David Whitley finds that Melbourne’s city centre isn’t as he remembered it.
My hazy recollections of Melbourne’s city centre are not all that favourable. Back in 2002, I trawled the rigid grid delivering magazines every week, and found it all a little dispiriting. There were a few decent pubs and Chinatown was mildly diverting but central Melbourne always struck me as having a dull functionality and little heart.
Melbourne, after all, was all about the scene in the various suburbs – St Kilda, Fitzroy and Carlton were the places to be, while a long list of other suburbs each had their own scene. It was a city that rewarded those who gave it time and explored at a relaxed pace – and many coming through fromwould turn their nose up after a couple of days in the wrong places before moving on.
Eight years later, and Melbourne’s city centre seems remarkably different. This may be a case of looking through different eyes – I want a little more than just the cheapest beer prices these days – but a big change has clearly taken place.
I think the tourist board would like us to believe that Melbourne has always been a hive of laneways packed with cool independent shops, fascinating bars and restaurants plying cuisine from all over the world. To a certain extent, this is probably the case, but it’s undeniable that this scene has undergone a massive expansion in the last decade.
It has been a case of noticing that the whole character-packed laneways thing is popular and running with it. The cramped little back streets between the vast thoroughfares on the main grid are now promoted heavily, and are clearly thriving.
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They’re fascinating to poke around, too. They’re anything but identikit. Some bars are too cool by half (and have prices to match), others are laid-back, cosy and a little grungy. Some of the more unpromising alleys will have a sweet, family-run coffee shop at the end, while on others you’ll run a gauntlet of touts between restaurant terraces. Each is keen to entice you into theirs with the best deal or most expensive free drink.
On my first afternoon this time round, I had time to kill before meeting my wife at the airport. I got in touch with Tim Richards, another writer who I’ve only previously known electronically. We ended up at a bizarre place that seemed to have a million floors, each with a bar or a theatre on it. It felt typical of the new Melbourne – the top floor was a fairly rough and ready rooftop bar selling burgers and pies from a small shack. On the first floor, it was boutique beers, upmarket platters and serving staff with Shoreditch hair.
The next day, we explored properly, and I kept coming across things I hadn’t seen before. And not just in terms of bars and coffee shops – the stream of odd public artworks around the Docklands and South Bank, the shiny new towers and the weird little stores struck me as new additions.
As I say, I may have been blind to it before, but Melbourne’s city centre has undergone a remarkable transformation. It’s now a genuinely cool place to be – and possesses a life and character that would be the envy of any city in the world.