On a casual stroll through the streets of Melbourne’s CBD, if you keep your eye out, you will find dramatic contrasts in the characters of our lanes. From the bustling cafes of Centre Place to the smooth pathways winding through QV; the inviting red-cobbled McKillop Street to the dark, flowerpot-laden Turner Alley. There are the trendy boutiques, the reversing trucks, the crowded coffee joints and photogenic cityscapes, so recognisably Melbourne. But these lanes have been here a lot longer than the media has been talking about them so excitedly, and their story is a precious one. This is my brief history of Melbourne’s laneways.
More than 100 years ago, approaching the turn of the 20th century, the lanes of Melbourne that had flourished in the days of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ following the Gold Rush of the 1850s began to take a downturn. Lanes became associated with crime and nuisance, and most people were too afraid to go near them after dark. They were dark, dingy spots, filled with dens of gambling, opium smuggling and brothels. Following the first and second world wars many overseas immigrants took home in makeshift shanties in these lanes, and disease was common. Modern buildings constructed in the second half of the century had ‘internal service areas’ for rubbish to be collected, and lanes lost their main purpose. To add to this, there was an explosion of shopping centres popping up in the outer-suburbs that challenged those of the city’s, and new residents of Melbourne tended to move further out into the suburbs. The government, businesses, and the general public began to wonder if lanes were still of any use in Melbourne, and whether any deserved to remain. Most of them occupied valuable council-owned land, and unfortunately many lanes were demolished to make way for bigger, ‘more prestigious’ structures. Much culture was lost, and with it the historic buildings that helped to form it.
To say that lanes suffered in this period (around the 70s-90s) is an understatement. The entire CBD had lost its once ever-bright glow. This was the period of the lowest city residency – only a few brave and eccentric people lived there – and that trip to the city didn’t have the same excitement it once had, as it had barely anything to offer. Luckily, due to a host of reasons, the city has fought back. The residential population of the city has climbed back to over 20,000 compared to only 700 in the 1980s, and interest in Melbourne’s lanes is constantly growing.
As people travelled more and more in past few decades, the difference between the vibrancy of streetlife in other countries and the terrible dullness of our own cities became more apparent. People started to see the potential that lanes held in Melbourne, and small independent businesses such as art galleries, craft workshops, and alternative fashion and music shops started to move away from the main streets (with their high rents) and set up in the lanes. This ‘revival’ began towards the end of the 20th century, and many lanes were newly paved with bluestone (some were not previously paved at all!), lighting put in place and the occasional piece of urban furniture was added to the scene. But the most contributing factor in this revival was the newly-liberalised liquor laws. Not so long ago, the cost of a yearly liquor licence was such that you had to open a 400 to 1000-capacity venue to afford it, as it was too expensive for a venue serving alcohol with any less capacity. A license now costs $567.50, a fraction of the previous price, and that is why we now see so many trendy little bars and cafes in the city these days, adding to the colour and life of our lanes, bringing people into the city around the clock, and making Melbourne a genuine tourist destination for the first time in many years.
But the problem of ensuring the future of our lanes has not gone away. Last year The Age revealed that several city lanes had been sold off, with the Melbourne City Council believed to have pocketed $1.2 million in the past 24 months. In 2008, sections of eight historic lanes were sold to private developers, with the council earning $806,301. Many developers are planning to build large-scale structures on top of lanes, including on the site of the popular McKillop Street lane.
Melbourne has a proud history of public art, and its laneways have provided the backdrop for a wide range of heritage and contemporary artworks. So it came as a surprise when former Premier John Brumby and Tourism Minister Tim Holding described graffiti in lanes in the CBD as “blight on the city” and “not the way we want Melbourne to be promoted to a global audience”. These statements were made about three years ago, just as Tourism Victoria re-created a graffitied laneway for a tourism expo in Florida. At the same time, further contradicting Brumby and Holding, Planning Minister Justin Madden and Arts Minister Peter Batchelor praised street art in Hosier Lane and celebrated its ‘heritage value’. A plan was put forward to try and protect the value of genuine street art. The accidental removal of a stencilled rat by prominent English street artist Banksy and the naming of Melbourne’s street art in the Lonely Planet tourism guide as one of the top cultural attractions in Australia prompted this move. It is a difficult situation as there is also a huge amount of crappy tag graffiti in Melbourne that angers property owners, making the future of street art uncertain.
Two structures recently built, QV Village (opened progressively since 2003), and Melbourne Central (refurbished in 2005), have incorporated a new style of ‘pseudo-lane’ into their designs. But their construction has come at a cost to many lanes and arcades previously on the block. While some people may prefer these new clean ‘lanes’ in popular shopping areas, they do not have the same feel or essence about them. You will find grey concrete walls, with no graffiti or posters, just sterile areas, lined by shops. The main focus seems to be on spending, and making everything nice and clean, but the lanes in these complexes feel rather fake.
I am a big fan of all the projects being done to preserve the culture of Melbourne’s laneways, but not if it comes at a cost to the already existing ones. These historic lanes give such a diverse dimension to our city, and hopefully the council, government, business and the public all recognise this.