Melbourne’s Aesthetic Turn: Coffee Culture, Industrial Chic and Global-city Elites

In the northern summer of 2018, The New York Times published a piece by food critic Julia Moskin entitled ‘The Art of the Australian Breakfast’, a gushing review of the ‘rapidly multiplying’ cafes established by expatriate entrepreneurs in the city.[1] New York’s newspaper of record had first noted the arrival of the ‘Australian cafe’ four years earlier,[2] around the same time the phenomenon was being breathlessly cheered in the Australian press: ‘Who would have thought that something as commonplace as avocado smash—mashed with a touch of feta, and topped with an optional poached egg—would so successfully fly the flag overseas?’ asked one such piece[3] In contrast to the ‘typical New York breakfast’, ‘something fast and greasy, brown and starchy’, Moskin admired the fare on offer in the new Aussie cafes for its ‘simplicity and sophistication’, based on bright colours, fresh ingredients and paired with espresso-based coffee made to the most exacting standards. Although celebrated in national terms, as ‘unofficial embassies’ for Australian culture,[4] with names like ‘Bluestone Lane’ and ‘Little Collins’, the Australian cafes in New York revealed their specifically Melburnian origins.

Well before New York, the Melburnian coffee house had been an item for export elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, given Australia’s deep colonial connections to Britain, Melbourne-style cafes were first implanted in London in the early 2000s. A decade later, they had succeeded even in Paris, traditionally hostile to foreign culinary trends.[5] Still more remarkably, the export of Melbourne’s coffee culture has not been limited to ‘global cities’ like New York, London and Paris.[6] Far beyond these traditional nodes in the definition of global taste, Melbourne-inspired cafes have been established in smaller cities like Denver, Des Moines, Iowa, Lisbon and Prague. Wherever they implant themselves, Melburnian cafe entrepreneurs spruik the exceptionalism of their home city: Nick Stone, for instance, founder of Bluestone Lane in New York, has declared that ‘quite simply, Melbourne has the world’s best coffee culture’.[7]

The reification of Melbourne’s coffee culture has worked in tandem with an exacting commitment to interior design. The highly aestheticised space of the Melbourne cafe, at home or abroad, follows a standardised typology that Timothy Moore refers to as ‘flat white urbanism’.[8] The unifying theme is a celebration of industrial chic: conceived around the large open space of the warehouse, uncluttered by excessive furniture, often featuring long, ‘communal’ tables. The walls are likely to be brick, with paint and plaster peeling for effect, unadorned by decoration. The floors tend to be subdued in tone—polished concrete, or terrazzo, or exposed floorboards. The tables and benches are usually sleek timber, faintly Scandinavian in inspiration. A few key objects will catch the eye: the gleaming steel coffee machine, preferably of Italian fabrication, is the obligatory centrepiece, occupying shrine-like pride of place. The light fittings hanging overhead will be bold and attention-grabbing: some designers go for large industrial ceramic or steel; others favour small, glass containers, perhaps laid out along beams or railings in the ceiling. Within the studied minimalism there is a carefully curated juxtaposition of chic and grit.

The now ubiquitous style appears placeless, generic, globalised. In 2016, Kyle Chayka bemoaned that the so-called ‘hipster aesthetic’ had taken over the world.[9] The article’s subheading asked: ‘industrial furniture, stripped floors and Edison bulbs: why must we aspire to such bland monotony?’ With a predictable English-centredness, Chayka wrote that it was ‘not just London and Manchester…this style is spreading across the world, from Bangkok to Beijing, Seoul to San Francisco’. Chayka termed the style ‘AirSpace’, suggesting a monotonous, infinitely reproducible minimalism that allows an ever-mobile international elite the comfort of rediscovering the same aesthetic wherever they go. For Chayka, it is exemplified by the demands of Silicon Valley elites as manifested in Airbnb, which paradoxically promotes the search for locally rooted experiences and place-specific cultures, all the while enforcing a universal aesthetic of placelessness.[10] Chayka’s description of the flattening effects of the online-mediated experience of place is illuminating; however, his focus on sameness denies the possibility of excavating this style, understanding its origins in actual places, like Melbourne, with their specific urban and regional histories, before its collapse into mechanical reproduction. Indeed, the same design idiom that Chayka has dubbed ‘AirSpace’ has elsewhere been termed the ‘Australian luxury aesthetic’ (again overlooking the specific role of Melbourne’s cultural elites).

