Wednesday, December 17, 2008

a profile of public Melbourne

Having lived here for almost a year now, here’s a rather scattered stab at how I would now describe Melbourne:

Situated on a gentle lightly-wooded hill alongside a freshwater river at the inland end of a deep-channeled bay in a warm temperate climate, this location was ideal for European-style habitation. Delightfully, the first European exploration of the Wurundjeri land along the Yarra river that would become Melbourne was by a Mr. Batman of England, in 1835: there are now many Marvel-esque Melburnian nomikers, such as Batman Avenue. Unfortunately not named Batman City or the like, Melbourne received its name from the titular surname and residence of the sitting British Prime Minister of the time. Though remaining a small pastoral colonial outpost for the 15 years of its existence, forsightful early city leaders established a city street grid as early as 1837. Even though most of the streets remained unbuilt and even impassable (due to swamps and the like) for decades, this early planning imparted a lasting orderliness to the city center that I have never seen paralleled in a city of Melbourne’s age.

This early planning was actualized more quickly than anticipated, as the gold rush of the 1850s in the fields west of the city exploded the population and money pouring through its banks and ports. Due to building on virtually unlimited undeveloped land with vast available funds and a strong colonial desire to emulate the glory of all things British and assert its own importance, many of the institutional and important buildings of the city are built on a grand scale, with elaborate Victorian architecture. For these same reasons, there’s also an extensive and generally excellent railway system. By the end of the 1800s, Melbourne was the second-largest city in the British Empire and tenth-largest city in the world, thought its precedence has since slowed to that of a densely-centered but otherwise-average-sized modern city of 20,000 (in the city center itself) and 3 million in the greater metro area.

Modern Melbourne is largely shaped by its non-British immigrants, who started arriving during the goldrush (though this wave left little lasting effect on the city’s culture), then from post-War Europe (esp. Italy and Greece, whose influence is more apparent in the suburbs) and more recently from southeast Asia (esp. Vietnam, China, Malaysia, and India). While still largely a white (British) city in most social and physical respects, Melbourne is starting to become part of the modern Australasian community: indicative of the population, the remaining Victorian edifices now sit between a considerable amount of truly excellent modern Asian-influenced architecture, with thankfully rather few 1960s and 1970s atrocities in between. The city’s alleys (“laneways”) and other nooks are beginning to be put to good use by those familiar with space-efficiency in overcrowded* areas. Within the city center, affluent people of many varied Asian descents** hurry to and from work, or stroll on holiday. Food from every conceivable Asian ethnicity (and others, too) graces the city center restaurants, and family-friendly holidays like Buddha Day and Diwali are publicly celebrated. Less evident are the religious institutions of these communities, with no temples or mosques apparent anywhere in the city, hinting at the remaining strong Anglo institutional and cultural entrenchement, though partially resulting from the remarkable secularization of the city’s general culture.

The city’s culture is very urbane, with much better fashion and arts institutions (though not necessarily art itself) than Boston and even most of New York City. The city’s sophistication unfortunately makes much of its most enjoyable aspects inaccessible to the less-than-wealthy. I quickly resigned myself to feeling like a bumpkin here, as I could appreciate but never afford the fare, threads, and lifestyles of the cool café culture and rich nightlife, making me feel as if I have been existing as a spectator at the fringes of my own home. It would be a wonderful city to be rich in: the gorgeous food alone could tempt even the most avid miser into bankruptcy. That said, it remains affordable for Petra and I to live comfortably if frugally right in the middle of the city on one salary, encouraging us to enjoy more elusive entertainments like the ever-free people-watching, beach culture, and biking.

The people of Melbourne remain very friendly despite their urbanity, which I continue to find delightful. There is a slower pace of life here than in most American and European cities, and a relaxed and personable attitude pervades most interactions, even those of officials and clerks. I suspect I have been spoiled by this year of humane conversations, and think with shame on the brusqueness of New England.

And the weather is gorgeous.

Other big aspects of the city that I have little to do with are the rabid sports culture (there are something like 7 sports arenas in the city itself, with cricket and Aussie-rules football dominating) and the lively business culture. More on some specific aspects of the city in the upcoming days, and more photos to be added to the slideshow below later.

Sorry for not having the time to weed through to just choose good pics.

*the city’s density and crowdedness is especially strange given that this is a largely unpopulated continent, and vast flat fields surround the city in close proximity. What limits growth is lack of water.

**unlike the US, many of the non-white people in Australia have themselves immigrated, rather than their parents. 25% of today's Australians were born elsewhere. It makes for a very different dynamic.

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