Down on Docklands

Is it time to embrace the ugly duckling 10 minutes from downtown Melbourne? asks Oslo Davis.

Have we all been too hard on Docklands? For a few years now Melburnians have taken bucket loads of pleasure in bullying this new suburb by the sea, like a four year-old might his baby brother. It’s a fun game, and, like good bullying, one that doesn’t require any actual real familiarity with the victim.

Most people I know wouldn’t go to Docklands in a blue fit. Why would you? The place is full of empty fusion restaurants, a Ferris wheel in the middle of nowhere and cheap all-day parking, isn’t it? If Docklands were a typeface it’d be Comic Sans. A biscuit, the saccharin Orange Slice — not your first pick from the plate.

Even our Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said that “At the micro level it doesn’t work” and that it lacks the “social glue” of other suburbs.

Swinburne University’s housing researcher Professor Terry Burke, an obvious fan of action filmmaker Michael Bay, spoke for all of us when he said “they should blow it up and start again”.

But there’s got to be something redeeming about the tarted up, multi-billion dollar former West Melbourne Swamp. Doyle and Professor Burke’s comments are from 2009 — it’s now home to around 6000 people, 32,000 people work there and the average age of residents is a funky 31, five years younger than the Melbourne average. Maybe it’s not so bad now?

To find out if that’s the case I actually went to Docklands to talk to people who had consciously made an effort to go there, to do some sketching and to see if there was any basis for all the negativity.

My walk started at Southern Cross Station on a fine mid-week winter’s day and followed Collins Street over Batman Hill down into Docklands proper. Bruce Armstrong’s eagle Bunjil, perched in the middle of noisy Melbourne traffic, looked over a horde of grim faced, black coated office workers. They were on their way to their Docklands office cubicles and looked like an updated version of John Brack’s famous painting Collins St., 5 pm.

I joined them as they walked past Places Victoria, which greedily occupies one half of the old Railway Goods Shed. It’s a swankily refurbished place that looks like MI5 from one of the recent Bond films. Places Victoria is the government’s property development agency that oversees Docklands, which they say is only half built. By 2025 the whole place will be completed and will have cost $17.5 billion.

I then cut across to the water, passing public art by Emily Floyd and Mikala Dwyer, a basketball court and a community services building unoriginally called The Hub. A bit further on is Hortus, a short term Seven Seeds cafe rudely blocking John Kelly’s Cow Up A Tree.

It’s a stunningly beautiful blue morning on the dock; the yachts, the distant Bolte Bridge pylons and gigantic white cumulonimbus are perfectly reflected across a radiant harbour. Then the mood is shattered when I see a nearby seagull pecking at a sizeable puddle of what looks like human chunder.

At Hortus I accidentally meet artist Mark Stoner. Mark and his friend Peter are in neck-to-toe cycling lycra and have stopped for a flat white. Both are even handed in their assessment of Docklands, while acknowledging the place’s planning mistakes (Dockland’s stadium, too cut off from the CBD, too much land given over to developers).

“‘There’s no future in blame,” Mark says. “It will evolve, grow. It’s only been around for a few years. Mistakes are an inevitable part of getting it right.”

In 2011, Mark completed the The River Runs Through It installation near ANZ’s headquarters in Docklands. It’s one of the few responsive works of public art there that doesn’t look like it was just dropped in by aliens. Mark and Peter make me ashamed of hating Docklands so much, and I resolve to seek whats good about the place.

Harbour Town, Dockland’s shopping mall further west, brings me back to earth. Pauline, Anne and Jessie, pensioners just off a coach from South Australia, are looking for a place to sit and eat. “Adelaide is busier than this on a Sunday!”, says one.They all laugh and roll their eyes. “So dead!”

Shoppers at Harbour Town look miserable, lost. Outside Tunzafun, a video game centre just down from a glow-in-the-dark mini golf course, seven or eight Chinese tourists fumble with a big map. Further on an empty men’s clothing store sells clothes for men who, it seems, still think it’s 1997. A shop assistant smiles at me, but she looks bored.

