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Culture @ Brunswick St. Fitzroy

How did Brunswick St. Fitzroy become Melbourne’s alternative cultural centre? The place with the significant galleries, boutique shops, music venues and cafes; over the decades the unofficial cultural centre of Melbourne has moved St. Kilda and then Chapel St. were once that kind of unofficial cultural centre but over the years, as market pressures increase the rental costs, the cultural centre moved to Fitzroy. Now this trend of north-western movement of the cultural centre is continuing and Northcote and Brunswick are competing to be the next cultural centre.

What is it about its environment? Why is the location of the cultural centre important? A lot of money in real estate depends on it, as well as, as local businesses because it is part of the urban regeneration process known as gentrification. But this is only the monetary evaluation of the improvement in the quality of life in the area. It is more fun, more interesting and more exciting to live in place where there is music, good food and things to see and do.

In part this is a story about gentrification of a former slum. Brunswick St. is a long shopping strip with a tramline running up its middle in Fitzroy is an inner city Melbourne suburb. This is a brief history of how it became established as an alternate cultural centre with art galleries, pubs with bands, bookshops and restaurants.

Brunswick St. started with live music in many of these pubs and bars along Brunswick St that made its reputation. The pubs that made Brunswick St. an alternative cultural centre were the T.F. Much Ballroom and the Punters Club.

Polyester Books also contributed to Brunswick St. alternative culture status. Polyester Books was born when Polyester Records expanded into books and magazines. It became notorious for its underground content; with a variety of zines, along with other alternative publications. But it was its window painting that attracted the most attention. The window once featured a manga painting of two clothed girls with bondage and lesbian themes, now used as the store’s logo. At 3:00am one morning in 1998 its front window was smashed with a brick. Polyester Books had received anonymous threats before to remove the image or have it destroyed. Polyester Books offered a $1000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the offenders but no one was ever apprehended. This was the same year that a Catholic vandal destroyed artist, Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ. There are other independent bookshops with special focuses along with second-hand bookshops.

Although most of the galleries in Fitzroy are now concentrated in Gertrude St. In the 1980s and 90s there was Roar Gallery, just off Brunswick St. Roar Gallery was Melbourne’s first artist run initiative. It was a small upstairs gallery with two gallery spaces with bare floorboards and an office. Roar Gallery was established in 1982 by 20 young artists and named after the neo-expressionist paintings by founding members David Larwill, Sarah Faulkner and Mark Howson. (Reported by Robert Rooney, The Age 9/6/82)

Currently there are two galleries on Brunswick St.; Sutton Gallery, established in 1992 and, at the other end of the spectrum, Brunswick Street Gallery, a large rental space. Sutton Gallery is a commercial contemporary art gallery that has exhibited many notable and established Australian artists. It has never been cutting edge and tends towards a safe commercial minimalism. Although there is a sign for the “Catholic University Art Gallery” I’ve never seen it open and I doubt that it contributes to the culture of the Brunswick St.

There are many alternative exhibition spaces on Brunswick St. from the walls of furniture shops (MoorWood), hairdressers (Unpretentious Underground) and the Black Cat Café. The Black Cat Café has an urban garden of pot plants on the sidewalk and a maze of artists’ studios in the back of the building. In the past the following alternative spaces in Fitzroy had regular art exhibitions: The Artist’s Garden (now Fitzroy Nursery although the original decorated metal gates remain), Bocadilo Bar, Café Ravoux, Hares and Hyenas Bookshop, Hydrometers, Joe’s Garage, Mario’s Café, Mermaid Pancakes, The Vegie Bar and many others (please contribute to this history with comments if you have any additional information.) Upstairs at Rhumberellas Café there was Scope Gallery, established in 1995, which was formally The Botanical Gallery, established in 1991.

These businesses and galleries, along with the artists, musicians and writers all contributed to making Brunswick St. a centre for alternative culture. A controversy and other media attention have also helped to build its reputation.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

4 responses to “Culture @ Brunswick St. Fitzroy

  • urbanmonk

    been wondering about the shift of “cool” to brunswick and Northcote myself as I lived in St Kilda in the Early 90s when there were still squats covered in grafitti along the Esplanade, and Fitzroy St was famous, but not for high end eateries. I think it does have alot to do with gentrification, which is sad, coz I dont really like the idea of Sydney Rd becoming in 10 years what Chapel and Acland streets are now. Full of Posers:)

  • Helen

    I remember my High School English teacher telling us we had to go to the Black Cat Cafe and oh, how so cool it was!!! Well as seventeen year old western suburban kids, I don’t think we were ever going to venture out there in a hurry! Brunswick St would have freaked us out too much! Now that I am a bit older I think I will go and check it out. Also a lot of students live out at Fitzroy, that is another reason for it being so cultural and trendy.

  • Brian

    I am worried about the past tense in regards to Polyester … its STILL has got a shipload of zines an alternate publications. Well worth a vist

    • Mark Holsworth

      Yes, the past tense is an error for Polyester’s zines stock. And I blame the copy editor for not picking it up, or rather, since I don’t have a copy editor, the fact that I don’t have a copy editor. Thanks Brian for picking up the error.

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