Welcome to Melbourne, a city I’ve never spent more than a few days in or explored beyond the obvious – Fitzroy, St Kilda, that sort of thing. And anyway, that was eons ago, when Fitzroy was the latest hip thing and Chapel Street was still cool.
What was it like nowadays I wondered – and so here we are, city No 13 on 52 Suburbs Around the World.
I’d planned to spend longer but the way things have worked out means that we’ll only be here for two weeks, which, considering the size (four million-ish) and diversity of Melbourne is really not enough to do the city justice. But I need to get Coco back to school (she’s already missing the first week or so) and so two suburbs it will have to be.
For the first of those two suburbs I ended up choosing one that quite a few people suggested on my Facebook page – Footscray, five kilometres west of the city.
Some fast facts… Aboriginal forever until 1803 when the first European stepped foot in the area. Declared a municipality in 1859 with a population of 300 and 70 buildings. Industrial from mid-1800s until the 1960s and 70s when it began to decline. Central Footscray is now one of the main shopping and transport hubs for Melbourne’s western suburbs. Once very European, today the suburb is mainly Asian and African.
Part 1: Footscray in a former life
Once upon a time the Footscray shopping strip was a little Europe, with Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavians filling the place. Times have clearly changed – I think I counted just three Italian establishments and not even one Greek joint. But I did find a Greek Orthodox Church and a wonderful Italian pasticceria dishing out some of the best cannoli in Melbourne.
Standing outside the Italian pasticceria, T Cavallaro and Sons, that’s been fattening up the suburb for more than 50 years, I met Ben and Matthew, 10 year old twins from an Italian background. They were in Footscray with their parents to pick up a cake for the 50th wedding anniversary of their nonna and nonno.
Apparently the pasticceria’s cannoli also draw crowds from all around with their creamy, thick, thigh-expanding deliciousness.
Sitting at one of the cafes along a street that’s now dominated mainly by East African men, I caught sight of something else very European – a beret sitting atop the head of 77 year old Elias, originally from Bosnia.
In search of more Greeks or Italians, I headed to Yarraville, just down the road from Footscray, where I found a Greek christening taking place.
But that was about it for signs of the old European Footscray – today it’s quite a different story…
Part 2: Footscray today
Or Footscary as some people refer to it thanks to the crime and drug problems it once faced and still faces to some extent.
Locals told me that 15 years ago the whole area, from Footscray to Yarraville, was down at heel and druggy. “If you got off at Yarraville train station, or Seddon, or Footscray, you’d be offered drugs”, was what I kept hearing.
Since then Yarraville cleaned up its act and is now fully gentrified. And Seddon, which is much closer to Footscray – in fact, is actually considered a part of Footscray – looks pretty glam too.
But Footscray itself, especially around the shopping centre, is still yet ‘to go’ – as one lady said, “The trendies haven’t made it here yet thank god”. Instead, it’s populated largely by immigrants – Vietnamese, Chinese and, more recently, East Africans.
Having said that, there is one part of the suburb, along the Maribyrnong River, that’s been designated an arts precinct. One moment you’re in highly multicultural Footscray, the next you’re looking over the river, latte in hand from the Happy River Cafe, before taking a round of the Footscray Community Arts Centre.
Part 3: Arty Footscray
I was checking out the ‘legendary’ Olympic Donuts stand near the station one day when a young African woman in jeans and boots stopped by for a bag of the sugary goodness – after spending days watching the Sudanese, Somali and Ethiopian women go about their business in their traditional dress (most of whom refused to be photographed, drat it) I was curious.
Turned out that Duaa, a 22 year old recent RMIT graduate, was from an Eritrean background but had been born in Melbourne, in nearby Yarraville.
She explained that she now lived a little further west but had just started renting a studio in Footscray to do her art in.
For her, being a “hybrid” as she called it wasn’t confusing or difficult, but something she enjoyed.
