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Street Life

The introduction of the motor car in the early 20th century marked a line between two discrete eras of the city, before and after the car conquered the street. The shopping mall, the department store and the office block have subsumed many of the activities once the domain of the street. The space between home, workplace and shop has been accentuated by the growth of dormitory suburbs and the cult of privacy. In the process, the street has become more of a transportation corridor than a social space. But while disappearance of a lusty and frenetic traditional street life has been directly attributed to the effects of the automobile, transformations in the way Melburnians experience public city life are the result not just of changes in transport technology and city growth, but also of broader contests over the street and of ideas about its proper use.

The regulation of nuisances (animals, smell and waste, noise, spitting) and the provision of street amenities (street trees, street lighting, public toilets, drinking fountains) have made Melbourne's streets cleaner, safer and more enjoyable for its residents. Though citizens were liable under the Sydney Police Act 1833 for riding across footpaths, in the first years after the laying down of Melbourne's grid there were barely such things as footpaths at all. The physical state of Melbourne's streets were from the earliest days a measure of the town's progress. From the Horse-Drawn to the Motor Age, the demands for social and circulatory functions were in constant competition, and changing street surfaces and architectural aesthetics were closely linked to the changing social function of the street itself. Street repair may have depended on developing technological possibilities, but it was also at different times driven by social, sanitary and civic aims. By implication, street repair and traffic regulation were associated with the growing segregation of the footpath as a pedestrian zone, subject to its own official and unwritten protocols.

The 1840s saw many streets impassable in wet weather, particularly Elizabeth Street, which ran along the course of an old creek. Not only were pedestrians and horses retarded by the frightful conditions, but shopkeepers also soon complained of the dust in their shops and the spoiling of their goods. The stumps of old trees were a further danger to traffic throughout the first decade. By the 1850s most of the central streets, such as Collins, Bourke, Lonsdale and Swanston streets, though still dangerous in places, were at least made passable for general street traffic. In the 1870s many streets were still in a dangerous condition. Footbridges constructed over water channels were often defective or too short to offer the pedestrian much protection during heavy rain. In March 1881 a wood block pavement was opened to traffic at the intersection of Collins and Swanston streets, and was hailed as a clean and noiseless solution to problems of street surfacing. By 1907 the dust nuisance still bedevilled the city, and a team of 40 water carts and 20 hydrant men were employed to allay the constant nuisance.

For much of the 19th century many public streets were being used as no more than extensions of timber yards, warehouses and workshops, but a stricter delineation of zones for pedestrians, general street traffic and stationary vehicles was being formed. The blurred boundaries between public and private space extended to smell and sound. The cry of the hawker, for example, once insinuated itself through the open doors of the Swanston Street florist, over the windowsills and thresholds of Bourke Street shopkeepers, penetrating the inner sanctum of the stockbroker and the solicitor, the Collins Street banking chambers and consulting rooms, and intruding into the club room, the hospital ward and the warehouse. The margin between inner and outer was more fluid when, on pleasant days, single-glazed windows or wooden-slatted shutters were kept open (were indeed openable), and manually operated doors were chocked ajar with a wedge or a broom handle.

The 19th-century city street was a workplace for a host of messenger boys, touts, street photographers, bill snipers, sandwich-board advertisers, orderly boys and newsboys. If Bourke Street could lay claim to being the Saturday- and Sunday-night feature, doing the Block on the shady side of Collins Street from Swanston to Elizabeth streets was by the 1870s the fashionable promenade, a sophisticated ritual of seeing and being seen, of claiming a bourgeois public space that stood in opposition to the disorder and uncertainty of Little Lon and the back lanes. Outside Collins Street's strict spatial and temporal confines of respectability, women in the city risked deviating from the socially acceptable. The social sequestration of the footpath as a male-dominated site made some public streets off-limits to women while encouraging in other streets a fear of harassment or breaches of decorum, reinforcing the fact that women have not historically enjoyed a freedom of the streets comparable to that of men.

