Letter from leafy South Yarra

I'm in Melbourne for 48 hours to attend a funeral. Thanks to the generosity of family, I have a beautiful apartment all to myself, in leafy South Yarra. I should be grateful. But I don't like South Yarra. I use the word 'leafy' in a derogatory sense. I've long referred to the 'leafy North Shore' of Sydney with a sense of disdain. 

In the 90s, a friend of mine was house-sitting for me in Newtown. His mother, who lived in Mosman on Sydney's leafy North Shore, was worried that something sinister might happen to her son while he was staying in what she referred to as a 'Newtown shanty'. I had a vague sense of what she meant, but I'm getting a much clearer picture from the novel I'm reading at the moment.

It's the recently published Dark Fires Shall Burn by Anna Westbrook. The setting is Newtown in 1946, when it was one of the seediest neighbourhoods of Sydney. What fascinates me is the familiar places and the streets that are described. I walk those streets every day with little idea of what was going on in them 70 years ago.

There is the St Stephen's Church and the historic cemetery near my house before it was cut in half for the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park, which was the scene last Sunday of the annual Newtown Festival, which perhaps shows off present day Newtown more than anything else. A murder in the cemetery, I discovered from the book, is the reason the cemetery was reduced in size. 

I have nothing against leaves. In fact my street is one of the leafiest streets in Newtown. It's just where the leaves are located. What it is about the leafy North Shore and leafy South Yarra is that I feel alienated. They are full of families and private school students, and it's as if the norm is to live in a big house or nice apartment, have a family and children, and be able to afford to send them to private schools. None of that is me. 

Instead, my norm is more offbeat. I quite like the values and politics of a lot of the population of Newtown, although that is changing - not for the better - with gentrification. I've been living in Newtown since 1993, so - while I'm not exactly an old timer yet - I've seen part of the transformation. 

Reading Dark Fires Shall Burn, I am pleased that it is not Newtown 1946. But part of me does feel nostalgic for Newtown 1993. Often I walk down King Street and look for shops and businesses that I can remember were there in 1993. Sadly there are not many.

This is a theme that I could write a lot about. But I'm in Melbourne now, a bit pressed for time, and making plans for today and tomorrow. Tomorrow I have asked a friend who lives in Yarraville if she is free for lunch. I am hoping that she is free because it is a long time since I have seen her, and also because I might get to go to Yarraville, which I regard as not too dissimilar to Newtown.

In 1985, when I was at Melbourne University, I did a history subject called Approaches to the Built Environment, which was taught by Dr John Lack in a Footscray Council building not far from Yarraville. We talked a lot about the history of Yarraville and surrounding suburbs. In those days they were very working class and a bit seedy, whereas today Yarraville in particular is a hipster mecca like Newtown.

This morning I am going to a funeral home in Brighton. The nearest train station is Bentleigh, a suburb that fascinates me at the moment. Recently I spent some time with a friend who grew up in Bentleigh when it was one of those forgettable suburbs that nobody would consider travelling to. A few weeks later, I read an article by the demographer Bernard Salt about hipsters on the move. In Melbourne, they're moving from Fitzroy to what he calls the 'Hills Hoist heartland' of East Bentleigh.  So I'm rather pleased that Bentleigh is on my schedule for today.