Some of Melbourne’s laneways have become highly successful, transformed from forgotten back streets into prime real estate.
Urban planner Gilbert Rochecouste and I stop for lunch in tiny Postal Lane in the City Centre, named because it runs along the back of the gracious old General Post Office, built in 1859, the building’s shell retained to house an upscale shopping center. We slurp noodles in a ramen bar overlooked by ancient signs that have been left on the solid brick walls; one says “Beware of motor cars” while another bids passersby to “Commit No Nuisance”.
The laneways have certainly come a long way from their lowest point in the 1990s, when Gilbert was first hired by the City of Melbourne to “reposition” Flinders Lane. Once the heart of the city’s rag trade, it had fallen into anonymity but today is a lively cluster of boutique hotels, coffee shops and bars. “Many laneways were just places to dump rubbish, do drugs, throw up or other unsightly things. They were a Sleeping Beauty ready to awake,” he says. “The lack of vehicle traffic was an opportunity to use them to link up the public transport network. There was a three-pronged attack in the city center. The council extended footpaths, calmed traffic, planted trees, and put in public art, beautiful lighting and signage. Owners were given support in “Postcode 3000” to build apartments.
“Finally, we got rid of the “6 o’clock swill”. We had dozens of pubs but the liquor laws meant they all closed at 6pm, putting thousands of drunk men onto the streets. Suddenly you could go for a meal and, instead of having to bring your own, you could buy a glass of wine. That was a radical thing and a big shift in nighttime culture, with young entrepreneurs opening up bars and small venues in the laneways. That created a domino effect, a real revolution. With more people living in the city because of Postcode 3000, we reached a critical mass.”
Already burdened with graffiti, the laneways were a prime target for young street artists who started experimenting with stencils. In 2001, the City of Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions scheme was launched to try and bring order to the anarchy by encouraging the use of laneways for public art. A building owner can now apply to the City of Melbourne to commission street art, or help protect existing art. Artists are encouraged to work with property owners to make their artwork legal and to create spaces for new art. Graffiti ‘tagging’ – spraying your signature on top of existing art, or just on a wall – remains illegal.
Curious for the real Melbourne? This Truly Wonderful hotel is a great base in the City Centre!