You Can’t Stop The Music

What gives a city its character?

I’ve been holidaying in Sydney for the past fortnight (that’s my excuse for the longer-than-usual delay between posts) and while I wandered around enjoying the shopping, the views and the cider, in Sydney’s typically overcast, warm, humid weather, I tried to pinpoint what elements, for me, give Sydney its character, and make it a place that I enjoy coming back to for holidays. Believe it or not, it’s not the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House that I come back for, as stunning as they are.

Sure, they're sweet.

Sure, it’s a nice building, but I wouldn’t want to clean it.

Like most major cities of their size, both Melbourne and Sydney are chock-full of permanent and temporary residents who originally came from elsewhere, and are richer with the diversity of cultures this brings. Some city-dwellers are asylum seekers or refugees, who have travelled over the sea in boats, or flown in from other lands, to escape life under dictatorships, civil war, or risk of torture or genocide. Some are migrants – like our very own current Prime Minister – whose families came to Australia seeking a better life, or to reunite with family members.

Some city dwellers, such as myself, are merely escapees from small Australian towns, where employment prospects were limited, privacy was non-existent, and the number of like-minded people with similar interests could be counted without using double digits.  To us, a city offered all the excitement of open-ended possibilities for our futures, and the anonymity to pursue those possibilities without being gossiped about by friends of our parents. And occasionally I even come across people who were actually born in the city and have lived there all their lives!

Those of us who leave small country towns for the big city have an undying loyalty, not to their home town, but to the city that gave us a break. Or then again, perhaps not. Perhaps I’m speaking only for myself.

I have always liked Melbourne, where I’ve lived since I escaped country-town life at the age of 18. I know there are cities that are bigger and more glamorous than Melbourne, but I’ve always felt that Melbourne is perfect in many ways. It’s big enough to have lots of different inner-city areas with their own distinct flavour made up of different cultural mixes and histories (eg, St Kilda, Fitzroy, Carlton, Brunswick), but still small enough to get around to different neighborhoods with relative ease, and affordable enough to be constantly somewhere near the top on those annually-produced lists of “most liveable cities” that give newspapers something to write about on slow news days. (although the cost of housing and rentals has increased significantly in the last 20 years or so, making Melbourne far less affordable for students and anyone else not earning a full-time, high-bracketed wage, than when I was a student.)

I’ve only ever been a visitor in Sydney, and I’ve always had the feeling that it’s a much bigger city than Melbourne. Perhaps this is partly because its hilly topography makes it very easy to see that high-rise apartments fill the CBD and Northern Sydney, but are also speckled up and down the hilly landscapes surrounding each little bay on the world-famous Sydney Harbour. However I realised on this trip, more than ever before, that like any large city, the monolith can be broken down into different little neighborhoods that have their own distinct character: eg, Surry Hills, Kings Cross, Newtown, Bondi.

Bondi - ok, yes it's nice but I sunburn easily, so I'm just as happy in Melbourne watching it rain, thank you.

Bondi  Beach – ok, yes it’s nice but I sunburn easily, so I’m just as happy in Melbourne watching it rain, thank you.

Walking around Surry Hills last week, I was struck by how Sydney’s inner suburbs seem to have retained a majority of their old pubs (“hotels” or “drinking establishments”), built any time from the mid 1800s to the 1960s, largely intact and reasonably well-maintained. To me, this gives those suburbs a certain character that is missing now in some of Melbourne’s older suburbs.

The Cricketers Arms Hotel, Surry Hills, Sydney.

The Cricketers Arms Hotel, Surry Hills, Sydney.

Pic: Sydney Pub List

Sadly, in Melbourne a large majority of old pubs have been turned into apartments or cafes, and those still operating as hotels are either “gentrified” into fancy establishments with bland interiors that lack any real character, and ‘fine dining’ menus where a main meal costs $35, or, alternatively, where pokie machines have been installed and are the main crowd-pulling feature.

It appeared to me that Surry Hills has a cosy-looking old pub on almost every corner (My research team estimate that approximately 3 corners in Surry Hills do not house a pub). Most of the older pubs I passed by in any suburb seem to have retained their original features, and most were very well attended, inside and out, whatever time of day we walked past them.

It’s interesting to ponder not only what factors give a city character, but equally, what factors can directly, or indirectly, destroy a city’s character.

In the eternal question about which city is better, Melbourne or Sydney, Melbournians like to claim that Melbourne has a far better live music scene. This fact has been repeated since the late 80’s, accompanied by evidence in the form of comparisons with the number of live gigs, the number of bands from cities like Perth and Brisbane who end up in Melbourne, and, tellingly, the number of live music venues. As the story goes, back in the 80s, Sydney’s live music scene was indirectly the victim of real estate development. The scenario goes something like this:

  • Developer builds apartments near well-established live music venue that contributes to the character of an area, making the area a good investment because it’s desirable to younger, up-and-coming (yuppie) types.
  • New residents move in because they want to live in this cool area
  • New residents complain about loud music keeping them awake at night
  • Venue is forced to stop hosting live music because of complaints about noise
  • Owners of venue can’t continue to pursue their passion (live music) or can’t afford to keep hotel running in it’s current incarnation, and put hotel on the market
  • Hotel gets sold to a developer
  • Developer turns old hotel into brand new apartment block.

