IT’S LATE AFTERNOON ON A WEDNESDAY in August, late winter in Melbourne. I’ve ventured out from my native Carlton North, heading out on foot to cross Nicholson Street, the Carlton-Fitzroy border and a mental barrier between my territory and the unknown. Ostensibly a rare act of exercise (I have on my trackies and runners left over from school hockey trainings), my walk has become an act in observance. I have taken on the eyes and ears of the (sub)urban flâneur, discovering the pleasures of the pavement under my feet, letting those feet take me where they will to wander. Opening myself to the city experience, I take a new interest in the people, the architecture, the life going on around me. This is my Melbourne.
The heart of my Melbourne doesn’t lie in its geographical, geometric heart, the grid between the Yarra, La Trobe, King and Spring Streets. My city’s heart lies in the inner suburbs that grew up around it in the nineteenth century, in Carlton and Brunswick with their swarms of students and bohemians, leafy Parkville, and the nineteenth-century slums of Collingwood and Fitzroy.
Here, my walk takes me winding through residential streets and across busy Brunswick Street to the Edinburgh Gardens, where the hefty but elegant trees stand bare against a patchy sky that threatens to spoil the day of a foolish Melbournite who has forgotten her umbrella. Groups of schoolboys are playing scratch footy matches in their club jumpers as their dads watch from the sidelines of the oval. The old green cricket stand waits for summer, when the colours of the AFL will be replaced by the cricket whites of school, university and amateur teams, and when the lush green turf will give way to scratchy tufts of dry grass and dusty earth. I join those wandering the path around the edge of the oval, trailing behind an elderly man with his huge, peacefully trotting dog, and two schoolgirls on their way home. Footy dads and old men sit on the park benches, waiting.
Striking out across the grass, I leave the oval behind, heading for the rows of houses on risen ground that look out across the gardens. Melbourne’s inner suburban streets, like those of every city I know, have a distinctive style, characterised by the profusion of terraced cottages sprouted by the rapid expansion of the city after the Victorian gold rush, peaking in the boom of the 1880s. On this street, Alfred Crescent, the houses are grander, the terraces wide and tall, interspersed with detached villas, Victorian and Modernist, and dark, grey mansions. I resist the temptation to keep heading up away from the gardens towards Clifton Hill to continue my architectural tour, conscious of the clouds gathering in the east, and circle along the crescent.
In the yard of the North Fitzroy Primary School boys are throwing tennis balls against the red brick wall of the old schoolhouse, competing for accuracy and bounce. Beyond the gardens the 1880s Hungarian Reformed Church rises up on St Georges Road, an edifice of dark bluestone picked out in cream brick, before the street gives way to little row houses. I begin to wend my way through the streets, back across Nicholson and into North Carltonian territory. Along the way, I take in a few of the delightful surprises that Melbourne offers the observant wanderer, glimpses into the history of this truly nineteenth-century city: cobbled rows behind the terraced houses, an ornate lamp post, a foot-wide old sewer drain running between two shotgun homes, and a 1970s brown littering warning from the council of Fitzroy North.
My flâneur’s feet take me home to where I can sit at my desk and look out into the rooftops and chimneys of Carlton North, beyond which rise up the Lygon Street Housing Commission flats, and beyond that the city high-rises. This is my Melbourne.