As the signature expression of this culture of consumption, the Melbourne cafe has been both container and commodity: the incubator for an aesthetic that has colonised a thousand spaces, and the setting for an affordable encounter with luxury in the everyday consumption of the city. Yet for all the democratic pretences, the culture of consumption of which coffee is a key part obscures fundamental inequalities in the remaking of the post-industrial city. The specific context of Melbourne’s recent history reveals some of the material roots of a style that is routinely dehistoricised.

For Melbourne itself, ‘coffee culture’ has been an instrumental element in the process of urban reimagining. In the twilight of the twentieth century, middle-class Melburnians devoted extraordinary resources, material and symbolic, to reconstructing themselves as denizens of an urban playground of rare exception. Through their discourses, Melbourne was elevated to the status of cultural production unparalleled in the southern hemisphere. In the sizeable popular literature on the reinvention of Melbourne, its coffee culture is usually framed as a subset of its status as a ‘food capital’, or read alongside its emergence as a ‘stencil art capital’ or its reaffirmation as the ‘cultural capital of Australia’.[11]

These small revolutions should be seen as mutually reinforcing aspects of a more generalised phenomenon: the remaking of the image of the city and, even more than that, the reduction of the city to image. ‘Melbourne’ has become a brand to be marketed, a lifestyle to be lived, an identity to be consumed and traded upon.

Excavating the Melbourne myth

The origins of Melbourne’s rebirth can be traced to a fabled moment of decline in its recent history. Writing of the  troubled years of the early 1990s, journalist Paul Best remembered a city ‘on its knees, nobbled by a deep global recession’ as Melburnians ‘grimly prepared for a rust-bucket future as Australia’s Pittsburgh or Detroit’.[12] These pictures of urban decay summoned an island nation’s perennial fear of change blowing in from afar: helpless before the cruel winds of international finance and emulating dystopian American models of deindustrialisation. During the preceding decade, Australia had abandoned Keynesian protectionism and disassembled the tariff walls that previously supported local industry. As the traditional centre of Australian manufacturing, Melbourne was notably affected by this structural transformation.

The effects of recession were felt most profoundly in the industrial suburbs to the north and west of the city, as plant closures and job losses hollowed out whole communities. However, longer term processes of decline were also apparent in the heart of the city. The Central Business District (CBD), the oldest part of the city and the most universally accessible by virtue of the radial public-transport system converging there, had in the eyes of prominent commentators lost its verve. In an oft-quoted phrase, architect Norman Day lamented ‘an empty, useless city centre’, abandoned after dark as city workers commuted to their homes in the suburbs.[13] Again, the doomsayers looked to the United States for their urban anti-model, the so-called doughnut-city effect, implying a functional void in the city centre surrounded by bulging suburbs.

But all that was about to shift. Melbourne was poised for dramatic reimagining on the other side of economic downturn. By the opening decade of the twenty-first century, the city had been thoroughly reinvented. Its earlier reputation for drabness and austerity had been shaken and Melbourne was becoming instead synonymous with a distinctive type of ‘edginess’ and artistic creativity. New restaurants were popping up every other week, ‘laneway culture’ had taken root, and a plethora of bars and cafes were being added to the inner-city streetscape. In formerly working-class neighbourhoods such as Richmond, Collingwood and Brunswick, penthouse apartments and boutique breweries had colonised empty warehouses and decommissioned factories. Melbourne’s aesthetic turn was upon us.

This perpetually self-conscious city would soon receive accolades from foreign observers, as it once had in the days of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, its late-nineteenth-century gold-rush-fuelled heyday. In 2004, smooth-talking American professor Richard Florida visited and gave a talk entitled ‘Is Melbourne Leveraging its Capacity?’[14] His book The Rise of the Creative Class had been a bestseller the year before and had considerable impact on urban policy around the world. The book’s central argument was that in a post-Fordist age characterised by global competition for talented human capital, the economic success of urban regions depended on their ability to attract members of the ‘creative class’.[15] Florida’s prescription for economic development appealed to governments that aspired to make the transition from managerialism to entrepreneurialism.[16] Victoria at the turn of the twenty-first century was ahead of this curve compared to other Australian states. Now it had borne fruit: in Florida’s estimation, Melbourne could claim a spot among the ranks of the international urban cool.