In the mid-1850s the street stall had become a laudable feature of street life, and from the 1860s to the 1920s, bootblacks, coffee stalls, saveloy stands and newspaper and ice-cream stalls were licensed by the city council at fixed pitches on central streets. Arcades and subways challenged the rigid geometry of the grid plan, facilitating at the same time greater mobility and stricter social control of what were only semi-public domains linked intrinsically to a burgeoning consumer culture. From the latter decades of the 19th century, the developing technologies of the plate-glass window, airconditioning and electricity helped to close off the interior from the exterior world. Municipal concern to create an unobstructed public corridor hastened the growing impermeability of this interface. The streets were cleared of perceived obstructions and, though supposedly easier to navigate, were now being cleared of many traditional social activities. Shopkeepers turned to the interior with the developing techniques of window display and artistic artificial lighting, as well as the new spaces of the department store. Pedestrians were lured off streets that in many cases had become viewing platforms for the shops they fringed, an apotheosis reached in the latter decades of the 20th century by the Bourke Street Mall and the partial closure of Swanston Street to traffic.

By 1912 vehicular traffic had become so congested, even when stopped at intersections, that pedestrians were forced to 'dodge across through as best they can'. In the early 1920s safety zones were constructed at central intersections, while jaywalking (noted as an American term) and the habit of pedestrians standing on the roadway waiting for trams were formally discouraged. Mechanical traffic lights were already in use in some American cities, but in Melbourne the white-gloved hand signals of the traffic police were favoured for their ability to react to the contingencies of street traffic flow. By 1925 'keep to the left' was the rule for pedestrians, with white lines painted down the middle of footpaths.

The unruly crowd that gathered around the political speaker or the religious preacher, popular in the 1860s around the Eastern Market in Bourke Street and in the slum lanes of the 1890s, was pushed out of the central city to Yarra Bank and indoor venues. While weekly processions and demonstrations possessed the grid in cultural, religious and political symbolism, the congregation of idle crowds was discouraged both through municipal and police ordinance and surveillance and in the deliberate lack of provision of a public forum or city square to replace the marketplaces of the first decades of the settlement.

In the early 1850s Samuel Mossman had proudly described in Bourke Street on a summer evening the 'crowds of noisy urchins ... playing jing-a-ring'. In 1876 'mobs' of up to 50 boys played football in the middle of Lonsdale Street, 'unconcerned of the passers-by, who may congratulate themselves at their escaping them unhurt', and it was a common sight into the 20th century to see lads from factories and shops playing games in lanes during lunch hour. But by the 1880s the use of the street for public recreation and performance, as theatre or playground, was directly attacked by the exponents not of free circulation but of self-improvement, respectability and rational recreation. The discouragement of loitering had a paradoxical effect on the provision of what came to be demanded as an essential civic facility: public seating. Windowsills of city buildings were set with iron spikes as a private initiative to discourage sitters, and the availability of municipal street seating was seen by the 1890s as contrary to the aim of preventing street obstruction and loitering.

The discretionary power of the move-on laws made them as much a means of mapping a specific moral geography and a weapon against undesirable social elements as a means of aiding free circulation. Just as the physical determinism of the slum-clearance movement sought to clear the visible manifestations of poverty and moral threat, the fear of physical confrontation had a range of people - the beggar, the vagrant, the prostitute, the idle, the juvenile, the insane and the elderly - swept up in the net of discretionary regulation. Street life came to be viewed with suspicion, allied to deviant and pathological behaviour, demanding regulation and control.

The Age of 24 February 1911 outlined the lord mayor's scheme to rid the city of objectionable street characters. Over 80 years later, the same paper reported on the 'Police move to curb begging in the city'. But while many current-day politicians and city promoters revile street begging, alternative attitudes to the democracy of public space reject its stereotyping and criminalisation. While gated suburban enclaves by implication denigrate shared public space and are premised on ideals of exclusivity, designers of many new suburbs, with their lack of any footpaths at all, have ceded the public street to the motor car.

