The Age’s oddly named (Melbourne) Magazine got all gooey about Gertrude St on Friday, with a big glossy article by Stephanie Wood about ‘the hottest strip in Melbourne’. I ride Gertrude twice a day, favour takeaway from Tandoori Times, and am a general enthusiast. Things are moving fast down there, too fast for my liking. My barber man at Dr Follicles was a bit sniffy on Saturday that his place was not new and hip enough to get featured (he told me that Alia’s been renovated and changed hands, and again commended Little Rebel Bar to me). Radio Bar looks most promising — intelligence please.
Until recently I have loved Gertrude unconditionally: Crumpler, Dr Java under the previous management, Dr Follicles, the organic bakery, the Polynesian waiter at Arcadia in his pāreu? lavalava? laplap?. Now it’s more chichi than Chanel and the memory of Squizzy Taylor is fading faster than ever. The organic bakery has morphed into something similar but different. Whereas Dr Follicles was previously flanked by a grocer’s, it’s now flanked by an Aeosp concept store and a very swish breakfastry working on a liquor licence. Too many dress shops, the dresses too expensive too.
I would hardly even be surprised if Builders Arms and Yelza owners, Tracey Lester and Noel Fermanis tarted up what may be one of the most untartableuppable pubs in the inner city, the Renown Tavern, when Tracey’s finished with the Carlton Hotel, and has sold Yelza for $2.5 million. I used to buy VB there when I was Mario of Mario’s nextdoor neighbour in Napier St — I was a bit coy about taking Stella in a pub which was previously named Squizzy’s for a good reason. But it was a bit rich for Tracey to profess disenchantment at the marginalisation of Gertrude St’s “characters” by gentrification. Check out the renovations to the Arms and you’ll see what I mean. Check out Yelza and it will hit you in the face.
The thoroughly researched article has some interesting history and other tidbits of information which I propose to share with you in summary form, because I don’t think the article is available on line. It’s a good article, and worth getting a hold of if you can (Issue #24, October 06, came out, I think, with Friday’s Age).
The nuns who are a regular feature of the area around Rose Chong’s and the Builders’ Arms with their blue-edge white habits are from Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity. This you won’t find in the article, but according to Wikipedia, “journalists have estimated” that the order has an annual income of US$100 million, much of which is said by critics to be used by the Vatican for general purposes. They serve meals to the poor in Gore and George Sts, which run off Gertrude St.
The oldest shop on the street, which runs between the Exhibition Buildings and beyond Hoddle St into Abbotsford (named Langridge St for part of the way), is Harry Evans & Sons, the billiard table emporium. 82 year-old Gordon Evans moved his family business into the shop in 1957, paying 5,000 pounds for the building and 1,000 pounds for “the most obstinate of the 14 families squatting in the building”.
The very English and entirely caucasian Rose Chong at no. 218 is the second oldest. Her unique costume hire place has been there since 1980. In those days, bodies were strewn in the gutters outside the Arms of an evening. Before her, were the Macedonian and Albanian Social Clubs. How quickly one forgets. When I lived in Fitzroy, the Balkan grills were still there, the lonely last shutting up shop only last year.
Maria Frendo at Dante’s has been there for 10 years now. I remember walking in and introducing myself when they first started working on the extraordinary creation that the place is. When I make my sporadic appearances there she always greets me as if I am a regular with a seat reserved for me at the bar, but I didn’t know til I read the article that the bar was once the menswear counter at George’s. There’s nothing not to like about Dante’s.
It is a characteristic of the street that there are more owner occupiers than usual (Ladro not being one of them: that’s part of Rose Chong’s empire, which is expanding with the imminent opening up next door by her son of Roundhouse Roti). In addition to the abovementioned places, the Kayes own Dean’s Art.
That grotty little vacant block with the oversized signs on the corner of Smith and Gertrude Sts, near where a man exposed himself at me the other night, was sold recently for $890,000.
It is a street reeking of long ago more than almost any other in Melbourne. Things are old, and the old things seem more naturally embedded in present day. The wonderful Johnston’s Emporium, seen here in Livebird‘s image, is a good example. Apparently, Melbourne’s oldest terrace building is to be found at numbers 64-78.
And I learnt that the Aboriginal gym where Lionel Rose used to train is open to whities as well as Aborigines. Apparently it’s a pretty quiet place, and I might look into it. Apparently, from the 1920s Gertrude St was a thriving and concentrated Aboriginal community centred on the revolutionary Aboriginal Health Service founded in 1979. That’s the derelict building painted in the colours of the Aboriginal flag outside which some — shall we say, heavy drinkers — customarily take in the sun. It was formerly a VD clinic.
I lived happily off Gertrude St for several years. From time to time people would warn me quite solemnly about its capacity for awful violence. I was never sure to what extent the street’s bloody past was haunting their imaginations; I got the feeling their fears were still not entirely unfounded, but never had cause for fear myself. The rooming houses and charitable institutions and St Vincent’s psychiatric facilities on the strip always ensured that the rough end of the street was alive and kicking, but they are apparently all being sold up now. My friend Jolyon’s short, brilliant, disturbed and iconoclastic trajectory came to rest prematurely in one of them and goodness only knows what profitable endeavour his last bed’s room is being put to.