The sprawling quadrilateral

For a long time all I saw were cranes.  Apart from the public housing blocks to the north-west, cranes were the tallest thing in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  They projected their slender strength and, hypnotically dangling their chains, put us under the residential hypnosis — buy buy buy.

During my time in Richmond, between 2008 and 2018, I saw thousands of apartments being built.  These constructions were, as we shall see, an ironic reversal of the suburb’s historical development, which since the middle of the nineteenth century tended to favour industry over the residential, and as such, the suburb had mostly been working class. And encroachments of industry into residential space had been the history of Richmond as it grew and developed into the twentieth century.

But then former sites of industry vanished and were transformed into huge apartment complexes. Once a suburb of industrial labour, Richmond was now a place for retail living. It’s history had been turned on its head.

Richmond is a sprawling quadrilateral.  One wouldn’t describe it as hugger-mugger.  It’s design is clear and orderly, making it … well … clear and orderly, or if you like, bland. Its boundaries are Victoria Street to the north, Hoddle Street to the west, and Swan Street to the south.  Although, we could extend the boundary further south, beyond Swan Street to the Yarra, to include Cremorne and Burnley. Geography, rather than municipal boundaries, makes better sense of these inclusions.

The eastern boundary of Richmond is again the Yarra River.  Cross over the bridge and you’re in Hawthorn.  But do that at your peril.  If you’re broke and living in Richmond the big houses on the hills of Hawthorn look down upon the south-eastern flank of Richmond with the glint of class divide in their eyes.

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On a clear day you can see all the way east to the Dandenong Ranges from Richmond.  But you have to look past the cars banked up to the crest of Richmond Hill, the sun intensifying their colour as they loosen into streams of movement when the lights change.  And you have to look past the criss-crossing nerve ends of tram wires strewn above the road, past the signs — the signs for beer and shoes, the signs for the hospital and for dresses, food and real estate – and past the buildings that in the summer heat look as though they’ve been rescued from a kiln.

Look past all this and you’ll see the great distance of the mountains to the east. And if you walk in that easterly direction, up Bridge Road and over the hill and keep one eye on and one eye off what the poet Judith Wright calls the “flowing and furious world,” you can exist simultaneously among the shops and the people in the streets and in the freedom of the distant mountains. 

But the view is more than this.  It’s an immaterial link to the past and one of the few things that will remain, if there is anyone left to see it, of the early years of the city and its expansion east into districts such as Richmond.  This view or “perspective” predates even buildings considered historic because it inspired their construction.

Between the lolly-bag scene of Richmond retail and the distant ranges, dimensions of time open up.  The elevation that gives you this view is the result of geological activity that occurred over 400 million years ago.  Your eye is not only connecting the two points.  They are already connected geologically by Silurian-aged deposits over millions of years.

It was precisely this vantage point and its dazzling view stretching east to the mountains that attracted pioneering gentry in the 1830s and 40s.

Richmond was named after Richmond Hill in England, where the view was protected by an act of Parliament, the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act (1902), the only one of its kind in Britain, brought into being under pressure from those who protested against development of the area.

Here in Australia, Richmond’s “hill” also offered commanding views of a vast plateau, but one ripe for the developments of farming and grazing, and later, industry. Historian Janet McCalman tells us that Richmond’s social fate was determined by its topography.  Richmond began its colonial days as a semi-rural home for the well-to-do.  But it quickly became an over-crowded suburb of the working classes.  This change in Richmond’s demography was foretold by the industries that began moving into the area from the 1860s. 

Tanneries, wool-washing plants, a brewery, boot and furniture making all took advantage of the wide, flat land by the river.  The disused silo still standing in east Richmond was used for wheat.  Closer to the heart of the suburb you can see the silos of a disused malthouse, which were converted into apartments and described by Philip Goad as forming “a brutish totemic tower of inner-city living.”  Through industry, Richmond became a creation of the late Victorian boom. In another hundred years it’ll probably be seen as the creation of early twenty-first century gentrification.

