By David Nicholls
Edited by Sophie Cunningham
No-one knows where Albion is, and being 7 km south of similarly-sounding St Albans doesn’t help matters (yes, I did just help you locate it). No, northsiders, when I say I live in Albion I’m not saying I live on Albion Road, Brunswick: been there, done that. Albion is essentially Sunshine, or rather, it would be Sunshine if the section of line between Sunshine and Albion stations didn’t bisect what seems like the natural spread of Sunshine like some kind of Berlin Wall of inconvenient railway. Something called ‘Sunshine West’ is to the south of Albion; something called ‘Sunshine North’ is to its north-east (but not directly north). In essence, Albion is a clique or a pocket, a hidden suburb hard to get in and out of. It’s like Park Orchards, or West Brunswick, in that regard. You need to know about it to know how to get to it, and to know about it, you need to know how to get to it.
Albion and Sunshine: the history of trying to bolt a concept onto a place
It’s foolish, historically and possibly in other ways, to regard the railway line as inconvenient to Albion or central Sunshine. The form and nature of both places owe everything to the railway, and they indisputably grew from it. H. V. Mackay established a branch of his Ballarat-based Harvester Works to this very place over a century ago because it was a useful rail-centric distribution point on otherwise cheap and commercially underexploited land: the whole of Chicago essentially began the same way. By the mid-1920s, Sunshine Harvester was the largest manufacturing concern in Melbourne (121405.8 sq m of factory, and 194249.3 sq m of related buildings), and Mackay marked the region with his vision.
We can go to Chicago again to get the measure of this vision, and specifically to the town of Pullman, now a suburb in the south of that city. Thirty years before Mackay bought, and began to expand, the Braybrook Implement Works, George Pullman established his ignoble experiment. It was a town wherein his manufacturing employees would live and build his railway carriages – at a time when, of course, to be building railway carriages was slightly better than the ubiquitous license to print money, a kind of alchemy really. Pullman’s town, held up as a worker’s utopia, went pear-shaped when a slight downturn in demand for the product caused layoffs, but the company’s rent-taking left hand did not acknowledge what its job-denying right hand was doing. Pullman was, apparently, distraught and affronted by the ingratitude of his workers.
Mackay’s play was not dissimilar to Pullman’s, though he sold land around Sunshine, and the land’s value was at least part due to the industry in the region – and the railway line, which was of course also the reason for industry’s presence. Business aside, Mackay’s claim to fame was (is) that he worked on improving the design of some farming equipment and created a business which, by his death, had become a monolith. I mentioned Mackay’s vision above primarily to catch you and draw you in with promise of one of those marvelous genius stories people still often seem captivated by (qv Steve Jobs) but there’s nothing to suggest he had any vision at all, unless it was the kind typified by Uncle Scrooge when he gets dollar signs for eyeballs.
Yet, the promise of a vision captivates, and there is an extraordinary tendency amongst those who should know better to clamp Sunshine/Albion to a social movement to which it was in many ways antithetical. It is slightly bizarre, as an urban planning historian, to see the extent to which those with a little knowledge will elasticize reality to claim Sunshine as a ‘garden city’; honestly, it’s not a garden city’s arsehole. Nor is it, in truth, a garden suburb, though it does have a garden – the H. V. Mackay Memorial Garden – a name honouring a man who sought to deny his workers reasonable wages by successfully overturning Higgins’ Harvester Judgement. Mackay won the battle of the Harvester judgment, but lost the war: Australia, provoked by Mackay and Harvester, established a basic wage.
Mackay’s garden is a memorial to a man who might well have said, can’t feed your family? Sorry, but please feel free to smell a flower.