Sad to say, since the mid 1990s, Melbourne has been slowly catching up to Sydney in this regard. In the time that I’ve been seeing bands, many of the venues that played a significant part in the history of Melbourne’s rock music scene have totally disappeared, to become shopping centres, apartment blocks or cafes. To name just a few that were around in the late 80s or early 90s: the Old Greek Theatre in Richmond, now shops (I think), the Punters Club in Fitzroy, now a cafe, The Club in Collingwood, which I think is also now a shopping centre, and the Continental in Prahran- I’m not sure what is currently in that building now.

A recent case that has drawn a lot of attention and angst from anyone in Melbourne and even beyond, who values live music and/or history, is that of the historic Palace in Bourke St, which has been through many different incarnations as a place of cultural significance to Melbourne. When I was 19 I spent my Thursday nights with other university students, nightclubbing in that very venue, then called The Metro, but the venue had a long history as an entertainment venue, having first been used as a theatre in 1912. After its stint as a nightclub, it began to host live music, and played a big part in the touring scene, as it held an audience of approx 1850. Off the top of my head I recall seeing Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, Kim Salmon and the Surrealists, Grinderman, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, at the venue. Music lovers are missing out – for example there is a lack of sideshows this year when festivals like Soundwave come to Melbourne, because the city is now missing a venue that is the right size for certain bands.

Palace Theatre, Bourke St, Melbourne

Palace Theatre, Bourke St, Melbourne

pic: Melbourne Heritage Action

The Palace was put up for sale in the past year or so, and was purchased by a Multinational Developer in China. Developers are not known for being sentimental about real estate, so it’s unsurprising that a developer situated in another country has no interest in the cultural significance, or historic significance, of a building they have purchased over here. To them it’s an obstacle that simply needs to be demolished, in order to build a hotel or high-rise apartment block.

The building in question also happens to be in a leafy precinct at the top of Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD, amongst buildings dating back to the 1800s, an area where nothing else is more than about 3 stories tall. It’s the area referred to by Real Estate agents, who are not embarrassed about using such terms, as “the Paris end” of Bourke Street. Well, alright, I can see what you’re trying to say, but in Paris they realised some time ago, the aesthetic value of keeping buildings to a certain height within the city area. That’s exactly why it’s used as a metaphor for the beautiful part of the city, Mr/Ms Real Estate Agent. And that’s why people go to Paris just to see the city itself, apart from all its other attractions.

I, too, went to Paris and photographed buildings.

I, too, went to Paris and photographed buildings.

Boring as it might sound, when I think about what gives a city character, I’d have to say that “planning,” is pretty crucial, if that means keeping an eye on trying to retain the character a city or area has developed, probably prior to the notion of planning ever becoming a “thing.” A city’s history is a very important part of its character. Areas where its history is respected and well preserved end up being those little pockets that residents love, and guide books recommend to tourists, just to walk around and experience.

When I, for example, remember my visit to San Fransisco many years ago, I remember fondly the inner-city neighborhoods like Haight Ashbury, Russian Hill, etc. As a tourist, I understood the many layers of history these areas contained, because I could see original buildings, maintained from when they were first built, and I could learn more about the artists and cultural figures who had famously lived or worked in those areas, particularly, of course, in the fifties and sixties, giving them another layer of rich cultural significance to the city. I barely recall the CBD, except to remember that it lacked any character at all.

I left Sydney after this holiday feeling less sure that Melbourne is actually streets ahead of Sydney in character, as I used to think. I think we Melbournians might be applying wishful thinking there. We feel like we must have more character, because Sydney got the views and the better weather. But hey guys – Sydney has also got lots of old pubs! Add that to views and better weather and I’m starting to think……well, anyway, I”m less sure now that Melbourne wins that competition.

It’s one thing I really missed when I moved to the otherwise lovely older, inner Melbourne suburb that I live in, and still miss now – there is not one single old pub with any character in the whole suburb. Just some bland, characterless pubs and some wine bars.

In any area, the absence of a good old cosy pub, preferably with slightly sticky carpet and an open fire in winter, my friends, is a big shame.


 **The Save The Palace group is running a campaign to fight the developers at VCAT (the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal). If you would like to support them in their fight against a large multinational developer, you can donate here – they would be grateful for any amount you can donate.

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  1. One can readily relate to this – commerce reigns supreme, preservation of heritage structures is down in the list of priorities.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love that post so much!

    Liked by 1 person


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