A FRIEND of mine visited Melbourne for the first time in more than a decade last week. The last time he was here was in the early ’90s, in the middle of the last great recession to hit this city. The Melbourne he remembered was the one that was broke and broken. He’d heard about the stylish, fashionable, diverse and creative city that Melbourne had become but I’m not sure he believed it until he saw it.
I know why. The Melbourne I first visited in the early ’90s was a bleak city. Large parts of it were emptying and verging on abandoned. Many of the now famous laneways were no-go zones, apart from a few hardy souls moving in and setting up homes, galleries, workspaces and hosting the occasional illegal, late-night warehouse party.
The city was reeling from the collapse in manufacturing. Flinders Lane was a failed textile district, not a funky retail strip. A thousand people each week were moving to exciting, trendy places to the north such as Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
What a difference a decade or two can make. As we teeter on the brink of another recession, suddenly people are very interested in the transformation of Melbourne.
My friend is a journalist. We combined our catch-up with a “research tour” of Melbourne’s laneway bars. NSW has finally changed its liquor licensing laws. They’ve grasped that not everyone wants to drink in a beer barn full of plasma screens and poker machines. They’ve realised that there’s a whole other world of potential creative alternatives to grog and gambling. For better or worse, after decades of ballooning real estate prices, they too might soon have cheap spaces.
The further we progressed in our long research tour, the louder and more animated I became about Melbourne’s charm and the more convinced I became that so much of what I love about Melbourne is in many ways the upside of that last downturn. So much of Melbourne’s character from the laneway bars, the city galleries, the music scenes, the small fashion shops, the distinctive inner-city retail strips, the collection of small and strange and wonderful places, has grown out of the DIY infrastructure built in that last collapse.
We may soon be experiencing some of the same dire opportunities again. Unemployment, vacancy rates and foreclosures are on the rise. A major downturn will surely wreak a great toll in lives upended and personal tragedies. But while they slam some doors shut, recessions can also prove the resilience of artists and creative communities.
We can already see the downside. Large companies and major events are struggling to maintain their pre-recession sponsorship levels and meet their budget targets. Visual artists are dealing with fewer buyers than in the heady days of the art market bubble. Creative fields such as fashion, design and architecture are hit hard as people pay down rather than run up their debts. It’s likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.
Yet recessions create interesting opportunities for artists and people willing to take cultural initiatives. That’s because many creative enterprises begin life as a passion and not a business plan. While recessions might make expensive things more difficult, they make a lot of other things cheaper and easier. If you’re worried about how much money you’ll lose and not how much money you’ll make, falling costs, cheaper space and creative people with time on their hands make a whole range of new things possible.
Artists and creative types are also resourceful. They tend to see possibilities in places where others fear to tread. In the last recession, they colonised stinky laneways and empty warehouses. Perhaps this time they’ll see possibilities in the detritus of our shrinking finance sector.
Smart policymakers will recognise the role creative communities can play at times like this. As I incoherently attempted to explain far into our late-night study tour, the lesson to take away from Melbourne’s transformation is about the process and not the result. Sydney and other cities would be wise to get past the desire to clone Melbourne’s laneways, and to concentrate instead on unleashing the same processes.
Perhaps we’ll all be moving north again as Sydney emerges as home to a thriving scene of boardroom bars, office cubicle galleries and stockbroker studios.
Originally published in The Age.
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Tags: art and recessions · creative initiative · cultural commentary · cultural policy · culture and recessions · DIY infrastructure · flinders lane · laneway bars · Melbourne · Melbourne 3000 · Melbourne in the 1990s · Melbourne laneways · NSW liquor laws · poker machines · Small bars · the age · upside of downturns · urban renewal · Victoria manufacturing collapse3 Comments