The hard times suffered by the retailers here is well documented, but all things considered this mall is no worse than other malls across Melbourne. It’s just more out of the way.

Out the other side of the Town is the 120-metre-high Melbourne Star Ferris wheel, the Icehouse skating rink and the Wonderland Spiegeltent. On this weekday only Costco seems to have any significant foot traffic.

The Wonderland Fun Park, a sorry looking sideshow alley, is closed until the weekend and a nearby life size T-Rex (not listed on the public art map) is partially falling apart. Someone’s put an empty bottle of Bundy in its mouth.

Walking around I meet Lyn who’s on the hunt for a long evening dress. Lyn’s down from the country and shopping here because the “city’s too busy”. Lyn reckons this Harbour Town is not as good as the Harbour Town in Surfer’s Paradise, and I wonder if she thinks the Harbour Towns are part of a chain.

Near a bronze sculpture of an embarrassingly saucy-looking Kylie Minogue in NewQuay I talk to Queenslanders Kyle and Chanese, a young couple who used to live in Docklands but have returned to see “how the old neighbourhood is going”.

Kyle’s memory of living there is of the wind, and he sends the mood of our pleasant chat into darker territories when he unexpectedly mentions that he was standing on his balcony the same day the wind blew that fence down on Swanston street, killing three people.

Today though, they’re here for the Wheel.

“Do you know how much it is?” When I tell Chanese it’s $34 she looks at Kyle and says “Each?”

Docklands was famous for underground rave parties in the 1990s. Thousands of clubbers in tracksuits danced in sheds that later would be razed for apartment blocks. Near one of the remaining sheds I talk to and old Romanian man, also wearing a tracksuit, who’s got a fishing line in the water. He shows me lots and lots of photos on his old Nokia of the brim and mullet he’s caught there. I’m amazed at a picture of 7kg snapper, and amazed even more at the massive storage capacity of his old phone. “I’m here three, four hours a day. Even caught salmon,” he says. “You like to see picture of salmon?”

Victoria Harbour, a newer section of Docklands, where Collins and Bourke Streets literally meet, is still being developed by Lend Lease, and there are a lot of cocky construction guys hanging around. For my money Victoria Harbour is the prettier side of Docklands (I like the weird green grassy knoll especially), but the young guns working in real estate marketing have taken over: billboards scream hyperbole and bad grammar alongside poorly Photoshopped pictures of utopian living.

It reads a bit like your cashed-up bogan brother-in-law trying to get you to come round and check out his awesome new deck. A poster advertises ‘‘‘A playground for dreamers — for little people and big’’, and for a second I think they’re building a park for dwarves.

Among the construction mess is a library, Docklands’ highlight and my destination for the day. The little-known lending library, clunkily named The Dock, is a $23 million collaboration between Melbourne City Council, the state government and Lend Lease. It opened a year ago and has ping pong tables, a 3D printer, a cafe, free Wi-Fi, video games and a gallery. There are books there too, all new.

Reclining in one of the Modernist chairs on the top floor of the library, cocooned in the warm womb of a state-of-the-art glass and wood designer building, it’s easy to imagine yourself as one of the filthy rich who can afford a luxurious Docklands penthouse with million dollar harbour views. All I need now, I think to myself, eyes closed, afternoon sun licking my cheeks, is a cigar, some Scotch and one of those foot massage machines.

My head’s a little groggy from all the walking and air and stuff, but it’s clear enough for me to realise, ironically, that what I am most liking about daggy new Docklands is that it is so unpopular. It’s an oasis just ten minutes by a free tram from the intensity of downtown Melbourne. It isn’t exactly tonnes of fun at the moment, but it will get better, as Mark Stoner said. Better than Adelaide on a Sunday at least.

Words and drawings copyright Oslo Davis 2015. A slightly different version of this originally appeared in The Sunday Age.

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