Today’s Fitzroy is one of Melbourne’s most fashionable addresses. The inner-city suburb’s history as a former industrial area means plenty of factories and warehouses ripe for conversion into trendy flats and lofts, while the old workman’s cottages that line the streets now command million-dollar price tags. Well served by public transport and within walking distance to the CBD, Fitzroy also features one of Melbourne’s hippest retail strips along Brunswick Street – though these days the formerly seedy Gertrude Street, which crosses Brunswick Street at the city end, is giving it a run for its money in the cool stakes.
Thanks to its relative proximity to Melbourne University and (until relatively recently) its cheap rents, Fitzroy is home to a vibrant, artistic street culture. It’s packed with fashionable boutiques, classy cafes, quirky bars, popular pubs and thriving live music venues, and remains one of Melbourne’s premiere places to see and be seen whether at day or at night.
That isn’t the Fitzroy shown in Secrets of our Cities. Host Greg Pickhaver – HG Nelson to many – instead looks at the people who actually live in Fitzroy, a suburb that’s been doing it tough pretty much since day one. Originally a classy escape for Victorian-era Victorians, the advent of the railways and economic shifts saw the wealthy move out, factories and larrikins (who were a lot less fun than their name suggests) move in, and the suburb become a byword for slum living. At the time, it was the kind of place most people avoided; these days, its rich history of settlement by wave after wave of migrants – plus its history as the heart of Aboriginal activism in the state – makes it something to be proud of.
As this episode makes plain, it’s only relatively recently that Fitzroy has made a serious move up-market. When hundreds of homes were demolished in the '60s to build the Atherton Gardens high-rise flats on the corner of Brunswick Street and Gertrude Street, it unleashed a rat plague into the surrounding districts. But it’s clear those council flats, while demolishing a sizeable chunk of the old Fitzroy, have helped keep its heart alive. The gardens surrounding the flats have become a welcoming meeting place for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community (thanks in part to the presence of the Aboriginal Health Service in Gertrude Street for many years), while the flats themselves remain a source of low income housing in a rapidly gentrifying area.
With the move upmarket, much of the suburb's low-rent charm has come under attack. Live music venues across the suburb have closed, while Brunswick Street’s once-iconic Polyester Books, your one-stop-shop for all manner of dubious publications and videos, recently closed its doors for the last time. Speaking personally, the suburb’s never been the same since the general store on the corner of Brunswick and Leicester Streets closed down (sure, it just moved onto Johnson Street a block away, but it’s still not the same), even if there is now a supermarket a few doors down on the other side of the street. At least Dixon’s Recycled is still selling old DVDs and CDs, and Grub Street Books seems to be thriving again after a period where its future seemed in doubt.
But this show makes it clear there’s a lot more to Fitzroy than offbeat shopping opportunities and good cafes. A comedy session at the Labor in Vain (to my shame, it took numerous visits to that pub before I realised its name was a counter to the Perseverance Hotel across the street) features Hung Lee doing stand-up about his arrival as a refugee in Australia and his family’s confusion about how Anglo food worked (why exactly is there a chicken on a box of corn flakes?). Youth worker David Vincent talks in the Atherton Gardens about his family’s flight from the civil war in South Sudan and how he felt welcome in Australia until then-Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews singled out his community for attack. The history of Fitzroy is a history of cultures mixing and mingling.
Unlike other parts of Melbourne after the Second World War, post-war Fitzroy was never dominated by one single immigrant group. Hung Lee talks about how the Greeks and Italians gave up their houses to the Vietnamese in the '70s and '80s, and now, as he says, “The Africans have moved here, and the Vietnamese are giving up their houses to them." Behind the cool boutiques and cafes on the suburb's main streets, between the expensive renovations and factory conversions, there’s still a thriving migrant culture in Fitzroy. And if this episode of Secrets of our Cities is any guide, when the next group of immigrants arrives in Melbourne, Fitzroy will be there for them.
Watch Secrets of our Cities on Tuesday 26 September at 7:30pm on SBS.