For the record, and for the benefit of you the reader: the garden city concept was not, as it is so often typified, the design of concentrically-roaded urban environments with nature strips and a big park. The garden city was a socialist ideal, to create entirely new cities of 40 000 people, drawn from weary, tired, corrupt older cities, alongside industrial and other concerns to employ them, in places where no city had previously existed. Garden cities were going to kill extant cities. Garden cities were not adjunct suburbs on the edge of town propping up demonized major conurbations such as London – as Sunshine was to Melbourne. Garden cities were intended to recalibrate the very notion of land ownership (everyone always paid rent, to go to upkeep and improvement but never profit: there was to be no private land) and defeat the problems of urban sprawl (once a city reached its population maximum, a new city would be legislated nearby). The intricacies of the original idea need not be discussed here further, but the main point holds: Sunshine/Albion is no more a garden city as any other chunk of any city established in the 19th century. Mackay does not appear to have made pronouncements on ideas to locate workers close to his factory. That said, obviously – a la Pullman and another industrialist, William Lever of Liverpool, the instigator of Port Sunlight and the company now known as Unilever – it was useful in a time of growing self-realisation of the worker. Keep your employees somewhat beholden to you and consistently reminded of the pecking order. Other manufacturers consolidated Mackay’s lead and moved to the region: Wunderlich’s, Crittall’s, Spalding’s, Drayton’s pottery, the Australian Reinforced Concrete company. The stark yet majestic Darling’s flour mills, rebuilt after a fire ninety years ago, are at the end of my street, the world’s biggest bollards, keeping me from easily accessing the station every morning. Soon, they will be remade as artists’ studios. Of course they will (and of course I like artists, though I feel for the pigeons).
Albion: how perfidious?
I can’t help alluding to the phrase ‘perfidious Albion’, because it’s hilarious, but an entirely inappropriate non-sequitur here. Whatever the original purpose of applying a hoary old alternative name for England to a small suburb of 4000 people in Melbourne, you’d have to assume the name seemed appropriate partly because of Sunshine’s reputation as a kind of a ‘Birmingham’ – that is, the workers of Sunshine worked in large-scale manufacturing and, in doing so, mimicked their working class brethren at the centre of Empire. Therefore ‘Albion’, an Ancient Greek word either denoting the British Isles or anywhere outside the known Greek world (hence, Albania). Canada narrowly escaped being called New Albion, and so did Sydney Harbour. To add to the peculiarity – in a suburb named after England – many of its streets are named for major cities and towns in Australia: Perth Avenue and Brisbane, Sydney, Albury and Adelaide Streets all proudly run north-south; a Dubbo Street forms part of the road ringing Selwyn Park in its south. The streets named for smaller towns might reflect hedge-betting, in the very early 20th century, about where the nation’s capital was going to be located.
As mentioned, the railway line is a wall between Sunshine, where the Harvester Works once thrived, and suburbs. The Mackay family caused to be built a row of rather impressive – if the burnt-out shell of the last remaining is any indication – homes for Mackay offspring, along the western side of the line. One of these houses was demolished in the 1970s, and 20 or so townhouses were built on the site ten years later. At present, I rent one.
We talk of inhabiting a character or an idea. Inhabiting a house is also revealing of oneself and, well, the house. To return once again to the notion of the ‘vision’, I can’t help but wonder what the initial concept was herein. All these two-storey townhouses are, as far as I can tell, identical in layout, orientation being the only real variance. They each comprise a large bedroom, directly above a living room: both the same size. A much smaller kitchen/dining area is below a bathroom and a tiny bedroom, not big enough for a double bed, and therefore, a child’s room if it’s a bedroom at all. On moving in here, I discovered two things left behind: a large plastic frog in the tiny courtyard and a framed picture of a teddy bear wearing a hat with corks in the smaller bedroom. (Oh, and a lot of black hair in the top bathroom drawer – it’s all still there, I’m never looking in there again, though I relish the prospect of the real estate agent objecting to its presence when I move out. It’s on the condition report).
All the houses look out onto car parking spaces and two sides of each are almost completely glass; as I write this, on a particularly warm pre-summer’s day, I have been pushed further into the westernmost recess of the building to escape a hothouse effect.
I have written extensively elsewhere of my disdain and concern over the Australian habit for designating ‘bogans’ amongst working class people or ‘others’. I don’t see much of this in Albion, however; probably because of the number of million dollar properties currently being turned around in the region. It’s naturally bittersweet for locals, but few I’ve encountered seem to be rusted-on Albionites. In my middle-class mind – you can’t really take the boy out of Hawthorn – I patch together sad, stereotyped backstories for the lone men I encounter in the streets as they drive waywardly, ignoring corner stop signs. These are people who at least on one level – perhaps a few – aren’t sufficiently engaged with 2017 to care if they live or die. I have no insight into them, aside from that they are shitty drivers, but I can’t doubt that there is a coterie of holdouts in Albion (and umpteen other suburbs which, until recently, seemed destined never to hit the trendies’ radar) terminally despondent about the unaffordability of their area. Logic, of course, tells us that even homeowners who have found their property unexpectedly leap in value in a decade, however much they might marvel, are subject to new stressors: rates, local change, feelings of guilt and/or pressure from grown children who never had the luck to buy for almost nothing a house which is now worth more money than the whole family has ever seen.
