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Little Lon

Little Lon is now a vanished community. Its former margins are delineated by Little Lonsdale Street, intersected by Spring Street on its east and by Exhibition Street on the west, and bordered by La Trobe Street to its north and Lonsdale Street to the south. A residential precinct emerged here during the late 1840s and early 1850s, on what was then the north-eastern edge of Melbourne. It began as a straggling hamlet of two-roomed weatherboard cottages. As the century progressed it grew into a cheek-by-jowl place of working-class residence. Many of its inhabitants were Irish. By 1900 most of this immigrant first generation had been replaced by newer working-class arrivals: Chinese, German Jews, Lebanese, Italians. Little Lon had, by the 1910s and 1920s, become one of the most cosmopolitan city neighbourhoods in Australia. Increasingly, too, this place of residence had come to double as a workplace: a centre for furniture and clothing manufacture, for prostitution; a place of engineering works, warehouses, and small shops.

This evolving and multi-faceted community was targeted during the 1940s for 'slum penetrating' schemes of urban renewal. In 1948 the Commonwealth Government compulsorily acquired the blocks on either side of Little Lonsdale Street, between Spring and Exhibition streets. Most of the northern block to La Trobe Street was levelled in the late 1950s and 1960s to make way for the Commonwealth Centre. Known to Melburnians as the 'green latrine' because of its green ceramic cladding, this office block was demolished in the late 1980s and the site redeveloped in the 1990s as Spring Street Towers, an up-market residential enclave. The rest of the block was cleared in the 1970s for a massive telephone exchange building. To the south of Little Lonsdale Street demolition and redevelopment carved a similar swathe. This process was capped by the construction in the 1990s of soaring tower blocks at Little Lon's eastern and western ends: Casselden Place Commonwealth Government Offices, and the Telstra national headquarters.

Little Lon was swept away because the slum myths about it that had taken root in the general community precluded balanced appreciation of the actualities of this long-enduring and vibrant inner-city neighbourhood. Poet C.J. Dennis entrenched the stereotypes about Little Lon when - in his best-selling verses The songs of a sentimental bloke (1915) and The moods of Ginger Mick (1916) - he used Little Lon's 'low, degraded broots' to personify the 'scowlin' slums' of Australia's big cities. Dennis' Little Lon is an unsavoury place of 'dirt an' din', where low-life brutes 'deals it out wiv bricks an' boots'. Bourgeois reformers had long sought to 'civilise' the place. The Church of England's Mission to Streets and Lanes had begun in 1885 when lay sisters established a mission house (the genesis of the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Name) in Little Lonsdale Street. The Catholic Church was also active in Little Lon after Mary MacKillop started a slum mission here in 1891. A Salvation Army hall operated in the neighbourhood from 1897 as the 'Headquarters of Army Slum Work'. The Melbourne City Mission also established its headquarters here. Church activists damned Little Lon as Melbourne's chief red-light district. Their main target was Madame Brussels, who had run a brothel in the neighbourhood since 1876, and whom newspapers early in the 20th century dubbed the 'queen' of brotheldom. Little Lon was tagged 'the Street of Evil' by the Truth newspaper as it campaigned against prostitution during the 1930s.

Little Lon was unambiguously a poor neighbourhood, but outside stereotypes ring hollow. A more nuanced appreciation of neighbourhood life began to emerge from 1987-88 when Little Lon became the focus of the most ambitious urban archaeology project to have been undertaken to that date in Australia. The archaeological record from those excavations, still painstakingly being combined with documentary data, reveals modes of living which, notwithstanding inequality, were flourishing and enduring. Little Lon was clearly not, as the slummer genre would have it, an unstable mishmash of listless and directionless deviants. Nor were its inhabitants passive victims to poverty. The house sites were filled with personal possessions: from domestic ornaments, to china and glass, and tools of trade. The artefacts reveal a socially diverse neighbourhood, differentiated by social class, gender, and ethnicity.

Alan Mayne