The Block: Social Renovation?

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Places evolve. The cycle of fortune is etched everywhere. The buildings, the people, the artwork, all hold DNA from the past. St Kilda’s eco-system has morphed and yo-yoed over the years. For 40,000 years prior to colonisation, it was the aboriginal territory of Euroe Yroke, a rich swampland where various tribes roamed. European settlement drained these swamps, progressively urbanising and populating. The area boomed, went bust and stabilised. The past 100-year whirlwind has seen St Kilda at the epicentre of Melbourne art, fashion and bohemianism, a Victorian leisure precinct and vortex of prostitution and crime. 

More recently, it has been a stuttering tourist location teetering on the brink of both decline and regeneration. Fitzroy Street best symbolises this schizophrenia. One end is a cosmopolitan enclave, buzzing with theatres and swanky restaurants, whilst the other is a parade of empty shops and lost people. The Paris End and The Detroit End respectively – an East/West-like divide, with Grey St dissecting the derelict and decorous.

But change glimmers on the horizon. A number of projects will bloom this year. The reopening of The Espy, the St Kilda Art Crawl, The Pride Centre and The Block all come with heavy promise.    

But some of these projects come with both hope and baggage. The social re-stratification of Fitzroy Street is controversial, most notably for the eviction of The Gatwick’s tenants, exchanged with The Block’s prime-time contestants, and soon-to-be high-end residents. For some, this is an acceptable switch of public nuisance, psychiatric episodes and physical assaults for gentrification. But others deem it to be social sanitisation; transfusing the lifeblood of St Kilda into a big dead mechanical plastic heart that pumps mono-culture back into the streets.        

(artwork by Robert Scholten @robobop)

So, will The Block be the catalyst for change? 

We asked some locals for their opinions:

Kirk: 

“My experience of the old Gatwick was during a drunken escapade several years ago. The clubs had closed and with nowhere to kick on, we ended up searching for drugs on a misguided Monday morning.  The place reputedly functioned as a half-way house cum illicit drugstore. We quickly got the jeepers whilst tentatively exploring the corridors. Small, half-derelict rooms with strange smells and weird people were sobering, to say the least. We didn’t last long. Since that misspent morning, the nearest I’d come to the Gatwick was a fleeting dash past its entrance. The aggro and disorder that accumulated around The Gatwick were undeniable. I feel like a hypocrite, but this element was a real turn off, and whilst using The Block as a template for dealing with vagrancy and social issues isn’t ideal, it is having positive effects on businesses, tourism and social ambience”

Henry:

There is something deeply grey about Grey St, even in St Kilda’s psychopathic summers. Beyond even the ashen skin colour of the sad looking sex workers. And people having fits, of one sort or another, on Fitzroy Street is also an all-too-common sight. But will ultra Capitalist materialism, in the form of Channel 9’s The Block, sweep in and clean-up the awful human mess that it, itself, has ultimately created?

I hope so, but fear NOT.

A bit like the show’s pop-up shop on Fitzroy Street, flogging items that you could get perfectly good equivalents of elsewhere for a tenth of the price, this initiative is only “open to the public” at certain limited times. Having said that, even the mindless limbo of yet another lookalike Yuppie shopping mall (think Chadstone or Melbourne Central) would be a better fate for Fitzroy Street than its current hell of crack-tormented souls. Endless nasally whining “Naah mate. Come on maate. Fuck you, maaate!”