Consuming Melbourne

Melbourne’s urban revitalisation emerged from a paradoxical mix of small and big statism. On one hand, the Victorian state government had embraced privatisation in the 1990s with a gusto unparalleled among Australian jurisdictions. In an attempt to kick-start Victoria’s moribund economy, the aggressively neoliberal premier Jeff Kennett put public services and infrastructure up for sale or amalgamation in the name of efficiency or the user-pays principle. In his attempt to attract new private-sector investment, Kennett sought to rebrand the city via a series of high-profile major projects: the controversial Crown Casino complex, waterfront development of old docklands, a Formula 1 racetrack and privatised freeway development.[17] These projects chased capital investment and high-rolling tourism, yet with the possible exception of Federation Square, the glib postmodernist architecture of the Kennett era encrusted a layer of glittering surface spectacle that did not meaningfully integrate into the city. The more lasting and distinctive rebranding of Melbourne’s image was to come from artisanal entrepreneurship rather than multinational capital.

In contrast to the big hand of corporatised statism, Melbourne’s reinvention was enabled by municipal-level governance sensitive to the local built environment. A distinguishing characteristic of Melbourne’s urban fabric in its Victorian and Edwardian core is the network of laneways that duplicate and shadow the main streets. Cobbled in locally quarried bluestone, these back alleys and lanes originally served purely utilitarian purposes for deliveries and waste disposal. Yet towards the end of the twentieth century the city’s laneways were reimagined as enticing and transgressive sites of exploration for adventurous locals and tourists alike. Melbourne’s latticework of laneways had been rescued from erasure in the mid-1990s by government intervention that bucked the prevailing trend of laissez-faire private urban development. Concerned that uninspired skyscraper development was destroying the remnant historical character of the central city, and seeking to enliven its dull afterhours, the City of Melbourne dramatically shifted its approach to land-use planning.

The new philosophy was blessed by the appearance of Jans Gehl, the Danish superstar of urban design, whose 1994 Public Space/Public Life survey made the case for a pedestrian-focused approach. Armed with his findings, City of Melbourne master planning focused on better connecting the network of little streets, arcades and lanes. After the city widened the sidewalks, standardised paving surfaces and restricted the flow of motor vehicles, pedestrians could access previously inaccessible spaces, which now flourished as oases of calm and intimacy away from the congestion of the wide main streets. Rezoning the street fronts around lanes to ‘mixed use’ status, aided by more permissive liquor-licensing laws, encouraged the establishment of bars, cafes, galleries and boutiques. The City of Melbourne also practised tolerance towards ‘unplanned’ uses[18]: Melbourne’s feted street art, cultivated in the terrain vague of suburban train carriages, concrete drains and freeway sidings, migrated into the city centre, becoming a kind of gallery on the street for the appreciation of urban cognoscenti.[19]

As the laneways of the CBD began to flower, they soon began to feature in the mental map of discerning Melburnians as desirable places of consumption. Laneway culture in Melbourne was built upon volatile pairings: the gritty and the refined; the exposed and the enclosed; the visible and the hidden. Under the terms of the aesthetic turn, cultural capital could be accumulated by having knowledge of new, little-known establishments. In Melbourne’s case, if these establishments were ‘hidden’, ‘off the map’, or located on rooftops accessed via back doors from unmarked laneways, all the better. This image of the city as an enchanting labyrinth offering its secrets to the imaginative visitor was the premise of the 2006 Tourism Victoria campaign entitled ‘It’s easy to lose yourself in Melbourne’. A highly stylised clip from the campaign features a young woman pushing a huge ball of wool as she makes her way through the small spaces of the city—down laneways, up narrow staircases, onto rooftop bars—all the while leaving a trail of yarn behind her, evocative of the possible itineraries of desire for the intrepid consumer of the city.[20]

