Melbourne: Home Sweet Home Jun 28, 2010 12:47:26 GMT
Post by ilbonito on Jun 28, 2010 12:47:26 GMT
In 1835 the Yorta Yorta people watched as a boat sailed slowly up the crystal clear (now chocolate-coloured ) waters of the Yarra river. The people onboard - white people - got off, handed over a few blankets and some scissors to the natives and proclaimed "this is the place for a village!'. They called that village - after their leader John Batman - Batmania.
In 1837 the name was changed, and it has been (regrettably) known as "Melbourne" ever since.
The settlement ticked along quietly until a discovery that would change everything. Gold. The mid-nineteenth century gold rush was one of the biggest economic booms the world had ever seen. Australia's population tripled in ten years. Melbourne's increased five times. The muddy dirt tracks were replaced with a grid of wide streets lined with sturdy, splendid Victorian buildings. Many remain to this day. Immigrants poured in from Britain, America, China. Melbourne shot past Sydney to style itself as the "fourth city of the Empire" after London, Edinburgh and Bombay. When Australia became independent, Melbourne served (briefly) as its first capital.
But then the Twentieth century arrived. The gold was gone. Other states were now growing, and Melbourne was overtaken by Sydney again. It gradually began to settle into its role as a second city. It grabbed the spotlight again once, the unlikely host of the 1956 Olympic Games, but the city was slipping further behind, out of the spotlight. It consoled itself with its supposed cultural superiority, its better food (due to waves of Greek and Italian immigrants) and masked its jealousy of Sydney (weakly) as disdain.
By the time I arrived - growing up in the 1990s - Melbourne seemed a comfortable, bourgeois kind of place, still with its solid Victorian buildings and its rattling wooden trams, leafy streets and little crime. A nice place to live, people said, but why visit? Nothing ever happened. The big money and the bright lights were all North. Melbourne was idling in the slow lane. I sighed, and wished I was in Sydney too.
But by the time I was in university, and had begun to explore the city more widely, I discovered it had another side. Perhaps as a reaction to its sturdy, staid streetscapes, Melbourne has always had a lively, alternative-minded spirit. It is filled with young people dressed nattily in "op shop" (thrift store) finds, pseudo-intellectuals chattering in shabby-chic cafes and community radio stations dedicated to obscure music, run on enthusiasm alone. I began to enjoy the city, tentatively at first. The weather was still unreliable, I grumbled. It was still too slow. But I had started to fall in love with it. And then I went overseas.
When I returned a few years ago, I found a city whose time had come. Hipness and cool design were now hugely marketable, and Melbourne found itself with quirky little bars and cafes and cool stores and grungy clubs, and streetart-splattered laneways that everyone wanted to visit. Australian interstate tourists were flocking to the city, to eat, to shop, for the nightlife. The city had a newfound confidence. It would never be number one, but that was OK, it was cooler than that anyway. The old Victorian buildings were complemented by striking new designs. Billions were being pumped into new developments. Liquor laws were liberalized and nightlife surged. The economy was booming.
Today a thousand people a week are moving into the city, many immigrants from India and China. If current trends continue, the city will overtake Sydney once more by 2030. One estimate has the population at 7 million in forty years.
Today Melbourne is sure of itself, enjoying its new sense of style and fun. One third of its population was born overseas, with thousands more foreign students. Its nightlife, food and shopping are the best in Australia. The city centre is rejuvenated, livelier than I remember from my youth. But at the same time, the trains and trams are overcrowded and house prices are shooting through the roof. There is not enough water, and troubling new crime patterns have emerged.
Or perhaps those things were always there - and I just never noticed them in my sunny, secure, suburban childhood? But the things that I have come to love about the city - deeply and passionately - are more in evidence than ever. Its quirkiness, its artistic temperament, its idiosyncrasy. The fact that it is small enough to get around easily (well, inner city anyway) but big enough to have one of everything: one good latin club, one gay rock bar, one Japanese bathhouse. I have even come to enjoy its famously moody weather. The city has a way of creeping up on you when you are not looking.