The gritty urban soul of Melbourne
Sydney Road is the longest shopping strip in Melbourne, Australia. It neatly bisects the suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg. It runs almost due north towards Sydney from Park St in the south to Bakers Road in the north, where it becomes the Hume Highway. The road was originally marked out by surveyor Robert Hoddle in 1837. He named the road Pentridge, after the birthplace of a coworker's wife in Dorset, England. It was later renamed Sydney Road in 1859, but the name Pentridge lived on as the name for the prison in the area.
Hoddle divided the area along Sydney Road into farms that stretched as far as Merri Creek and Moonee Ponds Creek; eleven farms on each side of the road running back to the creeks with all but two being ten chains wide.
As the urban sprawl of Melbourne slowly crept north, the farms along Sydney Road were consumed by suburbia. Migrants from Southern Europe in the 1950s and later from the Middle East had a huge impact on the street. The road is still a multicultural kaleidoscope. Young Muslim women wearing veils and denim skirts push prams. Greek grandmothers in black, crucifixes dangling, steer shopping trolleys past them. No one blinks as an elegant African woman moves along the footpath dressed in fire-engine red burka from head to toe. Grey-haired European men play cards conspiratorially in cafes where hardly a word of English is heard.
It's like Valencia Street in San Francisco, but less planned, richer, deeper, longer. Walking along the strip is a gritty and fecund experience. Halal butchers with various cuts of goat in the window. Lebanese cake shops with trays of syrupy, pistachio-ed baklava. Italian bomboniere. Vietnamese restaurant with photos of its dishes in window.
The pair of Alasya Turkish restaurants have become something of an institution, as has the Mediterranean Wholesalers continental food store, which draws shoppers Melbourne-wide. The A1 Bakery, where you can still get a small pizza of sesame seeds and sumac for a dollar. Arguably Melbourne's best kebabs and falafel can be found along the strip.
There's a plethora of thrift and variety stores from the tiny Don Bosco opportunity shop to the cavernous Savers. The Anarchist Bookshop is still there. Melbourne furniture giant Franco Cozzo established his first store on Sydney road - and as the graffiti on it's wall iterates:
FRANCO - WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE
Thanks to the CityLink tollway, Sydney road has become the main route for toll avoiders and the road clogs with traffic exacerbated by the North Coburg tram in peak hours. As happened to Brunswick Street before it, the road is creaking under the weight of gentrification. The students, migrants, and artists that kept the vitality in Brunswick are inexorably being pushed further north. It's beginning to show at the southern end of the road - with the entrance of multinationals like KFC, trendier cafes, and fashion designers. The Sarah Sands Hotel that was once filled with abbatoir workers and my father referred to as a "bloodpit" is now a plastic, sanitised "Irish" pub.
See Sydney Road while you still can. From the Melbourne CBD, hop on the North Coburg Tram (No. 19) on Elizabeth Street going north, and get off at Park St. You'll see the aforementioned horrible "Irish" pub. Head north on foot.