Melbourne Water is building a fishway near my house. They’ve been building it for over a year now. I work from home so when I’m in the mood I’m able to take time off during the day and ride past the construction site, and now that I think about I can’t recall ever having seen anybody working there. No wonder, as those fond of criticising government waste would doubtless say, the project hasn’t been finished yet.
Yet there has been change. Fences have been erected; temporary site offices have been moved into place; heavy vehicles have left caterpillar tracks in the mud. Something is happening. When it’s finished what it will be, according to an explanatory sign at the site, is an improvement to the environment: the construction of a vertical slot fishway which will better enable the progress up the Yarra River of eleven species of migratory native fish, among them the Australian Grayling, a species which spawns in fresh water before migrating to the sea then, at six months of age, returning upstream to fresh water to breed. The Australian Grayling is a moderately sized fish, barely more than thirty centimetres long at the most, and according to an information brochure made available by Melbourne Water the species has declined in numbers largely because of man-made barriers which prevent its migration. The Australian Grayling is relatively widespread, being found throughout south-eastern Australian from New South Wales through Victoria and into Tasmania; it’s hoped that the construction of the aforementioned fishway will see the Grayling’s population in the Yarra and its tributaries rise back towards former levels.
The site of the construction is Dights Falls, an unspectacular but quietly pretty tumble of rocks at Yarra Bend, where the Merri Creek flows into a broad shoulder of the Yarra. The combination of the falls and the joining of the two watercourses creates a scrambling stretch of small cascades which are popular with kayakers. Although the falls are overshadowed by the Eastern Freeway, the steady roar of traffic from that road is so continuous that it becomes, paradoxically, almost absent in the general ambience. It’s a peaceful spot, with the traffic at ground-level consisting mostly of joggers and cyclists. Occasionally, from higher points of the bike path that hugs the river, Melbourne’s CBD can be glimpsed through the trees; yet if you turn upstream and enter Yarra Bend Park it’s possible within ten minutes to imagine that you’re in the middle of the bush, rather than in an inner suburb of Australia’s second-largest city.
I’ve only been living in this area for about a year and a half, so even though I’ve been past Dights Falls innumerable times there’s doubtless much that I don’t know about my surrounds. Just last week, from reading a brief and kind-hearted article in the Monthly, a national magazine of current affairs and cultural observation, I learned that the area around Yarra Bend is the centre of a significant but discreet gay cruising scene. I can’t recall having seen any such activity, any more than I can recall having seen any work being done on the fishway. Yet there it is: hidden in plain sight like the fish in the river unwittingly awaiting their new fishway.
A little further upstream along Merri Creek from Yarra Bend is a playing field, and at its northern edge is a small hill which provides a panoramic view of the city. The hill, grassed over and topped with shrubs and a narrow, foot-worn walking trail, has an air of permanence – but standing up there recently, watching in the company of several strangers a storm roll across the city, I was told that the hill had been made with soil excavated in the process of building Melbourne’s Arts Centre in 1973.
As I write this I’m sitting in a bar at the East Brunswick end of Lygon Street. The bar has been furbished to project an air of carefully gentility: wooden fittings, lampshades which imitate in form old-fashioned gas lamps. The bar specialises in artisan beer, though other drinks are also served. By the door are illustrations of fish, of the kind one might find in an old book of identification. They’re arrayed across three hanging prints, their heads pointed towards the door and their bodies as depicted seemingly tensed for action.
It’s the kind of bar it would have been impossible to imagine in this part of town when I moved to Melbourne only seven-and-a-half years ago; and indeed in the immediate vicinity many indications of an older and less image-conscious East Brunswick are still very much in evidence: over the road from the bar there’s a cheap Indian restaurant, the white fluorescent strip-lighting above its hoarding staring fixedly through the bar’s front window whenever I lift my head. Just a few blocks down the road is a gelato shop which has been in situ for so long that it’s become a Melbourne institution; a block further south from that one of several large apartment buildings in this area is under construction. Some things change and some things remain; it’s ever the nature of life in a city.
When I moved to Melbourne I lived first in the centre of Fitzroy, only a block from Brunswick Street. I used to walk to the end of my street every day to have a coffee in the local café; I can still remember the shock when that coffee crept up in price from three dollars, to three dollars twenty, to three dollars fifty. The entirety of Melbourne, obsessed with coffee, seemed mildly scandalised at first as coffee prices rose to equivalent levels throughout the city, but now, over time, we’ve got used to it.
