Change City: How Melbourne became a city of the world

A couple of years ago, I decided treat my city as if I were a traveller.

Soon, it became a great expansion – throwing off that shrinking world that raising small children brings about, the mid 30s, the logistics of being Apart From Them, an end to house parties, the solace of good TV, the slow dropping away of friends into their own lives. And I found that Melbourne had changed while I’d been away negotiating toy ownership and lifting up logs to look for slaters, in my own small world.

I’d only just caught up with the huge shift northwards and westwards into places like Tarneit, the slow correcting of the eastern/southern skew. Now there were dozens of newly gazetted suburbs. Where was Mount Atkinson? Who, exactly, would breathe them into life? And when I went into the city centre, I felt bewildered, a country bumpkin. There were crowds, even on weeknights. Block-long queues for on-trend restaurants. Karaoke joints tailored to the international student market, with green tea and Asian-style snacks on demand. New apartment blocks soaring in the CBD’s north and west, mirroring the pull of the new suburbs. I could just make out the cranes over Footscray. Towers were going up in Moonee Ponds and Box Hill and Doncaster and along St Kilda Road. And the city’s people – the people were changing too. That was what interested me most of all.

Australia is becoming a Eurasian nation, our history and geography supposedly no longer in conflict.  And my city, Melbourne, is at the forefront of the shift, as it swells, buoyed by skilled migrants from India and China and Europe, by interstaters and the few lucky refugees to slip through the net and rather a lot of Kiwis. Eight million by 2050, they say. Out in the once-unloved western suburbs, the migration boom has turned thistly, rocky paddocks into new suburbs dotted with Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples, African evangelical churches.  In the east, wealthy Chinese investors are raising huge apartment towers in deep suburbia, turning Box Hill into a second CBD and bolstering the ranks of pro-business socially conservative voters. The Liberal belt is becoming safer than ever, thanks to Chinese-Australians.

My adoptive city, Melbourne, is where Australia’s transition from mono to multiculture is most pronounced. Here, migration is now so important to the state that it underwrites our most important industry – education, expensive degrees sold to the rich or upwardly mobile scions from China, India and South-East Asia – and props up the housing boom, sends cranes fifty storeys skywards to throw up apartment blocks and remake the city.

This is the city I live in and love, in all its maddening complexity. A core of towers, ringed by vine-clad former workers cottages with glass and wood renovations out back, the wealthy inner east and south east, and wrapped around with an outer ring of dormitory and nursery suburbs, where families need four cars to survive while cursing the expense for keeping them poor. A city of striking private beauty and a good deal of public ugliness. 

Marvellous Melbourne got rich on gold. Gold turned a fledgling colonial outpost founded by grazers from Van Diemen’s Land into the richest city on earth, and did so with remarkable speed, hitting boomtown status only 20 years after being founded in 1835. The city’s coffee palaces, pubs, hotels, brothels and fine architecture made it a marvel. People came from across the globe – Americans, Chinese, Europeans – in the hope of making their fortunes. But then the gold rush petered out, leaving superb colonial architecture and wide treelined streets. In Australia’s Second Chance, George Megalogenis argues that the 1890s recession – sparked by ludicrous land speculation in post-gold rush Melbourne – coincided with rising nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Australia turned inwards and stagnated. It was only during the populate or perish postwar years that we reluctantly opened outwards again, and it was only then that we began to grow in earnest, propelling most of us from working to middle class.

Melbourne was the nation’s first capital city for a brief period, before Canberra was chosen as an awkward compromise between Melbourne’s fading glory and Sydney’s brash rise. As banks, business and media moved north, Melbourne became a city of private schools and territorial football teams passed down the generations, a city of clannishness and insecurity, a place where radio hosts would interrogate overseas talent about what they thought of our city, a city we once ourselves mocked. And then, suddenly, something changed. Melbourne slipped into a new groove: pride and confidence. Pride at world-beating brunches and food, in Melbourne-style cafes now found in Jerusalem and New York and London and Hong Kong, in the exported avo smash, the symbol at once of Melburnian largesse – the luxury of brunch – and of the death of homeownership for millennials.

And the city balloons. Melbourne’s tendrils stretch along the freeways towards Geelong and Melton and Sunbury, Wallan and Yarra Glen and Warragul. Their time will come. Frankston and Dandenong and Werribee were towns before they were suburbs. The search for affordable family houses with a backyard drives the city ever outwards. Sydney is already reaching its boundaries, hemmed in by the sea to the east and national parkland to the west, north and south. Melbourne has fewer restrictions. The thistlelands to the west, stretching to Geelong, make poor farmland but turn out nicely as suburbs.

