For most of my time in Melbourne, I lived in Southbank, just across the river from the CBD. Southbank only came into existence in the 1990s and it is still being built, apartment towers mostly, crowding onto every spare patch of ground, competing for the light. It is not a place of permanence. Most people living there seemed to be temporary residents like me, or new arrivals. I have to say it never really felt like home.
Southbank exists for visitors – for tourists and for Melburnians on a night out of drinking, eating and gambling. For visitors, it’s all about the riverside promenade, with its trees and benches and river views providing a welcome contrast to the traffic-clogged streets of the CBD. In a city that prides itself on hiding restaurants and bars up laneways and on rooftops, to be discovered by locals in the know, here is a seemingly endless and accessible line of places to eat and drink, enticingly lit with flames and mirrors, all different, but all slightly similar.
I hardly ever went to any of them. They weren’t my thing. I did like walking along the riverside promenade though. On my early morning walks, I’d join the seagulls and the first commuters, past the contractors loading and unloading, cleaning and fixing up, and the constant motion of trains and traffic running in parallel on the opposite bank. Later I would immerse myself in the flow of commuters and the weaving cyclists on my way to work. At weekends I’d edge through slow-moving tourists and the buskers to sit in the sun with a takeaway coffee and look at the river, flowing wide and brown and a bit foamy at the edges.
The Yarra was a daily reference point for my state of impermanence. It’s probably the only constant around Southbank. It has altered its course over millennia, and more recently had its course altered for it, so it’s straighter and tidier at the edges, and its waters were polluted and now they are slightly less polluted, and since the falls were blasted away where the Queen’s Bridge now spans the river, saltwater mingles with fresh with every incoming tide. But it is still the same river.
Having said that, the Yarra does not give much away. Its opaque silty waters do not even give much back – choppy scraps of muddy blue sky, and indistinct rippled reflections of CBD towers. Except at night, when the coloured lights of the CBD dance prettily on the blackness of its hidden depths.
Southbank is a created place. If you’re only visiting, you might not notice, but if you live there, you soon start to see the joins in the façade. The promenade, for example, is carefully but very discreetly managed. In sharp contrast to the CBD side of the river, you rarely see homeless people there but neither do you see security guards. The buskers are mostly slick and professional, expertly gathering crowds around them for their ‘shows’. You always see the same ones, but if you’re a tourist you wouldn’t know that.
And of course, you might wonder what was here before Southbank sprang up, almost fully formed, along the river. From the promenade you get a glimpse of the elegant 19th century Jones Bond warehouse now converted into apartments. It has a cobbled laneway running down the side and a café in the ground floor where you can enjoy the cosy ambience of the wooden beamed ceiling and the sun slanting through the windows onto the uneven brick floor. When I first saw it, I thought there might be a whole area of narrow laneways and old warehouses off the promenade, but there isn’t.
The past is barely acknowledged in Southbank. There’s an easily-overlooked recreated fragment of wooden wharf that hints at the wharves that were built here in the early days of Melbourne, before river bridges blocked the way for tall ships. There are no reminders, though, of the factories that used to line the river’s edges – the tanneries and the tallow makers that poured their filth into the river, later replaced by the huge APM paper factory and the Allens Sweets factory with a flashing neon sign that was a Melbourne landmark in its time. Nor would you know that a huge tent city sprang up here during the gold rush, and housed 8000 gold prospectors at its peak on their way to the goldfields. And it goes without saying – this is Australia after all – that you would never know that once there were fertile wetlands here where the Kulin people hunted and gathered food.
Further down the riverside promenade if you can make it past the interminable length of the Crown Casino, where at night the trees are lit up and a row of chimneys belch out fireballs at regular intervals for no conceivable reason, there is another brick warehouse (the Tea House), and the Polly Woodside, a tall sailing ship, its rigging reflected in the endless glass panels of the huge exhibition centre. The Polly Woodside sits in a remnant of a former dry dock, the remains of the dock machinery preserved under glass alongside. Joseph Conrad came to Melbourne in his sailing days, and apparently he was photographed around here aboard the only ship that he ever captained, the Otago, the scuttled remains of which now lie in the waters of the River Derwent in Tasmania.
There’s a long line of wooden sheds here, housing yet more restaurants and bars. The sheds may or may not be old, it’s hard to tell. Behind their human scale looms the dark glass bulk of the South Wharf shopping mall. This is officially the end of South Bank, although the riverside promenade continues on into Docklands past new and sterile apartment complexes.
From here you can push through the shopping mall, or even around the side, through the huge carpark, and around the exhibition centre, and under the huge concrete freeway where vehicles thunder up above, and back under it again as the road loops round, to see the other side of Southbank. It’s intimidating for the pedestrian, but not unnavigable. You get the message anyway. You should have stayed on the riverbank promenade. That was the Southbank you were meant to see. Now you have pushed past the façade, beyond the boundaries of the created place.
If you keep going round the wrong side of the exhibition centre, you eventually find yourself on the wrong side of the casino, walking across a succession of driveways leading into car parks and service areas. There’s a covered walkway up above, and of course that’s where you should be, walking along the carpeted halls of the Crown ‘World of Entertainment’. If you’re tempted, there’s the ‘family entrance’ just here, with an amusement arcade for those below the legal gambling age. Or maybe you should continue on to the main entrance and up the black marble stairway and the many-layered waterfall, past the watchful security staff, into the casino itself which stretches on endlessly past pokie machines and gambling tables and more pokie machines and TV screens and bars and more pokie machines, and lights, and mirrors reflecting lights, and not even the tiniest hint of daylight so that you can forget all about time until you finally find your way back out again, blinking and wondering where you are.
Or you might decide to give the casino a miss, because you’ve just noticed that up above is a road that, bizarrely, goes right through the middle of the casino complex. There’s a rather strange space under the road here, where concrete coping stones have been laid out to form a little racetrack. From here you can cut through to City Road, clogged with traffic and apartment towers, many still under construction, their hoardings promising a lifestyle of glamour and excitement in the world’s most liveable city. Several of the towers sprout triumphantly from facades of factory and commercial buildings, because since Southbank was first created, heritage has become a commodity. A ‘heritage facade’ looks good on the marketing materials for overseas investors who will probably never see the cramped, noisy, overlooked, and characterless apartment they rent out to the people who pass through Southbank on their way to a valuable Australian qualification or a more desirable suburb.
At the end of City Road, where it disappears into a tunnel is the Arts Precinct. There was entertainment on the site of the Arts Precinct long before, in the form of an amusement park complete with waterslide, shooting gallery and Japanese tea garden, and the Trocadero dance hall, all firmly obliterated by the solid concrete bulk of the Arts Precinct buildings. There was even an ice rink somewhere around here, the Glaciarium, but it burnt down in the 1960s. If you’re on foot, you’re supposed to enter the Arts Precinct from the other side. This side is for motorists, but if you insist on coming in this way, you can follow a roped off walkway through the carpark (painted purple and hung with pictures so you know that this is not just any old car park) and navigate disorientating corridors and stairways, to pop out into the daylight where you will find more confusing steps and terraces and walkways and entrances that may or may not lead into confusing concert halls, or may take you back to where you started, down by the river on the promenade.
Kim Dovey (2013) Fluid City
Ministry for Planning and Environment (1986) Southbank: a development strategy
Kristin Otto (2009) Yarra: a diverting history of Melbourne’s murky river
For some old photographs of Southbank, see the Walking Melbourne site
There is an article on the Allen Sweets neon sign here
You can read more about the glaciarium here
The Koorie Heritage Trust run walking tours of the area around the river, looking at history from an aboriginal perspective