Brenda: 

“As expected, the whole place had been given a cosmetic douche. New walls, new floors, gutted and revitalised. No expense spared. This season presents the show with their biggest money shot, the chance to give this ugly duckling the most extreme makeover. As locations go, renovating a dilapidated and condemned building in the bayside tourist hub of St Kilda not only presents an amazing interior transformation, but also the opportunity to be deemed savours. Spearheading the district’s regeneration, saving it from the decay that The Gatwick had fuelled for years. The empty shops and filthy streets have been attributed to The Gatwick’s tenants, drugged zombies that roamed unabated, gradually killing the tourism until everything south of Canterbury Road was deemed a no-go area,

Since the closure, the tenants have moved on and there’s a palpable easing of vagrancy and public disorder. The Block is a godsend”

Serge:

“Four years ago, I happened to meet Julian Cress, the producer and creator of The Block. I encouraged him to bring the TV program to St Kilda, and I cheekily suggested he buy the Gatwick for The Block when he asked me if I had any suggestions. I did not really expect it to become a reality… 

There has been a bad smell around Fitzroy Street that was left to fester, unchecked, for far too long… There have been issues in Fitzroy Street for many years and in the eyes of many people, the Gatwick was the main problem. I believe it was the people the Gatwick attracted that was the main part of the problem. These people have moved around the Regal, and they will move elsewhere in St Kilda once the Regal is closed. 

Having 8 luxury apartments at the Gatwick will not change the fortunes of Fitzroy Street overnight. The Pride Centre will not do this either. There are still many empty shops with huge rents, and the street is still mainly a night time economy focused around bars, some more attractive than others. A rejuvenated Espy will help. 

Many studies and many community consultations have been conducted about how to improve Fitzroy Street, but a lot more needs to be done. And it will require huge investments. I am not sure there is a real understanding of this within the current Council. The debate – and denial – about CCTV is a good example. Safety has improved dramatically in Fitzroy Street, but it has not brought the people back. Who has got a magic wand?”

Adam:

“I never had the guts to go into the Gatwick. Certainly, walking past could feel a bit unsafe at times.

I doubt that The Block will have much of an effect on the vibe of Fitzroy St. Not really what St Kilda needs: more apartments.

Removing The Gatwick may make the footpath out the front more inviting though.”

Marina:

“I don’t get all these naysayers who proclaim the death of culture when a district is rejuvenated. I think the improvement of infrastructure, tourism, public safety and property value shouldn’t be disregarded just to preserve the stomping ground of a load ice heads and psychos. The Block might be an unlikely saviour, and it pains me to accept that a Channel 9 can swoop in and have such an effect, but the fact remains that Fitzroy St is on the ropes. If the council can’t step up, and it takes a DIY show to supply the impetus, then so be it.”

Dom: 

How far The Block will reveal The Gatwick’s dark history on the sanitised prime time slot remains to be seen, but dramatic effect is everything and playing out the Dickensian tale in all its ugliness would be a surefire rating hike.  

The only drawback is the potential for a publicity skid-mark. Bad for sales. After all, they sell these apartments at the end of the season. The big finale is the auction. Contestants get cut in, with the potential to get seriously rich. Could The Gatwick’s dark history have a negative impact on buyers? $2 million is a lot to drop on a place that is an upscaled crack den.  

Jane: 

I recently visited a crystal healer and got onto the subject of how buildings retain the energy of the past. Apparently, it resides and reverberates, even after the tenants depart, trapped gaseously, for good or bad. I couldn’t help referencing this conversation when I think of the new Gatwick. What might linger? I knew stories of the chequered history, the alleged assaults, drug overdoses, rapes, even murder. Could these events be stained deep into the foundations, printed into the wall’s DNA, the floorboards ingrained with trauma? 

Kerrie:

In 1937 the ‘luxurious’ Gatwick Hotel was being advertised as ‘only just built’ and proudly announcing it’s Oriental chef Alex Julius…

The depression and post-WW2 changed socio-economic circumstances and The Gatwick became a compassionate boarding house for returned soldiers.

On purchase in 1977 Vittoria “Queen Vicky,” Cabone continued The Gatwick’s reign of compassion and it became a sanctuary for the downtrodden and social outcasts, remaining so until on the brink of total dilapidation. Channel 9 decided to breathe some much-needed life back into it. The Gatwick seems to have a life cycle of its own.

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