Sunday, March 8, 2009

Carlton forever

Yesterday I took a nostalgic trip to an old stamping ground, the buzzy inner city suburb of Carlton. ‘Suburb’ seems the wrong word to use, so intermeshed is Carlton with the city centre it borders. Carlton is awash with the past for me because I inexplicably left this suburb more than seven years ago.

Melbourne loves its inner suburbs but Carlton was one of the first to be gentrified. By the early 1980s, when I first went to the nearby Melbourne Uni, it was already too expensive for some first home buyers, and its bohemians and students were fleeing to the edgier Fitzroy next door, and cheaper suburbs to the north like Brunswick and Northcote (this surge further north has continued for members of Generation X, who can now barely afford to buy in far-flung suburbs like Reservoir).

Gentrified suburbs sometimes suffer a kind of living death and become museum-like. By some miracle Carlton is still alive.

It was an overwhelmingly working class suburb until the 1960s but had always attracted immigrants because of its closeness to the city centre and local factories.

Home to waves of Jewish settlers since the 19th century, it was a Jewish mecca until the 1950s. But in that decade it became known as ‘Little Italy’, the best-known destination of the wave of Italian immigrants who reached Australia after the Second World War. Lygon Street became a vibrant hub of Italian restaurants, cafes, butchers, tailors, delicatessens and culture, and one of the few places you could get ‘real coffee’ before cafe culture took off in Melbourne.

With Melbourne University next door, baby boomer students, academics and artists discovered Carlton in the 1960s and 70s and made its cafes and traditional watering holes their own. The footpaths filled with hippies and Carlton was home to the iconic Pram Factory theatre collective, in which many a now-famous writer and actor first argued over the finer points of Maoism.

In the 1980s the rest of Melbourne and the tourists discovered Lygon and on summer nights the street was thick with suburbanites seeking cheap pasta meals and real gelato, infinitely creamier and more flavoursome than the fizzy, icy stuff we had begged our parents to buy as children from Mr Whippy vans. Hoons roared their Monaros up and down the street into the wee hours.

Carlton's residential streets of humble workers cottages and posher double-storey terrace houses with their cast iron balconies were livelier then. Now these wide, pretty streets with their cobbled lanes have an unearthly quietness, protected by traffic barriers designed to keep cars at bay. There are whiffs of vanished communities though, invisible traces of the village atmosphere that the original subdivision created with its frequent small squares.

A distinctive element of Italian and Greek architecture is also still evident. Before the days of heritage bylaws Italians and Greeks had cart blanche to change their Victorian houses. They painted them in pastel colours like pale blue, and removed ornamentation and often entire verandas from facades. They built new brick fences with wrought iron panels and gates, and planted vegetables in the front yards, parts of which they often concreted. The results often have a stark, almost modernist flavour.

Today, lined with plane trees, Lygon Street still manages to be charming despite being colonised by the predictable 7-11 stores and a Safeway lodged downstairs in Lygon Court. This is a small mall that, though aesthetically sterile, is designed like an Italian piazza that’s integrated with the street. It houses the Nova cinema, which is able to run edgier arthouse films than its rivals because of the student population.

The most tourist-y part of Lygon Street is closest to the city, where waiters stand in front of once-stately terraces that are now overpriced tavernas with stereotypical red-and-white checked tablecloths, and spruik for patrons. The northern end has the bookshops, some upmarket fashion stores, and the crowded cafes with their well-trained baristas; some of the cafes, like Tiamos and the University Cafe, are legendary and still sell a battered ‘authenticity’ that Starbucks could only dream of.

Unwelcome changes continue of course: like the Pram Factory, the famous Carlton Moviehouse with its hard, uncomfortable seating (it was affectionately known as 'the bughouse’) is long gone, its business taken by the Nova. Borders moved in a few years ago like a giant piranha, threatening the hegemony of Readings, an independent bookstore which started small in Carlton during the 1970s and has now become a successful chain.

Thank god Readings maintained its identity, helped no doubt by the frequent author talks and launches it hosts. It’s still lacking elbow room on Sunday afternoons. And miraculously, the tiny, longstanding La Mama theatre, threatened by the twin perils of bureaucratic overreach and rising rent, has been saved due to a successful fundraising drive.

The families who can afford to live here now are likely to be those of corporate lawyers and financiers who want to be hip, and the students living here those whose parents are rich enough to help them out with the rent. But it’s the Melbourne Uni students overall, and the inhabitants of the highrise 'Housing Commission' flats that loom up behind the shopping centre -- from places like Eritrea, Somalia and China -- that keep the suburb lively and diverse.

There are two Carltons for me. The first is the Carlton of my undergraduate days when I could feel the hippies scattering to the four winds and the Pram Factory building was soon to be bulldozed to make way for the supermarket. The suburb felt pagan to me, it smelt of wild sex and adulthood. The second Carlton dates from the time when I moved there in 1995 from a mouldy flat in Northcote to complete a Masters degree at Melbourne Uni.

