Changing St Kilda

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By May Saw

A typical winter morning. The skies are grey and it’s drizzling, while the wind slowly numbs the face with cold. Yet it’s warm and bright in the small cafe with a large fireplace, high ceilings, large windows and the smell of fresh coffee.

Just like the man across the table; silver flecked hair, black leather jacket and a cool composure. Then he smiles; a warm smile which crinkles his face till crow’s feet appear, while he shakes your hand. He settles back into his seat while keeping a close eye on the front door.

“Just making sure people get served when they come in,” said Roger Fowler, general manager of Hotel Urban St Kilda, the hotel which owns the Hub Cafe.

Mr Fowler, has been in and around St Kilda for the past 20 years, as a resident and working in restaurants, and now Hotel Urban. He’s seen the face of St Kilda change and evolve over time.

The state St Kilda is in now seems to mirror that of a hundred years ago. However, 20 years back, St Kilda was more affordable and was a more eclectic community.

“There was fair bit of unemployed, living in St Kilda 20 years ago. You could afford to be an artist in St Kilda and probably live very cheaply in a one bedroom apartment for 50 bucks a week. Back then, the arts crowd, and everyone, could afford to live in this area. Which was what made it amazing back then.”

After moving away for a period of time, Mr Fowler returned to St Kilda with new appreciation for its quirky diversity.

“What’s great about down here is that there’s such a massive mix of people in this area, different cultures and races.’

The bohemian character of St Kilda was one of the major factors of its eventual popularity, according to Mr Fowler.

“I think people come to look at people here. That’s why we have these great big windows at the front because they are viewing windows.”

The food and beverage industry not only served as the perfect platform for ‘people viewing’, food culture was also a major attraction for St Kilda in the past. Mr Fowler salutes the icons of St Kilda who what he calls the ‘café culture’.

“To me, there are people who I think really changed the face of St Kilda and, that’s Don Fitzpatrick , Ronnie Di Stasio and John van Haandel.”

“I think twenty years ago, people came to St Kilda because their options were limited. Elwood, Windsor, Port Melbourne, Richmond all had limited offers, St Kilda was buzzing with outdoor dining and drinking, thanks to Don Fitzpatrick.”

Over time, St Kilda’s popularity rose and so did the rents. Things began to change.

“It wasn’t a landlord’s suburb back then. It was people who lived in this area. Now, it’s changed because the style of people that live here is very different. It’s more expensive to live here.”

“I think Fitzroy St retains more of what St Kilda used to be like than Acland St. I think Acland St has become very commercial,” said Mr Fowler.

He continues to lament the loss of some of the old businesses and the building of ‘horrendous’ ‘giant tram stops’ and other ‘ugly’ buildings.

“When they first started doing that (building tram stops), it started to look like the Gold Coast, which is pretty scary. What no one really wants is for St Kilda to become like the Gold Coast.”

However, it seems there is still hope for the future of St Kilda. Mr Fowler thinks that the residents of St Kilda can make a difference in stopping future development plans that are detrimental to St Kilda’s image.

“I think there is enough St Kilda residents who actually care about what should need development, what would be appropriate.”

Though Mr Fowler admits change is inevitable, it might not always be a bad thing.

Mr Fowler views change as a cycle. From the affluent days a hundred years ago to the hip, artsy, druggies stage and now it seems we’re back to the affluent days.

“I don’t want to see it (St Kilda) become too commercial. To me that would be sad. Hopefully, as I’ve said, it’s a big circle. Maybe when my kids are 50 and 60, it’s all come back around again.”

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