And she loved Footscray for its cultural diversity and edge – and cheap rent.
Given her studio’s address – in one of the dodgiest bits of Footscray, near where a handful of druggies hang around every day – the rent was attractively cheap. And the colourful graphics painted along the laneway were doing their best to uplift. But still, you couldn’t help looking over your shoulder once or twice.
Part 4: West Footscray
Technically a separate suburb but one that I strayed into without realising I’d actually left Footscray proper. And interesting because this is where the Indian part of Footscray is, as well as the latest wave of new arrivals – whities. Or as someone I met who lived there said, “West Footscray is where people from Elwood (an eastern suburb) come to breed”.
Part 5: And then I met…
Driving along the main road in West Footscray one day, I noticed men in stetsons standing outside ’501 Receptions’. Texans? Mexicans? I circled back and went inside the building to find a wedding in full swing. But they weren’t Texans or Mexicans – these were gypsies.
My delight at crashing a gypsy wedding was, however, short-lived. I’d only taken a few shots when a tough looking broad – and she can only be described as a broad – suddenly swooped on me and ordered me to leave. Why I do not know – gypsies have a long history of being misrepresented but I’d already asked permission and been warmly welcomed by everyone, including the mothers of both the groom and the bride who were perfectly happy to let me take photographs.
After all the refusals by the African men and women earlier in the week, it was incredibly frustrating – there were some amazing looking people in the room and I was so curious to learn more.
What made it worse was the way the woman did it – I mean, sure, ask me to leave nicely – but don’t march me out like a child.
So I acted like a child and snuck in another few shots while she wasn’t looking – of a man who turned out to be the proud son of Ruby Sterio, the Queen of Gypsies and part of the famous Sterio gypsy family. Then I left.
Driving around after I’d left the gypsies, I turned a random corner to find yet another unexpected sight – a large Buddhist temple in the midst of normal suburban homes.
Fearing the place was empty, I climbed the stairs and peered through the gap in the large front door to see and hear two Buddhist nuns praying.
After the experience with the aggressive woman at the gypsy wedding, I sat happily, listening to the soothing prayers until the nuns had finished. Then I asked if I could photograph them – and hallelujah, they said yes. And they stood, and they stood, and they stood, until I’d done what I needed to do. They giggled, I laughed, we all smiled.
The diversity in Footscray isn’t limited to the various nationalities and cultures. It’s also incredibly diverse in its land use and the way it changes so quickly from one thing to another.
For example, down near the river there’s the Community Arts Centre and cool cafe (where the annual Laneway Festival kicks off this weekend) which are right opposite an old factory where blokes like Tony, Lance and Brendan work, waiting for that inevitable day when their factory gets ‘recycled’ into fancy apartments – “In three years we’ll be gone for sure”.
Then up near the Footscray shops, there’s Asia and Africa – as well as myriad churches catering for the various different communities.
But as soon as you hit Seddon, which is five seconds down the road, it’s vintage shops like The Diamond Dog, run by the wonderful Sally, and hip cafes.
And there’s more change in store – Footscray has been designated a key growth area for Melbourne and the government has big plans for it. But even without that, given the way the surrounding areas have gentrified, maybe Footscray would end up going that way too. In short, go see it now – before the “trendies” get to it.
On the ‘home front’
Like Auckland, we’re lucky enough to be staying with friends here. So like Auckland, Coco sat this one out too. But here’s a shot of her with two Swedish girls at St kilda Library who we met on our way to buy groceries one day.
As I mentioned, some time next week – probably mid-week given I have yet to start shooting the second Melbourne suburb – Coco will pull on heavy black shoes and a green tartan uniform, and for the first time in over a year, do that most normal of things – go to school.
I asked her how she felt about it, after such a long time away – “Well I’m excited but a little nervous”. Fair enough, I thought, I am too.
This suburb has been brought to you by Bronwyn Evans
See you next week – for the penultimate post.