The middle and upper classes took up residence east, on the small rises and foothills spilling out of the Dandenong Ranges, leaving the basalt grasslands to the west and north to the factories and working class. The west and north is rock and grass, the inner east is plane trees and elms and the outer south and east is gum trees and acacias and strip malls, merging into the ti-tree retiree paradise of the Mornington Peninsula, where small waves lap the shores of the bay. Outer Melbourne stretches now for 150 kilometres from Wallan in the north to Bunyip in the far east, sprawling ever outward. It swells, bursting its seams, gorging itself on newcomers as apartment towers go up and our supposed boundaries dissolve and reconstitute and dissolve with each change of government.

Melbourne is nowhere near true population giants like Tokyo, Guangzhou, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo or Delhi. But almost one in five of all Australians live in Melbourne. And if Melbourne was in the EU, it would be the seventh largest urban area, beating Berlin, and one of the most rapidly growing. We’re already the biggest city in Australia – Sydney’s title is only made possible by including the NSW Central Coast, while Melbourne’s numbers don’t count Geelong, our equivalent. Melbourne is no minnow. What we do here matters – converting one of the world’s whitest countries in 1901 into an outward-looking nation, centred on its world cities. Melbourne skews Indian, Chinese, British and Vietnamese, Sydney skews Lebanese and Chinese, Brisbane skews Islander and Kiwi.

We’ve added a million more people in the last decade, the equivalent of a new Ballarat each year. A local baby boom coupled with overseas and interstate migration means Melbourne is changing rapidly. Each year, 65,000 skilled migrants arrive in Victoria – the cream of the world’s crop – and our hospitals, banks, industries, schools and universities are broadly better for it. But there are also Iranian doctors driving taxis, highly-educated and experienced African men jobless for a decade, there are Indian suburbs and temples springing up to the west, where migrants work two jobs, three, desperate to show to parents and relatives back home they’ve made it – a four bedroom house, a decent car.

On the edge of the city, to the far west, new suburbs and exurbs are being built in record time. My brother, who lives out west, invites me to Rockbank, a tiny town about to be swallowed by the city. Here, the developers are wooing young families by ploughing money into parkland, lakes – and multi-million dollar playgrounds, with rocket-ship slides, flying foxes, and clean white sand. The café is named, hopefully, Go West, and the lyrics of the YMCA song are on the wall inside.

It’s common to feel a sense of despair at urban sprawl. But when you look at what’s out here – poor farmland, rocks and thistles, which replaced the sea of grass that was here when the Brits arrived – it feels like an improvement in every way. Birds arrive, drawn by grass and water. A young Sikh couple takes their first tour of their new home, walking around the playground while their kids play. He boasts mirror shades and sideburns reminiscent of Bollywood action heroes. Prams are lined up in rows. An Islander bloke in a basketball singlet slings his toddler in one large arm while his Anglo partner double checks that her new tattoo – written in cursive – has her child’s name spelt correctly.

People want the inner city feel in the outer burbs – and they get it, with landscaping, cafes, playgrounds. It’s only when you leave these developer oases that you see the ungentrified west – caravan parks for old people without money and ex-crims who can’t find work, saltbush, boulders too big to move from fields. 

Melbourne’s manufacturing base meant migrants used to be able to find work without needing perfect English. The inner city suburbs emptied out after WWII, as car ownership made the suburbs possible, and filled up again with migrants – Greek and Italian, Vietnamese and former Yugoslav and then emptied again as they got rich and sold to gentrifying Anglos.

The Brits and Euro backpackers gravitate to St Kilda, where the heroin, hooker and halfway house grittiness of old is dissipating. Now there are couples walking their parrots on the beach, drones hovering over the pier where the beleaguered little penguins get mobbed when they leave the water at night, expensive meals and bad tattoos at the sea baths.

Melbourne’s inner-south east is Jewish. Bagel shops, synagogues, bearded men and Shabbat observance, heated family debates over Palestine. Jewish schools have beefed up heavy security, and some even employ armed guards in the wake of attacks in France. A wire made of fibre optic cable or electrical wire encloses five suburbs in Melbourne’s inner south-east, stretching kilometres along the suburban powerlines. It’s an eruv, a symbolic enclosure turning public space into private so that strict Orthodox Jews can move freely around this ‘private’ space on Shabbat, the holy day stretching from Friday to Saturday evenings. It’s inspected every week, to ensure that the ‘private’ space is intact. And there is an even smaller world. The Adass Jewish community lives across a square kilometre in Ripponlea, a true microsociety. Men wear fur hats and coats of black silk, women cover their hair. Families are large, and marriages often arranged. It’s an inward-looking community with its own kindies and schools and synagogues and its own ambulance service, removed from wider society. No TVs, little internet use. The sect attracted unwelcome attention when the principal of a cloistered Adass school flew to Israel to avoid sexual abuse lawsuits.