The culture of well-informed consumption developed a new level of intensity with the revolution in social media and the reconfiguration of spatial perception afforded by ‘smart’ phones. With the release of the iPhone 3G in 2008, location-aware media embedded within these devices very quickly and fundamentally changed how people navigate and experience urban space. It heightened the trend towards individualised consumption of the city, with users structuring and conveying their engagement with the contemporary urban scene through the filter of media. Being in the know—abreast of developments in the cafe/bar/dining scene—could now be conveyed instantaneously through Instagram or Facebook. By saying ‘I am here now’, or ‘look at the beauty of what I have just eaten’, the digitally connected flâneur could make their mark on the city. Websites like ‘urbanspoon’ (a Melbourne invention)—most likely accessed on the move, in search of somewhere to eat—enhanced the perception of the city as a place of bountiful consumption opportunities.

Gentrification and the imaginative restructuring of the city

The taste for sanitised grittiness that had been cultivated in the laneways of the CBD was deployed with most profound effect in the metropolis’ inner core of formerly working-class neighbourhoods. Here the aesthetic turn played its most creative role in advancing class restructuring of the city. Gentrification in Melbourne emerged in the 1960s as a generation of ‘trendies’—young, university-educated members of the upper middle class who cultivated a distinctive counter-cultural style—became enthralled by the perceived authenticity of the inner suburbs.[21] In Melbourne, as in London, the return to the inner suburbs represented a reversal of historical patterns. For most of Melbourne’s history, the far-flung suburbs of the city, with their promise of a palliative for city stress and pollution, had been the preferred location of the middle and upper classes. This was overlaid by an imagined north–south divide to class distribution, with the Yarra River the mental fault line between the well-to-do south and the working-class and migrant north.

Trendy-led gentrification began in the residential pockets of Carlton and Parkville, where the nearby presence of the University of Melbourne acted as a beacon for student-renters-cum-gentrifiers as well as academics and other self-consciously progressive professionals.[22] It involved an aesthetic reappraisal of the urban landscape of the inner city, made urgent by the threatened demolition of housing stock by the Housing Commission of Victoria and through university and hospital expansion.[23] The romanticised image of ‘the inner city’ as a social space where artists and students resided alongside working-class and migrant communities appealed to a generation in search of existential authenticity. Imagining themselves in contrast to the one-dimensional man of the suburbs, the new bohemians of the inner city played a foundational role in the prehistory of the aesthetic turn.

After a lull in the pace of gentrification from the 1970s until the 1990s, the first decade of the twenty-first century—precisely the moment that Melbourne’s aesthetic was being consolidated—saw the housing market gallop once more. Certain previously undervalued areas began to exhibit rapidly increasing housing prices, while already gentrified areas became even more expensive, entering an accelerated phase of price increases. This phenomenon in other cities has been dubbed ‘hyper-’, ‘super-’ or ‘mega-’ gentrification in an attempt to capture the compounding effects of successive waves of housing price increases and colonisation by ever wealthier classes.[24] It’s no accident that the parts of the inner city that were initially resistant to the gentrifier’s gaze were neighbourhoods with a more distinctly industrial character: Abbotsford, Collingwood, Brunswick. By the height of the housing boom in 2008, modest, dilapidated dwellings in these locales could command prices almost on par with earlier gentrified neighbourhoods in the inner north.

Once the inner-northern suburbs had been reimagined as home to desirable urban culture and hence attractive real estate, new distributions of social class took shape. The real divide in Melbourne is now between the inner and outer cities. Some remnants of the north–south divide remain in force, at least culturally and psychologically. Yet on all sociologically significant indices—income size, education level, rate of employment—the difference between the inner suburbs on either side of the Yarra is negligible.[25] It is no longer the case that there are rich families in the south and poor families in the north; instead, different branches of the same wealthy families reside in different quadrants of the city’s inner radii, with the poor largely relegated to its outer rings.

The repopulation of the inner city was also fed by an influx of international university students, as the city capitalised on its nominal status as Australia’s capital of higher education in the wake of the neoliberal revolution of the 1990s. While other states of Australia lifted themselves out of recession by becoming quarries of coal and iron ore, Victoria transformed its university sector into its largest ‘export industry’.[26] The arrival of full-fee-paying international students in their thousands helped fuel a speculative apartment-building boom (most of it of shamefully poor quality). Moreover, many young Australasians—in the main, ‘creative’ types from other regions of Australia, and New Zealand—were drawn to Melbourne, either for education or because of its emerging status as a centre of design and cool.