Visually, it’s hotch laden upon potch. The upmarket Mackay family boulevard aside, the original suburb was built up with blocky standalone weatherboards or California bungalows with large back yards; in some instances, a few smaller homes are crammed onto what was clearly once envisaged as large family blocks. Some of these pre-1950s (the era before Mackay’s heirs sold to Massey Ferguson) homes have given way to beige or orange apartment blocks. Streets are wide and difficult to orientate oneself in.
Albion would be a whole different ballgame, in any case, if it had a genuine centre. All it has is Selwyn Park, named for one of Mackay’s children who died in infancy. The park is a not unpleasant recreation space bordering Koonung Creek. It also has a group of seven shops, named (long before the bridge) Westgate, and a centerpiece of a small housing estate dating from the late 1950s in the area’s far west, outside the original street plan. With a bold iron ‘W’ bolted to its central shop and its decidedly car-oriented focus (‘parking for 5000 cars daily’ declared advertising in the Age for 19 November, 1955: my rough calculations, based on 15 car spaces and eight hours in the day, indicate each car would stop for one and three quarter minutes… but let’s not quibble with utopia) the shopping strip retains a modernist sheen, albeit still with two empty shops, including a very recently vacated pizza outlet.
Who was it who said when the pizza take away goes, the neighbourhood’s heart breaks in two?
Nobody, of course, or perhaps Leonard Cohen, but more likely I think the pizza joint was like one of those tragic figures who dies just as rescue’s trumpets sound on the hilltop. Next door to its corpse is Sadie Black, the new café in the area and still a matter of pride, delight and fascination for locals, if the Facebook group for Albion and Sunshine is anything to go by. Perhaps the best indicator of Sadie Black’s success is the complaints about it that immediately welled up in social media: I took this to demonstrate embrace of stakeholdership amongst the locals (the complaints were also almost all ridiculous, about other customers’ behavior or entirely reasonable practices like payment on order – a rational and efficient way to do business; it was like complaining to your mother that your brother hit you). Sadie Black’s proprietors are pioneers, but everybody agreed it was only a matter of time; Albion was begging for it.
Add to Sadie Black a hairdresser; a Laundromat; a Polish delicatessen and a milkbar-cum-bottleo, and you have bare needs addressed at the strip no-one any longer calls Westgate, though only the café really provides a civic centre (the Polish delicatessen Mitko, which is stupendous, is clearly dependent on a much wider catchment area than just Albion). A scant few other milk-bar-styled buildings in the surrounding streets surely saw the writing on the wall decades ago when the old Harvester works area became a shopping centre d’énormité.
On the brink
As much as one might like to think gentrification was a trackable phenomenon, it also has to be said that it’s still as much of a state of mind as anything else. Albion is half-way there, perhaps, although as long as those Coburgistan dorks think of that skinny, nerve-wracking, 40kph road through Brunswick when they hear the name ‘Albion’, rather than an actual place, Albion feels like it’s safe from the full bourgeois makeover.
Social media remains an unreliable indicator, at least in microcosm. The Facebook group is rife with good cheer: even if it’s musing on local problems: discussion about crashes and sirens in the area (‘Did anyone else just hear…?’) or good news of a pobblebonk in a backyard; or the extraordinary bulletin that a house in Adelaide Street sold for just under a million dollars. But perhaps the most unusual story of the moment in Albion is that of the rail link to the airport.
The Albion-Jacana line – a goods rail line between two places which have otherwise failed to prick Melbournites’ interest – is set to be, at least in large part, remade as Melbourne’s connection to Tullamarine. The federal government has put money into a feasibility study; the state government is making encouraging noises about such a scheme. It’s easy to make such plans (easy, but it still costs $30 million to figure out whether it’s worth doing). If it does transpire though – in fact, even if it merely concentrates interest on this part of the west – we are going to see a whole different Albion emerge. It won’t be a complete do-over like Green Park was to Zetland in Sydney, but it will mean development of Albion as an entrepôt, a stopover, a desirable ‘fifteen minutes to the airport’ locale for people with money dripping out of their pockets and onto their dreams.
This will kill Albion, it won’t make it stronger. But old Albion has been dying for decades anyway, and nothing was ever going to stop that happening. From its ashes will spring a multitude of varieties of largely unaffordable (even to those who can afford it – if you know what I mean) housing. At least I’ll be able to say, in my dotage, that I saw the last days of old Albion, and they had a little merit.