Melbourne is the hard-luck bloke I met volunteering at a soup van, who told me he would have taken real pleasure in bashing the middle class out of me had he been three decades younger, for the crime of going to a private school. It’s the obsession with education, mums and dads ferrying children further and further afield, to selective entry or private or good public schools, always driven because of the Great Fear of pedophiles. The pleasant grittiness of Brunswick’s urban decay and renewal, streets lined with white cedar, a remnant of the ancient protocontinent Pangaea and one of our only deciduous trees. A city of suburbanites reluctantly learning to live in apartments and tolerate neighbours above and below as well as to the left and right. It’s cobblestone roux bike rides, bumpety-bump. It’s sex parties in prim Hawthorn, where 40-something banker couples in good shape take each other round on leashes in a dim nightclub while the babysitter gets paid overtime at home (Mum: I was there for research.). It’s the wealthy diaspora here, in the world’s third biggest Greek city, sending gifts of money back home to help relatives newly cast into poverty after the debt crisis. It’s where psychonauts go walking through suburban parks in winter looking for native species of magic mushrooms sprouting in pine mulch, while the hardcore distil the enormously potent psychedelic, DMT, from certain species of acacia, and day-trippers take acid and walk through the butterfly house at the zoo.

A powerful owl stores a dead ringtail possum in the crook of a tree outside my house, saving it for later. Olives and figs overhanging alleyways, box hedge and West Australian beauties like silver princesses and red flowering gums. Gall wasp bulbs on lemon trees and cabbage white butterflies, bellbirds and currawongs, honeyeaters, jenny wrens, pigeons, sparrows, carp and eels and redfin in the freshwater Yarra, bream in the Maribyrnong’s salt. It’s that faint sense of wrongness when the main animal you see is rabbits, white tails flashing as they flee to their burrows along the Yarra, when the introduced pigeon, rats of the air, take wing, when you catch a glimpse of a fox hunting in the suburbs, when you watch the aggressive Indian mynah packs driving away meek silvereyes.

Saltwater river – the Maribyrnong

It’s the gentry demanding lattes further and further out into the cappuccino ring, it’s tarps along train lines and behind supermarkets where the growing ranks of homeless keep their stuff. The inner city splitting from the outer suburbs, the Greens university-educated vote taking seats from Labor, the Liberals sandbagging their strongholds in the east and south-east. King Street punch-ons outside the titty bars. The city swallows whole old country estates like Rippon Lea, a palatial mansion with an orchard of apple trees that taste like pineapple, home to one of the world’s best restaurants. A pork gyros from Oakleigh gets written up in the New York Times. An urban farm, Ceres, is built over a tip containing gold-rush architecture thoughtfully turned into debris by the infamous Whelan the Wrecker. Lycra warriors on shared bike paths, the Hell Ride of a thousand panting middle managers hurtling down Beach Road on the weekend. Cranes and apartment towers sprouting across the middle ring of suburbs – Ascot Vale and St Kilda Road and Brunswick, Box Hill and Footscray and Doncaster and Essendon. No longer a place to leave in disgust at the boring suburban quiet, as creative Aussies did in the 60s, but one you’re forced out of by cost. Priced-out artistes moving to Castlemaine – North Northcote, they quip. My plumber moves to de-industrialising Geelong for the big backyard, close beaches, and cheap housing.

Melbourne’s problem is bad lighting. In the coldest months, as grey clouds seem to hover permanently above cracked tarmac, wind-seeded thistles and drowned worms, you can see why the rest of Australia thinks it’s bleak. It’s parchment-dry in summer, and bliss in autumn and spring. In late spring, long shadows and warm yellow sun and cool air. Rubbish marking the high point of flash floods in creeks, blackberry thickets and lurid yellow sourgrass flowers and scribbly-bark gums and melaleuca and paperbark and dense golden nimbuses of wattle in spring and a Vietnamese woman gathering dandelions – every bit of the plant edible – by the side of Hoddle Street during the morning peak hour. Flooding rains and beat-down summer sun, winter winds with a bite enough to chill even Europeans or Japanese or Americans used to snow. Houses built cheaply, no insulation, hotboxes kept cool by aircon. Winter golden sun, low at 3pm, butcher birds impaling skinks, magpie packs hunting cyclists from the air, scrap metal men in their beat up utes, looking for copper during hard rubbish weeks, trying to beat the council trucks.  My Queensland sister in law suffering from actual chilblains during a winter visit, something I never thought existed outside of Enid Blyton books. Autumn’s hard shadows and angled light, brilliant on yellowing elms and the cream of ghost gums, that late afternoon slant to the world.

