“That place is a shithole,” our Irish roommate at the hostel commented when I told him we were heading downtown for the day.
He seemed to think that the whole city and everything in it was a “shithole.” The streets are dirty. The walls are covered in graffiti. The transportation is crap. He’s been there a week and was generally displeased with his surroundings, often voicing his opinions in the same matter a fact way. (It’s safe to say that Kirsten and I didn’t really like him.)
I really wanted to prove him wrong.
Before I arrived in Melbourne, I was told how “artsy” and “cool” it was. “It’s like the Austin of Australia,” said the Assistant Director of the BU Program (who has never even been to Melbourne). I wanted it to be that. I wanted it to be somewhere I could relate to.
But throughout the day, the Irish roommate’s words continued to ring through my head.
“This place is a shithole.”
I found myself consciously looking for things that challenged his statement as we began our day of shopping in the city.
He wasn’t wrong about the graffiti. It certainly was everywhere, but in a way, the city seemed to embrace it instead of fight it. Graffiti, street art, and murals are prevalent, making up an integral part of Melbourne’s landscape. In the urban hubs, you can’t escape the spray paint. For example, our tram stop’s walls are congested with violently colorful graffiti tags and cartoon images.
It can be a bit out of hand–graffiti on trams, on information boards, on the sides of motorways–but no so more than other cities I’ve been to. (Um…NYC anyone?)
However, unlike those other cities, Melbourne has seemed to make the most of it. The most famous example is Hosier Lane, a laneway (alleyway) full of a dizzying amount of overlapping colors, words, and pictures that reaches several stories up. We visited that famed spot late in the afternoon, and tourists peppered the pavement, cameras all at attention. One graffiti artist was even at work, and they swarmed him like flies before he disappeared. When an alleyway full of graffiti becomes a tourist destination, you know it’s become more than just a nuisance but an important facet of the city’s culture.
As for the dirtiness…Yes, it’s a city that doesn’t mind having a bit of grit in its eyes. Downtown there is pollution in the air and grime on the sidewalks. But all the great cities have a bit of dirt in their cracks, New York City especially. It gives the place a sense of reality. The city becomes less of a postcard imaginary and more of lived-in truth.
And once again, Melbourne seems to have embraced this grit. Two of the other most famous laneways are prime examples. Like Hosier Lane, we ended up stumbling upon these places towards the end of the afternoon, exhausted from all the walking and window shopping. But what we saw, perked us right up again.
Centre Place and Degraves Street are narrow little alleyways that run between the major streets. The rising buildings around them block out a fair amount of sun, but the spaces are still alive with dozens of cafes and restaurants and curious shops. The brick walls are covered, once again, in graffiti art as well as aging posters and Victorian ironwork. We felt like we had found a hidden, bustling undercity and we finally understood why the laneways were so famous: They made the grit and gloom of the inner city into a vibrant and energetic place of commerce.
Alternatively, Melbourne can be clean and upscale too. Several Victorian shopping arcades, including the Block and Royal Arcades, still welcome visitors with well-kept elaborate windows and mosaic floors. We felt we were in another time, in another city when we walked through those vaulted ceilings.
Melbourne’s modern malls are equally elaborate and spacious. The main example we found was Melbourne Central. The mall is several stories high, full to bursting with stores, and intricately designed with the most modern styles. It was easy for us to become amazed and overwhelmed.
Also in many ways, Melbourne can be breathtakingly beautiful. After hours of walking around downtown, exploring all the nooks and crannies from Chinatown to the Bourke Street Mall, we ended up on the river walk near sunset. And there was the city, reflecting upon the Yarra River, its modern and Victorian buildings gleaming in the dying sunlight.
While Melbourne may be a “shithole” to some, if you look closely and keep your mind open, I’ve found it can be quite a unique and vibrant place. My expectations, while now hampered down with reality, were, happily, not proven wrong.