The ethno-spatiality of the turn

Melbourne’s cafe culture at the turn of the twenty-first century was a paradoxical handmaiden to gentrification, as it selectively reified the culture it had helped to displace. Many longstanding residents to depart the inner city belonged to the post-war generation of Mediterranean migrants, attracted to the inner city for its cheap housing, its proximity to factories and the strength of the communal networks among compatriots. Perpetually on the margins of whiteness, these Italians and Greeks, Maltese and Macedonians, Lebanese and Cypriots were greeted by the Melbourne establishment with a mixture of hostility and curiosity as they remade the city by modelling different types of urban sociability, notably the al fresco culture of outdoor dining and pavement people-watching that fascinated onlookers in 1950s Melbourne.[27] Espresso coffee, introduced by Italian settlers, was the ambiguous symbol of this cultural revolution.[28] As Jeff Sparrow has noted, before the flat white coffee became ‘caffeinated emblem of antipodean culture’ for Australian expats abroad, espresso ‘represented the heights of exoticism’. While mainstream white Australia regarded Mediterranean migrants with suspicion, ‘only the effete intelligentsia would join Italians in enjoying a decent brew’.[29]

Mid-twentieth-century practices of exclusion gave way in the 1980s and 1990s to an official multiculturalism that embraced non-British cultures while repackaging them as safe for consumption by the white majority.[30] Coffee was the perfect lubricant for this shift. Within the increasingly de-ethnicised social space of the cafe, immigrant food culture could be comfortably neutralised, allowing white elite arbiters of taste to manage the terms of toleration.[31] While accounts vary on the timing of the mass adoption of espresso drinking as everyday practice, its mythologising is entangled, once more, with the economic recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s that recast the city, displacing the older Melbourne of manufacturing.

If the appropriation of Italian coffee culture by middle-class Melburnians has been incredibly moveable and amenable to export, it was first inscribed on its city of origin with an ethno-spatiality that largely overlapped with the geography of deindustrialisation. In the heartland of Carlton, where the introduction of pizza restaurants and espresso bars in the commercial strip of Lygon Street is now celebrated as a culinary revolution, an essentialised version of Italian-ness emerged, a caricatured simulacrum of ‘Little Italy’.[32] This state-mediated production of ethnic place-making occurred precisely at the time that the proportion of Mediterranean residents in the area was declining. This process displaced a lived experience of multiculturalism in favour of the symbolic possession of it.

Mainstream Melbourne’s embrace of Italian food culture provided a template for other immigrant cultures. The trademark model of aestheticised consumption assembled in conversation with coffee has proven hegemonic to the point that entrepreneurs of non-British origin are now inexorably drawn to it to re-package their culinary heritage for wider audiences. The city’s sleek brand of cool has proved remarkably accommodating of various culinary idioms, incorporating the city’s immigrant communities in what Julia Moskin refers to as a ‘British–Mediterranean–Asian vernacular’.[33] With the retention of certain constants, such as coffee and craft beer, an endless variety of permutations of cuisine—Vietnamese, Greek, Lebanese, Chinese, Thai, you name it—is possible. This embodied globalisation in practice entails not only the adoption of cultures from abroad but also the export of home-grown versions of these cultures, fused with specifically Melburnian aesthetics, as can be seen in the example of Melbourne chefs opening restaurants serving ‘modern Asian fusion’ with distinct Melburnian traces in Los Angeles.

Open questions

Melbourne’s reinvention as an ‘edgy’, ‘creative’ city, capital of culture and cuisine, should be seen as a by-product of deindustrialisation and economic restructuring, where a shift in the productive base ushered in a revolution in patterns of consumption, mapped upon the specific histories of the city. Unlike earlier chapters of urban redevelopment under capitalism, which favoured forms of creative destruction, the aesthetic turn recycled what it replaced, taking inspiration from an ethic of adaptive reuse of the built environment. The derelict physical relics of industrial manufacturing were preserved, refashioned into boutique industries. Formerly industrial spaces such as factories and warehouses were invested with new symbolic cachet and hence possibilities for commodification, whether as art and design studios, cafes or bars. Fredric Jameson saw the collapsing of the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art as a characteristic feature of postmodernity: with the cultural turn, everything could be art, if framed for that purpose.[34] The aesthetic turn I have outlined here has seen such a reappraisal: the formerly prosaic has been elevated to a wide-ranging formula for urban reimagining.