Teenage Anglo boys ripping cones from coke-bottle-and-stolen-hose bongs under the footbridge near my house, thinking no-one will recognise the distinctive herbal scent wafting up from below, that no-one else was ever a teenager. Humble bakeries and fish and chipperies and the last of the Greek-owned milk bars and the sudden appearance of kebab stations made out of shipping containers and plonked at servos for late night lamb and garlic sauce combos. It’s bayside wealth and large estates and high hedges and the torment of traffic. A city of villages, kept apart by traffic and sheer distance. Mafia profiting from the fruit and vegetable trade, a gangland war that left dozens of bodies behind without the rest of us ever really feeling fearful – gangsters killing gangsters, what fun. It’s imported heroin replaced by bikie-made meth, a local Aussie manufacturing success story.

If you ride up the Upfield bike path when a train is coming from the city – the game is on. As the train rattles past parallel to the bike path, boom gates lower and you can hurtle along, trying to make it across as many side roads as you can. I ride my bike into the city, drive my car away from it. There are bike burbs and car burbs.

At the Melbourne chess club off Brunswick Street, my ego takes a severe blow from a Chinese-Aussie kid with ADD, all of about nine. He’s so bored by my tentative play he goes and watches other matches, returns to make his move whenever I hit the clock, takes off again. I lose, badly, and no-one is surprised.

A friend is housesitting in Coburg while his mate is honeymooning. He invites me round. There on the wall is the framed title of the house. On the cusp of 40, the newlyweds have done it. They have Bought In Melbourne, they actually did it, beating precariat work, contract-to-contract, the endless spiral of price rises – staking their claim to the city. Which means, of course, they finally feel in a position to have children. Like many of the hetero couples I know, it was the woman who made bank and saved the deposit while the men were Pissing On or Pursuing Art or Other Unwise Options. I include myself in this – no way I’d ever have been able to have a house other than inherit one, had I not met an excellent woman who, unlike me, can actually make money.

Melbourne is the low breathiness of Triple R presenters designed to counter the forced peppiness of FM banter duos named SomethingMo. Three dandies pushing penny farthings along the Capital City Trail. Ramadan hours posted on the butcher’s window, people lining up to buy food for Eid feasting. Chinese couples posing for their wedding photos – she in extravagant white ruffles, he in superb blue suit and dark sunglasses – outside the Old Melbourne Gaol, while their photographer, who sports a topknot and shaved sides – barks orders. The groom poses alone on a step, while the bride gathers her dress up into bunches to sit down. At a dumpling joint at the ritzy Emporium mall, I hear a couple whispering: “I was about to speak Chinese but he got there first in English. I never know which to choose.” It’s the Punjabi and Co taxi insurance company, it’s caterers specialising in Chinese wedding banquets, it’s the reclamation by Anglo baristas of Italian coffee culture, it’s the export of Australian coffee/brunch joints as a distinctive (repurposed) thing.

What do visitors notice? The Nepali doctor staying with my parents takes pictures of cars travelling in convoy at 100kmh down the M1 to Geelong. In Kathmandu, congestion is so bad he’s never been over 60km and this feels like an autobahn. A Jakartan student of mine takes photos of magpies and rainbow lorikeets – birds in a city, a rarity. A Dutch woman talks about the onerousness of life spent in a car, about louts yelling at her to getorftheroad when she tries to beat the traffic on a bike. Roads are for cars, bikes are fair game – that’s the Strayan rule. To my in-laws in Queensland, Melbourne is the city of crime – underworld killings, drugs, gangs. To a childhood friend who moved to Sydney, Melbourne is Bleak City, concrete-industrial overlaid with grey clouds. To cashed-up Perth acquaintances, Melbourne is the place you come to shop intensively for a weekend. And to internal migrants, Melbourne is the place you escape to from Tasmania or Adelaide or Brisbane, especially if you want to do something creative. Meet one, and you’ll quickly meet dozens. When my wife moved here from small-town Queensland, she found it amazing that for all its size, for all its internal and external migrants, Melbourne was deeply incestuous. It seemed to her that locals had made Enough Friends in high school, tried every possible combination of partners within the group – and then somehow stayed friends, the past lurking just beneath the surface at every social occasion.

