By Yamiko Marama
Edited by Elizabeth Flux
Living in St Kilda is like living in permanent holiday mode, where your real, alternate world can’t touch you with its grubby, stress-saturated hands. I can’t tell you the exact date that I moved in, not even the vague sense of the month or season, yet it’s become a familiar ritual as I make my way down maddening Punt Road to breathe a sigh of relief once I hit the palm trees – as if I’m on a runway, touching down.
While it’s always felt other-worldly, my attachment to St Kilda has strengthened as I’ve grown, as if we’re entwined in an indecipherable way. During my early twenties St Kilda was not a real place to me; just a place to party, with its warm body odour and cool breathing beach air. Like a dream. My younger self had joined the influx of summer goers, trouping to St Kilda, slightly overdressed in a way that feels unfamiliar and inconceivable to me now. Although I don’t entirely trust my memories, strangely foggy and sketchy things, I can see myself adrift in this unfamiliar world of romancing strobe lights and late night pizza, dazed by where I’d found myself but mostly by who I felt I should be.
As a local now I observe with curiosity the stream of visitors from the outer suburbs, former versions of myself, so keen to fit in to a place that truthfully has no expectations.
I’ve learnt not to bother competing, because there is always someone else just as trendy or eccentric or as lost as you. But back then I had brought with me my constraints, those things which dictated what I did, felt and shared with the world.
I’d become subtly attuned to the suffocating, familiar eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I had felt permanently branded as incompatible during my childhood and youth. My difference had always spoken before I ever could. And I could only assume that my oddity was at fault, it had to be, for everyone else around me seemed to be replicas of what I was not. It had been an exhausting plight; constantly trying to hide myself in the hope that whatever was within me would be ignored too. Or making myself wooden and empty, refusing to share any kind of vulnerability with other people because it already felt like my whole life was an unspoken vulnerability that I couldn’t control. It worked, until I soon felt that sharing nothing equated to having nothing of value to share. We’re so easily shaped by our environments, and yet we leave such little thought to their presence.
I think it may be something that all St Kilda locals have in common; people who have found a new fit for themselves and found solace in a community that feels similarly. Outsiders may assume the variability and inconsistency of St Kilda represents a communal emptiness, but perhaps they have never had to experience being visible and voiceless, all at the same time – and how all you want is a place that is yours to just simply be.
For there is strength in the community’s refusal to be any one thing. St Kilda is surely the place, kindly kept, for those who have never quite fit in. For nothing conforms here, not even in its design. A short walk of Fitzroy Street will bring you from Broadsheet-inspired restaurants and brunching stations to an alternate world of artificially lit pizza and kebab shops. In the damaged end, empty and boarded up shop fronts leer at you like broken teeth, accusatory of neglect. I always find myself momentarily jarred until I return to the safety of my bubbled world; preoccupations of finding milk, irritatingly forgotten from my mental grocery list…just further proof of my inadequacies in managing the adult role. The mere act of shopping becomes one of zig- zagging people and guilt as you refuse to give money to those stationed out the front of the local 7-11, while deep down knowing that it would merely require sacrificing one less latte the next day.
But that is the beauty of St Kilda living – a place where everyone is constantly vying for space.
For me, while my inherited visibility of brown skin and frizzy box braids will never be avoidable, for some reason it has never felt problematic the way it has elsewhere. I hardly ever feel started at, or noticed, or uncomfortable. The bar of difference has been raised so high to encompass everyone that I find myself inconsequential, safe to build a life with my girlfriend that feels unobserved and free as we use the suburb as our own personal backyard. My pocket of the world becomes one of shifting illusions; always amazed at how pools of beach water reflect the clouds in the sky, so that it feels like I am walking among them…how the windsurfers float in the sky like suspended performers, or the way the bay is sometimes moody and sometimes charming depending on the choppiness of the water.
I’m thankful for the freedom it provides me, as if I can hang up my burdens temporarily, feeling connected to the rest of the world without an armour that often feels safe and heavy all at the same time. I don’t really know what makes it a uniquely accepting place, although its history in European immigration, the red-light district and being a LGBTIQ hub has perhaps leant to it securing a certain pocket of safety – or at least as much as is possible in this world. I wonder if its humility is grown from the assumption that everyone is a stranger in this foggy, grungy, tourist town. For there is not one type of local, I’m sure of it.
It doesn’t feel absurd to see two women dancing within the safety of a traffic island, in the middle of the road, as I did one Friday night on my way home from work. Despite their faces being indecipherable in that clunky, mixed shaped way that your sight toys with you from afar, there’s no doubt that they must be locals. As much as the dudes serving brews at the local bar, seemingly far away from their usual Brunswick or Collingwood hipster counterparts. I’ve become accustomed to hearing the jingle of the Hare Krishnas in my apartment block and have had several near-misses to avoid collision on the footpaths with the running bodies that have known far more discipline than mine. Sunday mornings I encounter parents brunching, designer sunglasses hiding watchful monitoring of children in the nearby playground. The brigade of yummy mummys in their manicured activewear seem worlds apart from the pockets of down-to-earth pubs full of tradies and hippies. Or backpackers, given away by their boisterous accents or their reverence for the local Irish pub.
And yet despite the sweeping waves of gentrification and immersive wealth in St Kilda, there remains a visible narrative of those who do not fit this image. The man with the twisted beard seen talking to himself, given a wide berth on the tram. The dark and dank pubs that almost purposefully contrast the warm and inviting nature of the beach, somehow managing to maintain a permanent cigarette tang. Those people washing car windscreens at the traffic lights, sometimes having animated and charming chats with the drivers. That dingy local pub and bottle-o, that absurdly overinflates the cost of its wine.
Or the once notorious Gatwick hotel, a combative subject depending on who you talk to – a hotel that recently closed its doors after being sold to The Block reality television show, of all things. Prior to its closing, it had been blamed for the lack of street trading in St Kilda and declared a burden to emergency services due to the high levels of overdose and assault calls. But for others it had been painted as a haven, with the former owners pressing its importance in giving people a roof over their heads and a place that they could be themselves. It seems that both realities about the Gatwick can live simultaneously, although it’s easy to predict which one is likely to be silenced.
I like that any voice seemingly has a chance though – perhaps it is what gives me the confidence to feel that I have a right to just be. St Kilda is packed with real people who all want their own peace and space, who support me to be more sensitive to their world because they, in part, are more so of mine. Maybe all these locals from different worlds beam, like me, at St Kilda sunsets like it is the first bloody time they have ever seen one. Behaviour that I egocentrically assume only I do. Perhaps they also are momentarily aggrieved by the onslaught of visitors in summer with their fake tans and pretentious behaviour, causing concern that this will lend to the stereotype of St Kilda being superficial. Until like me, they smile to themselves knowing St Kilda keeps its real self for those that know it.