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Richmond hardly bears a visible trace of the past.  Richmond Town Hall no longer reveals its Victorian era, revivalist gothic architecture.  In the 1930s it was remodelled as a Council priority.  And yet there are traces of an industrial past, evident in the malting silos in the far southwest corner of Cremorne, next to the freeway and by the river.  If you notice these silos it’s probably for their billboards.  And if you walk the backstreets you might glimpse a bluestone wall or a cobble-stone segment of road.  But these things don’t amount to much.   

And that’s okay.  An absence of the past in Richmond means you don’t have to hear, see, or smell the slums.  In 1916 a Richmond local despaired:

The aspect presented to the train traveller between  Richmond  and  South  Yarra  is  one  of most unsightly backyards, and the mental impression of this  city  conveyed  is  that  it  is  a slum neighbourhood excelled in unsightliness by nothing else between here and Sydney.  Where it is not a slum, it is advertising hoarding, and the odours are certainly not those of ‘Araby the Blest’.

(Richmond Guardian 26 February 1916)

The blessed aromas referred to here were those of an Arabian Bazaar. The south ward of Richmond was very poor, cramped and narrow.  There were lots of unmade streets with a lot of mud in winter and dust in summer.  This area was once known as Irish Town. To the north were the fresher airs and leisure gardens of the homes on Richmond Hill, whose drainage ran south, downhill, into Irish Town.

Walking in Irish Town, this local further observed that the streets were “full of horse manure, waste papers, empty tins, rabbit entrails, dead cats and such-like flotsam and jetsam, whilst the channels contained a quantity of malodorous slush.”

In James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), there’s a story called “Araby,” which begins in a street in Dublin called North Richmond.  The narrator of the story is a boy who wants to go to the Araby Bazaar in Dublin to buy something for a pretty girl he likes.  But he’s held up, waiting  for his drunk uncle to come home and give him some money.  By the time he gets to the Bazaar it’s too late.  Nearly all the lights are out and the stalls are closed   The boy leaves with nothing.  Later, reflecting back on this time, he says, “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, argues that the Bazaar in Joyce’s story has a real-life counterpart in the Araby Bazaar which came to Dublin on May 14-19, 1894.  Was the Richmond local familiar, like Joyce, with the Araby Bazaar in Dublin?  Had he read Joyce’s story?  And if so, did it inform his low opinion of Richmond?  Was “Araby” a cultural variable in his social observation?

Remembering his childhood journeys into the city by train in the 1920s, the narrator of George Johnston’s novel, My Brother Jack (1964), says

All the way through to the city proper there was nothing to break the drab flatness of this unadventurous repetition except the club flags flying over the grandstands of some football ground or other, or a particular factory smokestack that impressed by its height or shape or the amount of reek it gave off, or the grimy brick wall of the Rosella Jams and Pickles Factory with the cloth-capped girls working and chattering behind the railway-sooted windows.

This description is one long sentence.  Which is deliberate, because it imparts a sense of the out-stretched distance of the journey.  Johnston wants to say that travelling through the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, past Cremorne and to Richmond, is like an overly long, uninteresting sentence given pause only by the commas of particular sights (a football field, impressions of industry) and the semicolons of train stations. The full stop is achieved, so to speak, at either end of a flat diffusion of dull geometry and sad habitations, namely, the city or the last suburban “outpost.”

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Walking in Richmond parklands one evening, down the south-eastern corner of the suburb near the river, I came across an old dead gum tree.  It stood at least twice my height, and because it was surrounded by tall scrub and leafy trees and set back from the path, I’d never really noticed it before.  But this particular evening, the sun going down, there was an eerie light which seemed to indicate the significance of what stood inconspicuously behind the surrounding scrub.

I found out that it was a Corroboree Tree, which once marked a boundary between Aboriginal tribal lands.  This was a site for meetings between Indigenous tribal groups and for the performance of song and dance.  It was a place for stories and exchange.  And as a shady, wide-open area to gather and meet, the parklands are still, in a way, serving this need. But in a place of dog shit and laughter, that bare tree stump is a haunting symbol of dispossession. Here more than anywhere else in the docile inner-east the terror of history will strike a blow.