I once got drunk with a Balinese cowboy in Ubud, one of the pleasingly-muscled men who specialise in offering the boyfriend experience to Western women who’ve read Eat, Pray, Love. He’s been flown to Melbourne for cosy weekends so many times he knows it better than I do. He tells me the best spot to fish on the Ninety Mile Beach, where to eat in Dandenong, what the best hike is at Wilsons Prom. All I can tell him is that Ubud seems nice. 

Shisha bars and apple smoke on Sydney Road, shiny chrome cars with lowered suspension cruising on weekend nights in summer. Some have speakers installed outside the car, to better thrill the crowd with your sick tekkers. Wedding stores for princessy brides, boasting acres of gown, eye-achingly white and the world’s most patient staff. I remember my first Friday night at Revolver, the infamously messy club on Chapel Street in South Yarra. And I – wet behind the ears – asked my friend why so many of the cars doing Chap-laps outside, revving up and down in heavy traffic, seemed to be for sale. He looked at me pityingly. “It’s so girls can check out the Italian boys and their cars – and text them if they’re interested.”

Change city is our crop of locally-made and impressively incompetent jihadis. The laughable group who wanted to attack an army base with a couple of pistols. And the tragedy of the awkward teen from Craigieburn who thought he’d find glory and meaning in killing and made it to Iraq and promptly blew himself – and only himself – up in a suicide bombing that was, perhaps, just a protracted suicide.

It’s the pack of pissweak would-be Nazis who stick up posters around universities reading Chinese go home in mangled Google Translate Mandarin, because of course they don’t speak it. The same Nazis too scared to show their middle-class white faces, worried it might prevent them from getting a job.

And sometimes, it’s change that causes Anglo discomfort. This Anglo. One autumn weekend, I take my kids to feed the ducks at Coburg Lake. Black swans, a shopping trolley encrusted in pondweed, palm trees and willows, moorhens, mynahs, pigeons and seagulls, the lake at the bottom of a steep, treed slope. The place is packed with people who don’t look like me. For once, I’m in the minority. I feel that slight sense of trepidation. When you’re in the majority, you don’t have to think about it. You just are. It’s cognitive ease, strength in numbers. I know – rationally – that there is no threat. A peaceful scene, people being people. And yet – if I’m honest, it’s a shock. The shock of the new, the shock of being made new. I find that I’m almost nervous. I don’t know the rules, how to move through this space. 

My uncertainty is not a reason to shut down or retreat to my gentrified suburb full of white people pushing prams and debating which school will be best to nurture their two year olds, Seraphim and Elijah (only a slight exaggeration). Watch. See – there, a Muslim bloke with a ponytail feeding ducks next to two Arab teens talking about which graphics card is better for shooter games. A young Vietnamese woman watching her daughter dangle from the monkeybars. Charcoal smoke spiralling skywards from lamb kebabs on a brazier brought from home. A woman in a full burqa, talking on the most blinged-out phone I’ve ever seen – diamantes glued top to tail. A smattering of Anglo dads in tshirts and shorts, talking footy. Clean-cut Korean parents fresh from the Korean evangelical church down the road. A serious young man in a Turkish skullcap passes by, his hands behind his back. A mixed Anglo-Lebanese birthday party bursts into song. Nearby, a teenage girl is taunting her brother. “Do you even know what hajj is,” she says, with withering scorn. “Yes,” he sobs. “It means a fat guy.” She dials up the scorn. “No! It means you’ve been to Saudi Arabia.”

Soccer singlets, sequinned dresses, pint sized Lebanese girls taunting their Panama-hat wearing uncle for being a scaredy-cat and refusing to go down the highest slide. A slow procession comes towards us – an Arab extended family, all the women in headscarves except for the one in a wheelchair, bareheaded, her day away from chemo and doctors and the big C. She wears mirror shades, her face unreadable. I can hear Spanish from a Latin American gathering, all the women in improbably white pants. An exhausted new Turkish dad feeds his new daughter milk from the bottle. Shisha smoke, fierce black beards, kids bikes, camping chairs. African Muslim girls whip down the slope on scooters, headscarves fluttering behind them.

My kids, of course, are oblivious. They plunge into duck feeding and tanbark tossing, swings and slides. They play with the other kids because why wouldn’t they. Whatever is now is normal.

2 Comments to “Change City: How Melbourne became a city of the world”

  1. sam

    Love it, great insights Doug. Makes me a more than a tad homesick. For whatever home is now, lol. Times have certainly changed from the whitest-of-whitebread high schools we went to.


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