Thursday, December 18, 2008

melbourne behind-the-scenes: laneways

Growing up between New York City and Boston, where it is rightly unheard of for a woman to walk down an alley even in midday, it took me a few weeks here to realize that despite its regular street grid, Melbourne’s city center is physically a labyrinth, a honeycomb, a catacomb. There is much more surface area than the outer shell would suggest. Regular pedestrians are just as likely to walk through the blocks than around them: malls, ‘arcades’, ‘laneways’ alleys off alleys provide not only more direct walking routes, but also a host of truly tiny cafes and shops between and underneath Melbourne’s streets, largely sporting quirky fancy fashion or specialist trades like cobblers and the like. At odds with the general Melbournian friendliness, their small size, entrenched clientele, and suave servers makes these Melbournian institutions seem cliquish and uninviting, furthering my wonderment that anyone ever finds these tiny holes in the city’s wall, let alone enough customers to maintain downtown rents.

The laneways, while occasionally very shwank, usually provide a sudden and welcome gritty and odorous counterpoint to the clean sophistication of the sidewalks. Most notable in their contribution to the city’s melody is the insanely good and prevalent laneway graffiti, which has even come to be recognized by some of country’s greatest cultural institutions, and has a considerable artist and fan community (including but not limited to sites like this) despite its often-disturbing subject matter. There is even a laneway art commission, encouraging artists to further contribute to the appreciation of the hidden corners of the city, my favorite of which features gold-plated water pipes: I love not just the beauty of the paintings, but also the mesmerizing shapes of the external pipes (which they can get away with because it doesn’t freeze here) and the general decrepit and shoddy buildings: with its single-thickness dry-mortared brick and cement slab walls resting on loose dirt, most of the city would crumble in a minute if there were an earthquake, flood, or really stiff breeze, further endearing it to me in its ephemerality.

More photos to be added soon. Sorry for not having the time to weed through to just choose good pics.