In this process of the re-aesthetisation of the refuse of industrial society there was an emptying out of the history of the inner city. What mattered was the appearance of grit, the chic of industrial production, not the social realities of it for those who were by now long departed from these places. It was no accident that the locales where similar aesthetics emerged in ‘global cities’ around the word had the same kinds of urban histories and built forms. They were places where working-class communities had once lived in close proximity to factories and sweat shops, with solid-brick Victorian and Edwardian industrial architecture that could easily be repurposed.

One of the most distressing ‘externalities of the creative age’, one that even Richard Florida recognised, is that of rising social and economic inequality. Florida found this phenomenon to be most prevalent in the most creative urban centres. In ‘Open Questions’, the concluding chapter to Cities and the Creative Class, he reports his discouraging findings that the creative economy generates housing unaffordability, uneven regional development, sprawl and ecological decay, mounting stress and anxiety, and political polarisation.[35]

Using ‘lifestyle as a lever for economic development’, as Florida proposed, was a watershed in the theory of urban governance.[36] Modernist urbanism of the twentieth century, whatever its utopian shortcomings and anti-democratic tendencies, had at least been moved by welfarist concerns—a desire to shape the city so as to lift the poorest out of the misery of their poverty and into opportunity. Twenty-first-century urbanism, by way of contrast, has mostly been unshackled by any pretence of social and economic redistribution. The role of government is simply to present and package the city so as to capture some of the transient movement of the international class of cool and in turn the flows of capital they would bring with them. Florida’s moment in the sun may have been fleeting, but his pop theory was an avatar for the neoliberal revolution that colonised thinking about cities and societies at the dawn of the twenty-first century. As David Roberts has observed, Bohemia now represents a reversal of its original meaning: whereas nineteenth-century bohemian culture embodied an anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist spirit, the bohemians of the early twenty-first century—be they Florida’s creative class or the ‘hipsters’ that followed—have been the vanguards of post-industrial consumerism.

Motionless Melbourne

In the southern winter of 2020, Melbourne became the coronavirus capital of Australia. In July, while the rest of the country was virtually virus-free, Victoria’s case numbers remained stubbornly high. In response, the state government imposed a second lockdown, which would become the world’s longest, with nightly curfews between 8pm and 5am; daily outdoor exercise restricted to one hour; essential travel limited to a five-kilometre radius from one’s house; mandatory wearing of masks; and the imposition of a ‘ring of steel’—metaphor for police checkpoints on the highways—isolating metropolitan Melbourne from regional Victoria.

In a flash, Melbourne’s self-image was turned on its head. Guy Rundle proclaimed that the pandemic signalled the death of ‘Melberlin’—his portmanteau for the aestheticised city of the 1990s and early 2000s—and the return to ‘Grim City’, Melbourne’s natural state of being for most of the twentieth century.[37] With its streets emptied, the CBD recalled the ‘useless, emptied city centre’ of the pre-aesthetic turn of the 1980s, if not the eerie opening scenes of the 1959 dystopian film On the Beach, in which Melbourne’s business district became a post-nuclear ghost town. This ‘motionless Melbourne’ stood in stark contrast to the model of densely peopled centres and secretive sites of consumption. Claire Collie observed that the threat of communicable disease forced urban planners to reconsider the postmodern orthodoxy promoting central-city densification and the benefits of social encounter, and to remember the ‘conjoined twin’ of their discipline, public health, which had been such a driving force in creating lower density suburban environments a century earlier. The return of the deserted heart of the city, like the repressed unconscious, has terrorised small-business operators and the independent creative industries.[38]

While the gears of the city ground to a halt, the crushing stasis of metropolitan lockdown quickly worked to spur a new centrifugalism. Since mid-2020, Melburnians able to flee have left the city in record numbers for regional Victoria, or other states of Australia. Initial predictions that the pandemic would trigger a ‘correction’ in housing prices, benefitting all those priced out of the urban housing market, have proved incorrect, so far.[39] Instead, gentrification has accelerated in the regional orbit of the city.