At the time I romanticised my lonely life, viewing myself as a cut-price Helen Garner because I had a bike and rode around a lot. But what I treasured most about Carlton then was its closeness to everything. It was a five-minute bike ride to the Nova cinema and only another five minutes to uni, a ten-minute bus trip to the city centre, and only a short stroll to Brunswick Street (once a hangout for radical young artists and now a place of rich young hippies and twenty- and thirty-something small business owners).

In a rather delightful coincidence I had joined a 12-step program not long before and the small community room where meetings were held in nearby Palmerston street became a safe haven where I made tentative friendships and started to manage my eating disorder.

It was a fluke that I made it to Carlton at all that second time. I only ‘got in’ because a friend of mine from the 12-step program was living in a small cottage near Rathdowne Street, one of Carlton’s thoroughfares. The cottage was becoming vacant and my friend promised to put in a good word for me. It was a one-bedroom cottage, attached to almost identical houses on each side, with a front verandah, small backyard and outdoor toilet. Much larger than the average one-bedroom flat, it was dirt cheap at $130 a week.

After five years, though, I was sick of traipsing to the outdoor dunny on rainy nights, sick of the rising damp, of the dark and the chill of the inflexible Victorian architecture. A recent fling had left me emotionally distraught and wanting a change. Then I got burgled because I didn’t want to spend what little money I had on security.

Not long afterwards two mynah birds came down the chimney and terrorised me until I shooed them out the front door and I was convinced it was some kind of sign (!) that I should leave. I was getting older, and wasn’t Carlton a young person’s suburb? Why not move back to leafier, quieter Northcote, home to hundreds of settled, dog-owning dykes?

The breathtaking stupidity of this decision still astounds me. While often lonely and isolated in Carlton, I was close to a million distractions and my small circle of friends. And I had just started as a freelancer, working on a large editing project with an experienced mentor and discovering the ridiculous number of hours I would have to work to make a decent living.

I barely had time to scratch myself, yet I decided to forge ahead with the move. I’d found a tiny flat in Northcote, round the corner from where I’d lived five years ago, just past the much more bourgeois Clifton Hill, and it was freshly painted and light, with fixtures that were not decades old. I would find a new me there.

I won’t go into detail about the resulting disaster. The night before I was due to move I quaked in my bed, surrounded by neatly packed boxes, the huge mistake I’d made slowly dawning on me. (I had been warned: so desperate had prospective tenants been that they hadn't bothered to go through the real estate agent but simply knocked on my door in the evenings, asking if they could look around.)

The new flat was tiny, way too small for all my stuff; with the washing machine in the minuscule bathroom, I couldn’t even close the door. Luckily it had a small yard, part of which was covered by an awning, and I stored some of my stuff there.

In Carlton I’d had quiet single women living on either side of me; in Northcote I was stuck in a ground floor flat below a young alpha male who seemed to have bricks for shoes and who talked so loudly I could hear him ordering his Friday night takeaway pizza over the phone. On a nearby highway, traffic whizzed by till the early hours. The Merri Creek, behind my flat, offered up a damp fug that filled the loungeroom on cold mornings and my old Honda finally gave out so I was more isolated than I’d ever been. After about a year I 'accidentally' flooded the place and was forced to leave.

Now I’ve boomeranged back to leafy East Malvern, and live in a large, rundown flat that is creepily close to where I lived with my family during my formative years. A couple of years ago rental prices skyrocketed in Melbourne because of a rental shortage and Carlton prices, always OTT, are now g-astronomical, more out of reach than ever.

Every now and then I go back to Carlton, to wile away an afternoon or evening there and pretend I’m still a resident. And as soon as my car reaches the corner of Rathdowne and Johnson streets, with the familiar service station on my left and Lygon Street just a little way up the hill, something tells me I’m home.

But I can’t really pretend I’m a resident any more. I’m an exile, a refugee from the inner city and no matter how many years I live in East Malvern, I always will be.

Perhaps I'm being unrealistic: perhaps the miracle was that I spent five years in Carlton, that small pocket of the world that so much of Melbourne crowds into, or would like to. For a while I lived in a place that I was sure was the centre of the universe. And it was ace.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post! Would you be interested in seeing your work about local places syndicated on local news blogs? See Carlton for example. Many local bloggers are contributing. There’s no advertising and no exploitation of your content - just a convenient way for local people to read local news. To contribute please add suburb categories, tags or labels to your posts, such as ‘Fitzroy’, ‘Brunswick’, etc and let me know you’ve done this. RSS feeds for these tags are created and added to the local news sites. You may find that syndication brings more traffic to your blog and more comments from readers! I've added your Carlton feed to show you what it looks like.