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(3065, 2 km N, Yarra City)

One of Melbourne's oldest districts, Fitzroy is often referred to as the city's 'first suburb', with allotments being auctioned in the area as early as 1839, only four years after European occupation. Originally the FitzRoy ward of the Melbourne City Council, named after the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles FitzRoy, it was separated in 1858 to become one of the smallest geographical municipalities in Australia (a little over 360 ha), while being at various times in its history also one of the most densely populated.

In the 19th century Fitzroy was an attractive residential location for 'city gentlemen', the bankers and merchants for whom town houses were built on the wide thoroughfares between Gertrude Street and Victoria Parade. But it was also a favoured location for industrial manufacturing, such as the boot and clothing trades and metal industries, employing boot-makers, seamstresses and labourers. These workers lived in more cramped accommodation, one- and two-roomed terraces, with few if any facilities.

Following the Marvellous Melbourne decade of the 1880s, Fitzroy felt the brunt of the economic depression of the early 1890s. Many of the wealthier residents left the suburb, while those who remained experienced increasing unemployment and the consequent poverty.

It was during this era that the name 'notorious Fitzroy' became synonymous with crime, poverty and immorality in Melbourne. For much of the 20th century, the extensive newspaper coverage of the suburb concentrated on the 'shadows' of Fitzroy, with risqué reports of gangsterism dominating headlines. At the heart of this publicity lay the reality of poverty, ill health and the substandard housing conditions that had such a negative impact on the daily lives of Fitzroy residents. During the great depression of the 1930s, Fitzroy experienced chronic unemployment, with the percentage of unemployed 'male bread winners' (33%) being the highest of all municipalities in Victoria.

The 19th-century housing stock was falling into a poor state of repair, with tenants struggling with landlords and property-owners in an effort to have dwellings adequately maintained. This situation was exacerbated in the immediate post-World War II decades. With the arrival of European immigrants, Fitzroy's apartment and boarding houses (many of them the former 'gentlemen's residences' of the 19th century) often accommodated families within single rooms.

The demographic landscape of Fitzroy altered dramatically after 1945. For instance, in 1947 the Greek-born population of Fitzroy was 261, while the number of Italian-born residents was 502. By 1966 the figures were 4261 and 4720 respectively. An increasing number of immigrants from other European countries such as Yugoslavia and Spain also settled in the area. These groups also altered the commercial and street life of the suburb, bringing not only new foods and language to the suburb, but also espresso bars, cabarets and gambling clubs, which flourished in Brunswick and Gertrude streets from the mid-1950s to the 1970s.

Fitzroy, along with other inner suburbs, was subject to government slum-clearance programs in the postwar era, with the Atherton Gardens Public Housing estate dominating the skyline from the 1970s. Its four 20-storey towers replaced the houses of many residents, along with the 'migrant clubs', and some hotels and commercial businesses.

Fitzroy's relatively strong Koorie community has been integral to the suburb's social and cultural fabric for much of the 20th century. Initially the focus for the Koorie community centred around extended family and religious organisations such as the Church of Christ Aboriginal Mission in Gore Street (established in 1944). But as the political and social consciousness of the Koorie community found a public voice from the late 1960s onwards, autonomous social justice and welfare organisations such as the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service and Victorian Aboriginal Health Service were established in Fitzroy.

In the early 1970s Fitzroy was suddenly rediscovered as a desirable place to live, attracting an increasing number of university students, home renovators and artists. As with the earlier arrival of communities from war-torn Europe, this new group of 'immigrants' altered both the social and economic fabric of Fitzroy. But unlike those who had come before them, this new group did not add to the mix of the suburb so much as gradually replace those who could no longer afford to live in an area that became increasingly affluent in the 1980s and 1990s.

Fitzroy North (3068, Yarra City, Moreland City) is primarily residential and lies a further 2 km north of Fitzroy. Significant commercial centres are focused around Queens Parade and Nicholson Street; the Edinburgh Gardens recreation reserve dates from the 1880s, and the Brunswick Street Oval was the former home of the Fitzroy Football Club.

Twenty-first-century Fitzroy is a very different location from that of previous decades. While the Atherton Gardens estate remains the first home of newly arrived immigrants, older ethnic communities have largely left the suburb. Many of its hotels have also gone, either demolished or transformed into art galleries or bars that cater to a new clientele. The Koorie community lives largely outside the suburb, although the Aboriginal Health Service in Fitzroy is still its cultural hub. And while Brunswick and Gertrude streets are vibrant commercial strips, they cater as much or more for tourists as they do for the residents of the suburb.

Tony Birch

Cutten History Committee of the Fitzroy History Society, Fitzroy: Melbourne's first suburb, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1991. Details