Pandemic Port – re-discovery and revelation

Taking walks through Port Melbourne during the lockdowns is a strange voyage of rediscovery and revelation.

Having lived in Port Melbourne for almost 50 years local travel tends to become routine. The drive down to the beachfront to get to the St Kilda Sea Baths; walking to the Bay Street shops; walking on the beachfront from home to Kerferd Road and back; catching the 109 to the city; playing with a granddaughter in the Evans Street park; and crossing Port Phillip to Balaclava to visit family. It all tends to make you think that things don’t change much.

Yet when you take a few months of daily walks around the town you start to rediscover what is old, have revelatory experiences of what is new or unfamiliar, what is successful, what is ugly and what is surprising.

Bay Street is the start with a second op shop opening up, just as op shops spring up in depressed areas, and a growing number of for lease signs on shops. All this while research has indicated that our postcode has Melbourne’s third highest income level. Income is not,  of course, necessarily correlated with wealth.

The surprising is often the narrowest streets and lanes.  Spring Street, once featuring many weatherboard houses in need of attention, is now neat, freshly painted and attractive without losing its historic scale or feel. The old Salvo Citadel has been lost and replaced by a largish modern structure but most of the house extensions are at the back of blocks and the setbacks make them less obtrusive.

Albert and Alfred Streets have been transformed in a similar way with some refurbished places; some acceptable extensions; and, one Clay Street massive metal fortress building designed by an architect and academic.

In Clark Street the trees still flourish; the leaves pile up and former mayor Ray Julier’s Victorian house is well preserved. Ray was insightful and forensic when it came to council budgets and administration and every time you walk past you think what a difference he might make to the current CoPP council.

South of Bay Street has seen the most surprising changes with huge extensions upwards and outwards on typically small blocks. McCormick Street, really not much more than a lane, has huge renovations which seem to dwarf the street’s scale. Small blocks now incorporate new buildings complete with garages compared to 50 years ago when many rode bikes (the same  proportion as now probably but on different styles and for different reasons) and the Council still had horses and a cart. Now all that is left of that are empty horse troughs.

Evans Street has lost its shunting yards, the briquette dust and the Locsam Trading pallet business– one of the first big privatisations back in the Menzies era. The Red Rattler trains with their box like compartments and doors so hard to open they could have secured a safe no longer run. Instead there are two wonderful linear parks in it and Station Street stretching from Graham Street to Ingles Street. Sadly the elms which formed an avenue have died and the remaining dead trunks are probably going to be removed.

The Gasworks operations have been replaced by a park, an arts complex, a huge moderne style apartment complex and another which might have come from a new suburb adjoining an English village.

From Pickles Street to Sandridge Beach ships’ chandlers, industrial sites, pubs, warehouses and cottages have been replaced by high rises two blocks deep. Some of them – the Distillery, the Starch factory and the Swallow & Ariell factory have retained the core or fabric of the buildings while adding new bits and even a swimming pool. HMAS Lonsdale has become a massive modernist monument.

Restrictions make it hard to get as far as the former Fishermans Bend wharf and industrial areas of the city where big manufacturers like GMH have been replaced by light industrial buildings and along the river some sky high apartment blocks. From Pier 35, however, you can still see that a huge working port survives and standing on Sandridge Beach you can see the modern container dock which looks from across the water like a Jeffrey Smart painting.

We no longer get the joy of the delightful aromas when the biscuits, particularly the chocolate ones, were baking at Swallow & Ariell but then we don’t get the pungent smells from the old Kitchen’s factory. Although walking around the development which has taken Kitchen’s place is to look into mean little rooms, ugly apartments and more driveways than greenery. Nearby the Port Oval retains its historic grandstand but a modern copper and glass building, fenced off because apparently half completed, stands behind the goals.

Garden City has retained much of its fabric and the little urban forest with its dirt track along Howe Parade is a brief natural escape from lockdown blues. Garden City extensions up, around and back abound – some of them overpowering the original building structure and employing materials which clash with the originals.

The Boulevard renovations look more like Beaumaris than Port Melbourne although the new adventure playground and Perce White Reserve are delightful.

However, the people who have brought Beaumaris to Port along the Boulevard are obsessed about it once being a gay beat and keep asking that the sign honouring Perce be removed because apparently it features on some online fora.

The maritime union, the historical society and others have to regularly contact local member, Martin Foley and  the Port of Melbourne to get the sign back with each new sign becoming smaller and placed in a less prominent position. The objecting (objectionable?) residents don’t seem to realise that the gay beat has migrated to the relative privacy of Westgate Park and that not all the park visitors are there to see the pink lake.

Perhaps the greatest surprise is Beacon Cove. Putting aside the beachfront towers the rest of the Beacon Cove development is restrained and very attractive. In the middle, near the beacons, is a small park with a central row of trees which, for a few brief days burst into beautiful Autumn colours.  It is better than the oil tank farm and industrial buildings which were there and much, much better than the Gold Coast canals and high rises planned by a developer, supported by the Cain Government and some elements of the Port Council but fought ferociously be residents.

The only remnant of those developers’ plans is an attractive public housing development; a playground and a little walk along the light rail line now featuring a delightful fairy garden created by a former Tivoli dancer who lives across from it.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is that it seems everything old – even if only recently old – is being made new. There may be no street in Port which doesn’t have one or more buildings or sites undergoing renovations, extensions or replacement.

About 35 years ago a photographic record of Evans Street was taken and donated to the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society. Today the street, when compared with the photos, would be unrecognisable.

No-one would want to preserve the Port of the 1890s or the Great Depression with diseases, suffering, unemployment and police attacks on waterside workers. But wandering around you can’t help but wonder what will someone walking the same streets in decades’ time say about what we have preserved, what we have renewed, what we have made new, and what we have destroyed?