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One of the most assiduous and distinctive activities of Melbourne people since the beginning of European settlement has been community-building. Immigration meant the cutting of ties with extended family and community perhaps forever. Most rural immigrants came from villages and regions where their ancestors had dwelt for hundreds, even thousands of years. People traditionally derived their sense of self from their sense of place; immigration to Australia now thrust people into a world of strangers. While some, especially Highland Scots, came as extended families, and others came with siblings or single family members, many came quite alone and had to create new ties with new people.

From the beginning the new settlers devoted much time and energy to the creation of ties with others. Early Melbourne was meant to be little more than a port for the pastoral industry upcountry, but settlers across all classes established institutions such as clubs, newspapers, social activities and philanthropy which bound people in association and created community feeling. 'Good society' was quick to emerge among the scramble for quick returns from wool; at the other end of the social scale the poor supported each other through the difficulties of pioneering. In the 1850s pregnant homeless single women received better informal care from their neighbours of Canvas Town or the Collingwood Flat than their successors would in the more sophisticated and organised 1870s.

The gold rush generation was remarkable for its literacy, energy and talent. Melbourne, unlike any other Australian colony, suddenly took possession of a ready-made middle class which at once set about founding institutions and practices which made community. Doctors founded a Medical Society and a learned journal, for instance, seeking to transplant the professional life of Edinburgh or Dublin in antipodean soil. Church-building provided instant magnets for community in new suburbs of the expanding metropolis. Most of all, the concentration of middle-class talent in Melbourne prompted the emergence of voluntarism as the preferred mode of social welfare, in comparison to the intervention of the state, which was the aftermath of the convict system in New South Wales or Tasmania. Melbourne's Benevolent Asylum was supported by public subscription, as were its hospitals. Independent schools were always the preferred mode of education for all but the poor - a cultural preference which delayed the provision of any state secondary education until 1905, and which curtailed the extension of high schools into those areas traditionally served by the private sector until the late 1950s.

Community formation fell into two broad patterns: institution-based community which was portable, and informal community which was spontaneous and fixed in place. Early colonial life was characterised by high geographical mobility. After taking the immense step of coming so far, settlers continued moving until they found their niche. The poor moved the most, many families a number of times each year following work and escaping debts. The first condition of respectability was the securing of a regular, permanent income which enabled a family to put down roots. Both upward and downward mobility were expressed in residential address. Great social mobility in the colony meant more frequent moves - to better or worse homes, to more salubrious addresses.

The poor often moved from one similar street to another. In each they would find the instant street community of the working-class district. This came of the forced intimacy of the slums, from overcrowded housing with thin party walls where privacy was at a premium. Good neighbourliness was often the surest path to survival: people shared food, soapsuds, clothing, tools and utensils. People who lived through the 1930s depression insist that they 'never went hungry' in a place like Richmond, because 'someone would always give you something'. 'Bad eggs' (criminals, heavy drinkers and bullies) might find it more difficult to profit from this informal social welfare network, but their long-suffering wives and children might well be saved by kindly neighbours. Most streets had a woman who could deliver a baby, nurse the sick or lay out the dead or even perform an abortion.

Most interaction occurred in the street or at the corner shop or at the pub. Conversation was one of life's few free pleasures and talking and telling stories were most people's greatest recreation. Many extended families met every Friday night just to 'yarn' and play cards, perhaps have a drink or a cup of tea. Even by the 1950s, a short journey to the local supermarket could take the gregarious hours as they stopped to 'mag away' with everyone they met. Inhibitions about talking to strangers and talking about personal matters to non-family members, which had been growing since the end of the 18th century in urban life, were last to disappear in the back streets of the industrial suburbs. Yet with the enforced intimacy went conflict, malicious gossip and occasional savage violence; feuds between neighbours and extended family 'mobs' could be legendary. Some neighbours were keen to 'dob in' sustenance cheats during the depression, and 'community' did not deter the light-fingered from stealing from their just as needy fellows.

Australian Rules Football enriched community life and gave a suburb a tribal community identity which was dramatised each Saturday during Melbourne's dreariest months. Football lit up thousands of lives, bonded people to fellow barrackers, created an illusion of 'family' which integrated young and old, male and female, winner and loser. Women and girls could be quite as fanatical as men and boys, and supporters created subcultures of songs, poems, craft work and social activities. 'Your team' was something you took with you and gave you a sense of tribal belonging no matter how far you climbed the corporate ladder: Collingwood support, for instance, remains very strong among the Catholic social elite.

For those who lived in larger houses and who could afford privacy, 'community' had to be found in more formal ways. Suburban pioneers worked hard from the beginning to make each settlement a distinct community. Even the most affluent conceived of new settlements as closed communities which were self-governing. Melbourne was divided into counties and parishes, towns and eventually metropolitan cities which elected municipal governments: in other words, the village and town model was re-created as the 'natural' mode of urban organisation and governance. Services and institutions were therefore focused on the local community rather than the greater metropolis: the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was a later creation to meet needs for sewering and water supply, which had to be planned at a metropolitan rather than local level.

