants, bars and clothing shops in Australia."

But this utopian vision of white-person heaven is a contested one. In April 2003, The Age did some hand-wringing over whether Melbourne's al fresco dining culture was threatening the amenity of inner-urban streets. Various old-school government planners commented on how everyone thought they were mad to suggest it but time had proven them right.

Meanwhile, Mario Maccarone of Mario's, and Henry Maas of the Black Cat, argued that outside tables were a welcome shift from antisocial Anglo pub culture to European sociability, thus playing squarely into Melbourne's self-mythologies of being Australia's most cosmopolitan, 'European' city. When we whinge about the aimless crowds outside Gelato Messina, we are participating in this same conversation.

By June 2003, NIMBYism was starting to bite, and the now-familiar battle between live music enthusiasts and noise-complaining residents was ramping up. "A young gun cruising for a big Saturday night stands outside a bar and shouts into his mobile phone: 'What are youse up to, mate? I'm just drinking hard mate, as usual, at the Black Cat, mate. We're on f-----g Brunswick Street. At the Black Cat! Black Cat! Black Cat! Still gonna come down? Black Cat!'"

By January 2010, The Age was reporting: "Drunken louts who damage property or disturb residents after a big night out in Melbourne’s inner-north are being targeted in a police crackdown over the next three weekends." Following an increase in complaints about anti-social behaviour of the sort that moral panics call "alcohol-fuelled", plain-clothed police were set to patrol venues in Brunswick Street Fitzroy, Smith Street Collingwood, and Bridge Road and Swan Street in Richmond.

In hipsterism terms, Brunswick Street is now generally considered to be 'over'. In November 2011, Michelle Griffin reported that the epicentre of cool was shifting westwards: "It may be time we started thinking of this city not as divided north and south by the Yarra, but divided east and west by the winding Maribyrnong."

And in November 2012, Craig Mathieson was advising that the next hotspots of cool were going to be Collingwood, Footscray and Preston. Rather than yet another dumdum trend piece, Mathieson's article is a very shrewd and concise discussion of the history of gentrification in Melbourne suburbia.

Docklands may never manage to be cool, although it's not for want of trying. In April 2013, urban renewal non-profit Renew Australia set up free creative spaces in Docklands, hoping to defibrillate Melbourne's deadest suburb. It didn't work. Not even the Melbourne Star ferris wheel, broken symbol of Docklands' general shitness, could keep going more than a month before breaking down again this week.

Poor old Brunswick st, it seems to be a victim of it's own success. People visit to experience the supposed gritty inner north to find themselves rubbing shoulders with white people from the burbs (with kids) and their people carriers, still ordering baby chinos and talking on their mobiles. Handmade and fashion stores and overwhelming filled with wares from Bali and other developing regions (still technically handmade in sweat shops)....
Oh no, not people with kids! How awful. Those poor Brunswickians.
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