When I lived in Fitzroy Brunswick Street was the coolest street in Melbourne, but only a few minutes walk away Smith Street, the border between Fitzroy and Collingwood, was a no-go area: heroin had ravaged it, and what businesses were there had shut down save for pawn shops and factory outlets. Smith Street, I was told by friends who’d lived in Melbourne longer than me, had once been a lovely place.
Nowadays Smith Street has bounced back, cafés and bars and boutique shops proliferate there, and Brunswick Street has peaked, derided by many as too mainstream, too popular. Smith Street’s heroin has, tragically, moved south to Victoria Street in Richmond; Brunswick Street’s cool has moved north, to High Street in Northcote, a suburb which I was once told was the epicentre of Melbourne’s lesbian community. Whether that’s still true or not, I don’t know, but people still joke about it in the way Australians joke casually about any demographic that deviates from the heterosexual Anglo-Saxon norm. If offence is rarely intended in these jokes, nor is the possibility of causing offence often acknowledged.
Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs may appear to have undergone significant changes in the last few years, but those changes are in fact relatively restrained: the residents of the suburbs are still predominantly Caucasian, though more affluent than they once were. In the city’s western suburbs the demographic changes have been more significant. Since the Fraser Government in the 1970s granted asylum to a wave of Vietnamese refuges – the first so-called ‘boat people’ – in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Footscray and the suburbs around it have been the most significant hub of Melbourne’s Vietnamese community. That is still very much the case, but in the last decade the area has also seen the striking emergence of a first-generation African community. When I was a teenager in Canberra, attending a high school which was blessed by an abundance of children from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, all of them the children of diplomats, I remember thinking that the only group that was really missing from Australia’s great mix of ethnicities was Africans. How that has changed in the last few years. There’s been no more divisive issue in Australian politics and society over the last decade than the issue of refugees and asylum seekers, and amid that atmosphere it’s peculiarly joyful to see groups of African teenagers forming noisy cliques on buses and walking garrulously down inner-city footpaths. They’re as annoying as any loud teenagers, and there’s something to be relished in that borderline obnoxiousness, in knowing that Australia – against, sadly, the collective will of many of its citizens – has given these children a home so peaceful that they can be as unthinkingly, uncaringly irritating as any other teenager.
Last weekend I was on a train going north from my house. I was only getting off at Thornbury, a suburb just beyond the now highly fashionable Northcote and a suburb which is likely to soon become to Northcote what Northcote was to Fitzroy only a few years ago. Beyond Thornbury the train pushes further and further north, taking passengers to steadily less affluent suburbs all the way into Zone Two, an area of the city scorned and seldom visited by those of us who live in the more inner-city Zone One.
Behind me on the train was a woman struggling to contain her two small children, and because I’m more judgemental than I should be I honed in on her broad accent and on the fact that she’d named her daughter ‘Shakira’, and without being able to see her I formed in my mind an extremely unflattering picture of her: her conservative, probably racist, politics; her mean-spirited and easily derided aspirations. When the train reached Thornbury Station I stood up, and turned around to go to the door behind me so that I could see this woman and her children and so have my prejudices confirmed.
She was a white woman, with bleach-blonde hair, and her children were both brown, the colour of a latté and with curly black African hair. Getting off the train I noticed two “mixed race” couples: African men with white Australian women. How uncharitable I had been; how heartening to be reminded that Australians, though they may act cruelly en masse, as individuals are frequently open-minded and welcoming.
Two creeks, the Merri and the Darebin, bracket Thornbury; as they flow further apart from each-other the suburbs of Melbourne sprawl for kilometres northwards. In the west the suburbs follow the course of the Maribyrnong River. Other waterways branch out in other directions, sketching between them the pattern of Melbourne’s sprawl and reaching back to their sources well beyond the city’s bounds. Long before the city was founded, of course, the area was occupied by Aborigines of the Kulin nations; long, long before humans arrived the rivers were swum by fish such as the Australian Grayling. The fortunes of all have fluctuated since Melbourne was founded in 1835 – the region has changed irrevocably and is now something more than it once was, and something less. If the city seems settled now it’s merely because we’re able to perceive a place only moment to moment: the city will continue to change, as cities must. Through it all, we can hope, through its history and into its future, the Australian Grayling will continue to swim and will begin, again, to flourish.
Image sourced from http://www.reefwatch.asn.au/, © G.Edgar