The campaign for street improvements that saw the introduction of a range of facilities and amenities in the 19th and early 20th centuries is continued through the provision of better seating, tactile tiles for people with impaired vision, public art spaces, performance pedestals and municipal subsidies for outdoor cafés. By the 1990s open-air eating had become de rigueur, though forced in many cases to compete with the extremes of climate and the noise of traffic. The extended use of the streets for commercial enterprises is matched by a decline of other public amenities. Individual groups attempt to reassert their place in the social and urban sphere through Take Back the Night and Pride marches, safe-city programs and safety audits.

In 1915 Frederic C. Spurr had recommended the introduction of open-air cafés in Melbourne's wide streets. The ensuing decades saw occasional regret expressed at the dearth of street cafés. In 1933 A.L. Kent, manager of the Oriental Hotel, outlined a scheme for outdoor tables at his Collins Street establishment, an idea lauded in the press as a picturesque Continental innovation, which would match Melbourne with Paris, Monte Carlo and Vienna. Four years later boulevard cafés were again supported in the press, and Melbourne was urged to give a lead where it spiritlessly lagged behind, despite its favourable climate. In the 1950s J.T. Burke, Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne, continued the debate by advocating the civilised ritual of eating at open-air restaurants. The new café society of the 1950s created a slow-spreading, muted sensation of change. The Melbourne of the 1950s was still very much a culturally insular society, though the broadening of its horizons was reflected in the revitalisation of contemporary art, the advent of television, high-rise architecture and its role as host to the 1956 Olympic Games. The city's lack of expression or soul, its 'wild dreary drabness', which had so repelled E.M. Clowes in her On the wallaby (1911), taunted generations of Melburnians who strived to experience 'that something different'. In earlier years this quality may have been found in small measure in the bohemian clubs and the byways of Little Bourke Street.

As Melbourne slowly refashioned itself in an image of European sophistication, the Herald announced in December 1954 that Mirka's Café would put tables in the street. In February 1958, Leon Ress, chairman and managing director of the Oriental Hotel Co., obtained permission from the Melbourne City Council to place chairs and tables in Collins Street for a trial period of three months, with public risk indemnity. The practice continued under tacit agreement, and the colourful umbrella café of nineteen blue all-weather tables placed between the plane trees and parking meters even featured on British television as a tourist attraction. In 1960 the Police Traffic Branch issued instructions to clear the footpath, and health inspectors deemed the outdoor furniture an interference to pedestrian and other traffic and an obstruction to unloading vehicles. In addition to the Oriental Hotel, other pavement cafés had sprung up in Bourke Street near King Street (at the New Maple Bar Coffee Lounge and Gibby's Coffee Lounge), as well as at the Mimosa Coffee Lounge opposite the Oriental. Newspapers howled with front-page outrage and embarrassment: 'will this city ever grow up?' The MCC slowly acceded to the desire for a 'continental touch' in Melbourne's streets. Overregulation and resistance to change seem foreign in a contemporary world, where the habitué of the pavement café can brave all but the bleakest of Melbourne's variable weather, sheltered from the roar of the street traffic by plastic barriers and warmed with gas pavement heaters.

In some ways Melbourne's streets are very much the same as they have ever been. People still complain of traffic congestion. The street still remains an important site for popular celebration or demonstration. Since the official suppression of jaywalking in the 1920s, police have regularly blitzed the recidivist pedestrian. Shared street concepts challenge the traditional engineering of streets that maximise vehicular efficiency at the expense of the street as a catalyst for social interaction. Lawless pedestrians were again targeted in August 1995, though the battle between the car and the pedestrian seems in more recent times to be overshadowed by the symptoms of road rage, as drivers physically clash for spatial supremacy. In 1989 the majority of pedestrian casualties were in the over-60 and school-aged groups. Pedestrians are pragmatically advised that their best chance of safety is to avoid going abroad at busy times altogether.

Andrew May

Brown-May, Andrew, Melbourne street life, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 1998. Details