As the virus extends its hold, from momentary flashpoint of crisis to historical epoch, we would do well to ponder what kind of Melbourne we would like to see emerge on the other side:  will the aesthetic turn live on, or might it give way to a different constellation of aesthetics and ethics?

[1] Julia Moskin, ‘The Art of the Australian Breakfast’, New York Times, 24 July 2018. I would like to thank Clare Gordon Bettencourt, Cameron Logan, Yoni Molad, Sean O’Beirne, Andonis Piperoglou, Virginie Rey, Juan Rubio and Emma Thomas for reading drafts of this essay.

[2] Oliver Strand, ‘Australian Cafes Arrive in New York’, New York Times, 29 July 2014.

[3] Fiona Harari, ‘Aussie Coffee Entrepreneurs Making It in the Big Apple’, The Age, 21 February 2015.

[4] ‘Flat Whites and Avo Smash Drawing New Yorkers in to Embrace the Aussie Café Vibe’, ABC News, 11 May 2016.

[5] Wendell Steavenson, ‘The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine’, The Guardian, 16 July 2019.

[6] Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton, 1991.

[7] Stone, ‘What is Melbourne Coffee Culture and Why is it Special?’, 29 June 2015,, accessed 8 September 2021.

[8] Timothy Moore, ‘Flat White Urbanism: There must be better ways to foster a vibrant street life’, The Conversation, 2 June 2017. The reference to the flat white is a nod to the coffee variety first developed down under.

[9] Kyle Chayka, ‘Same Old, Same Old. How the Hipster Aesthetic is Taking Over the World’, The Guardian, 6 August 2016.

[10] Kyle Chayka, ‘Welcome to AirSpace: How Silicon Valley Helps Spread the Same Sterile Aesthetic across the World’, The Verge, 3 August 2016.

[11] Seamus O’Hanlon’s work Melbourne Remade is an exception to the trend of seeing specific fields of cultural production in isolation, although he does not adequately explore the image-making aspect in the transformations of central Melbourne. O’Hanlon, Melbourne Remade, Melbourne: Arcade Publications, 2010.

[12] Paul Best, ‘From the city’s heart’, The Age, 23 August 2011; Jake Niall, ‘Big Melbourne Isn’t To Be Feared, You Might Find It’ll Grow on You’, The Saturday Age, 22 April 2011.

[13] This quote from Norman Day has become cemented in the mythology of the city and its recent reinvention. See, for instance, then Lord Mayor Robert Doyle citing it in a 2015 address on ‘How Melbourne became the world’s most liveable city’,, accessed 29 April 2016.

[14] ‘Creative Concept To Put City in Top Class’, The Age, 11 December 2004.

[15] For Florida, this class included workers ‘employed in the creative sector, engaged in science and engineering, research and development, and the technology-based industries, in arts, music, culture, and aesthetic and design work, or in the knowledge-based professions of health care, finance, and law’. The sheer range of occupations embraced by this putatively novel class led certain of Florida’s critics to question whether he was in fact simply rebadging the traditional middle class, the bourgeoisie. Richard Florida, Cities and the Creative Class, New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 3.

[16] David Harvey, ‘From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism’, Geografiska Annaler B, 71, pp. 3–17.

[17] Kim Dovey, ‘On the Move: Melbourne,’ in Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form, London and New York: Routledge, 1999, pp. 157–170.

[18] For an overview, see Jay Walljasper, ‘Livability Lessons from Melbourne, Australia’, AARP Livable Communities, June 2019.

[19] Melbourne’s street art is the subject of a larger literature. What interests me here is not so much the artistic value of street art in its own right but rather its commodification: the way in which it serves as a backdrop for consumption. For a brief introduction, see James Norman, ‘Then and Now: the Evolving Story of Melbourne’s Street Art’, The Guardian, 16 May 2014.