It is significant how deliberately suburban pioneers created 'community' through institutions. The builders of Melbourne were intensely sociable, forming clubs, dancing assemblies, church social life, sporting organisations, debating and literary societies, and of course welfare organisations. If immigrants were intent on making money as quickly as possible, they were also just as committed to building a new society. Immense quantities of private time were devoted to attending meetings, travelling to distant functions, writing letters, organising adults and children, all in addition to the round of family and social visiting. Face-to-face interaction was fundamental to the conduct of business and commerce: technology later would reduce this need for personal contact, as would formal welfare infrastructures replace the need for private charity, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries this was still a society in transition from the (albeit often erratic) obligations of mutual dependence, patronage and charity of the pre-industrial ranked society.

Social mobility and the demands of personal privacy inevitably focused the better-off on institutional 'community', and the single most important source of community in the suburbs was the churches. For many families, social life for all members centred entirely on the church, and all denominations developed groups, functions and activities which absorbed the time and energies of boys and girls, adolescents, adults, the married and the single and the old. The spiritual component varied from group to group and church to church, but the church 'community' life bound parishioners to it for temporal as well as spiritual support. Families who eschewed organised religion and its institutions were at risk of social isolation and even financial disadvantage. References and contacts 'from someone at the church' found jobs, business deals and useful connections. Churches informally oversaw courtship and married life: denominations like the Methodists and Baptists, which disapproved of dancing, were always quick to establish tennis clubs to provide a supervised venue for courtship. The church community set and policed standards of behaviour: personal disgrace was magnified always by what people 'at church' might say. Parsonage families were expected to be exemplary, and the private refrain of many such a home 'on display' was 'But what will people say?' At the same time, the bereaved found comfort in their loss from their church community, the sick found visitors and helpers, the unmarried found 'family' and the lonely found companionship.

Sport was to become the least morally charged arena of community life. Churches, factories and large workplaces fielded cricket and football teams for men, netball for girls, tennis for all. Picnics at scenic locations, great Sunday School picnics (usually held by Protestants on Melbourne Cup Day to divert attention from the temptations of the turf), concerts, dramatic societies - all provided fun and often an opportunity for self-expression and creativity denied most in their working lives. Lawn bowling clubs and the Melbourne working-class game of trugo became vital social centres for communities, especially when they provided opportunities for social drinking denied by strict liquor licensing hours.

As people moved further up the social scale and as church membership fell away, especially in the second half of the 1960s, private schools came to offer a form of 'imagined community' for many who had no other institutional links. While those who remained active in 'old-boy' or 'old-girl' networks might be a minority, one of the features of Melbourne life has become the psychic significance of the 'old school tie' to its fortunate wearers. The more socially prestigious the school, the more effective the 'imagined community'. Towards the end of the 20th century, school managements deliberately cultivated conceptions of the 'school family' to encourage fundraising.

If such community creation appears contrived, it is nonetheless a practical response to a society where community links are faltering under dissolving geographical and social boundaries. Human beings have voted with their feet since the Industrial Revolution, seeking the anonymity and freedom of the city. If people want community, they want privacy and individual space just as much. With affluence, the old street community of the slums was quickly left behind. In suburbs, shared interests of parents in kindergartens and schools draw younger families into community work and interests, but the childless are inevitably excluded. In middle-class, especially inner suburbs in the process of gentrification, community activism has arisen to protect residential amenity and heritage streetscapes. The cynical view is that the urban heritage movement has been mobilised in defence of its own equity; the positive view sees a revival of community activities in the arts, historical societies and street festivals.

As Anglo-Celtic Melbourne became fully modern, nostalgia has given the older times of closer living a rosier hue than they perhaps deserved. Each wave of immigration has created new subcultures of ethnic communities on the long historical path to assimilation: again provoking a certain envy in older Australians who have forgotten that their ancestors passed through the same phases. The Melbourne Jewish community did an immense amount to ease the transition to safety and peace for traumatised Holocaust survivors who made this city their home. There is even now, each year in Melbourne, a Buchenwald Ball for the survivors of the concentration camp.

But in many ways the most important growing community in Melbourne at the opening of the new millennium is the Koorie community, growing both in numbers and in their impact on Melbourne life. The Kulin people had been quickly driven from their lands by the European settlers and through the long dark years of confinement on the reserves and missions, few indigenous people felt safe to live in the city. Those who dared lived a twilight life, always hiding from the authorities lest their children be taken from them. The work of the Aboriginal Advancement League and other organisations from the 1960s provided a focus for the rebuilding of Koorie Melbourne. Koorie leaders, activists, artists, writers, academics and professionals have a growing profile in public life. Indigenous people now have a visible presence in the city such as they have not had since the 1840s. The community is broad, supportive and closely woven. The indigenous people of Victoria survived their near-complete destruction by holding on to their genealogies, their oral history and their pride. Now the traditional custodians of this place are finally able to return.

Janet Mccalman