[20] Duncan Macleod, ‘Tourism Victoria Get Lost in Melbourne Labyrinth’, Inspiration Room, 29 September 2006; Tourism Victoria’s clip can be seen in ‘It’s easy to lose yourself in Melbourne’ , or ‘Play Melbourne’,

[21] Renate Howe, David Nichols and Graeme Davison, Trendyville: The Battle for Australia’s Inner Cities, Clayton: Monash University Press, 2014, p. xii.

[22] Graeme Davison, ‘Carlton and the Campus: The University and the Gentrification of Inner Melbourne, 1958 – 1975’, Urban Policy and Research 27/3, 2009, pp. 253–264. 

[23]On the rediscovery of Victoriana, see Michael Jager, ‘Class Definition and the Esthetics of Gentrification: Victoriana in Melbourne’, in Neil Smith and Peter Williams, Gentrification of the City, Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 78–91.  

[24] Loretta Lees, ‘Super-gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn Heights, New York City’, Urban Studies 40/12 (November 2003), pp. 2487–2509; for an example of ‘hyper-gentrification’, see Jeremiah Moss, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, New York, Dey Street Books, 2017; on ‘megagentification’, see Brian Holmes, ‘Megagentrification: Limits of an Urban Paradigm’, in The Neoliberal Frontline: Urban Struggles in Post-Socialist Societies,  Zagreb, 2008, pp. 28–29.

[25] The Social Atlas of Melbourne, a cartographic representation of census data produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, illustrates these changes across time in clear spatial terms.

[26] George Megalogenis, ‘Exit Strategy: Politics After the Pandemic,’ Quarterly Essay 82, June 2021; an extract available at ‘Hard lessons: On unis, Coalition has embraced Howard’s way,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 26 June 2021.

[27] On the ambiguous position of Australians of Mediterranean origin in relation to whiteness, see Toula Nicolapoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, ‘Racism, Foreigner Communities and the Onto-Pathology of White Australian Subjectivity’, in Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004, pp. 32–47.

[28] See Andrew May, Espresso: Melbourne Coffee Stories, North Melbourne, Vic: Arcadia Pubications, 2009.

[29] Jeff Sparrow, ‘Australia’s History of Anti-Italian Racism Echoes Grotesquely in Rhetoric about Sudanese People’, The Guardian, 19 November 2018.

[30] The most incisive critique of late twentieth century Australian multiculturalism remains Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Annandale, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1998.

[31] The embracing, and appropriation, of formerly exotic immigrant culture is remembered almost universally in celebratory terms. The glossy promotional materials produced by Melburnian coffee roasters pay obligatory tribute to Italian pioneers of espresso (before moving on to detail the sustainability and ethical credentials of their supply chains).

[32] The 2013 film Si Parla Italiano, which celebrates the contribution of Italian immigrants to the cultural life of Australia argues that Lygon Street was a precursor not only for Melbourne but for the whole of the country.

[33] Julia Moskin, ‘The Art of the Australian Breakfast’, New York Times, 24 July 2018.

[34] Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998, London: Verso Books, 2009.

[35] Florida, Cities and the Creative Class, p. 172.

[36] Florida, Cities and the Creative Class, p. 78.

[37] Guy Rundle, ‘Urgent Action Needed To Save the City from COVID’s Kiss’, Crikey, 9 February 2021 and ‘Postcard from Grim City’, Crikey, 31 May 2021. ‘When Victoria closed down’, the (Sydneysider) historian Thomas Keneally confessed, ‘I am ashamed to admit that the old serpent of NSW schadenfreude re-awoke in me. Bleak City, and closed down too! “When they said they were the cultural capital,” I chortled meanly, “I didn’t know they meant on the microbial level!”’, Thomas Keneally, ‘A Fractured Federation? How the Closing of State Borders in the Covid Crisis Has Raised Old Quarrels,’ The Guardian, 7 August 2021.

[38] Royce Millar, ‘To CBD or Not To CBD? COVID’s Question for the Future of Melbourne,’ The Age, 9 June 2021.

[39] Shane Wright, ‘Housing Demand To Collapse as Population Growth Falters,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 2020.

About the author

Stephen Pascoe

Stephen Pascoe is a historian and urbanist from Melbourne. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Laureate Centre for History and Population at UNSW.

More articles by Stephen Pascoe

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #10


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