Once the central artery of Melbourne’s counterculture, Fitzroy Street in St Kilda has been down on its luck for decades – but things might be looking up
Fitzroy Street St Kilda has a shiny new centrepiece – the Victorian Pride Centre has finally opened its doors to the public with the lifting of the state’s lockdown.
The queer community centre, which is the only one of its type in Australia and one of the largest in the world, will house more than a dozen LGBTIQ+ organisations, the result of the Victorian state government and local Port Phillip council joining forces to get the $50m project off the ground.
After more than a year of delays and Covid-19 related setbacks, the opening of the centre couldn’t have come at a better time – connecting the queer and broader community with essential services, providing spaces for art, culture, events and collaboration, and giving a much needed shot in the arm to St Kilda.
The Pride Centre (already dubbed with more than a dash of hyperbole as the ‘Gaudi of the south’ owing to its dramatic elliptical atrium, grandiosity and metallic curvature) also offers the promise of renewal to a once-vibrant street that has been down on its luck for decades.
Amid the eclectic mix of gentrification and evident poverty that characterises St Kilda, the Pride Centre aims to remain grounded in the diverse local community. Traders have their hopes pegged on the Pride Centre on top of other efforts currently under way to rejuvenate the street.
“St Kilda has always been multidimensional,” business association president David Blakeley says. “From the Jewish cake shops on Acland Street, to the live music scene, and the gay history here – it means many different things to different people. So the Pride Centre has a natural residency … This is more of a coming home than a new home for the queer community.”
On the mezzanine of the centre, the first banner ever used at Mardi Gras has been given a permanent home, along with 200,000 items chronicling Australia’s LGBTIQ history. What started as a filing cabinet in a spare room – the Australian Queer archives – has become a sprawling collection that can now be displayed in a museum-style space.
Archives president Ange Bailey says it’s a chance to “share these stories with both the queer and broader community. Across the generations, the queer community has the shared stories of struggle, resilience and celebration and, in engaging with these histories, can create new dialogue into the future. To be queer, still today, I think you can never be too complacent.”
The first floor houses Joy 94.9 – Australia’s only gay and lesbian radio station, that now has state of the art studios from which to broadcast. Other tenants include Transgender Victoria, the LGBTI multicultural council, the bookstore Hares and Hyenas, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival,Switchboard and others.
Standing atop the sweeping rooftop – with views across the bay to the south and city skyline to the north-west – one gets a strong sense of Fitzroy Street’s potential future. The Pride Centre occupies the former site of Monroe’s restaurant, which was always a popular haunt of the queer community. But the queer history of St Kilda stretches back to the mid-20th century.
According to the recent heritage report History of LGBTIQ+ Victoria in 100 Places and Objects, St Kilda was transformed from a seaside tourism haven for the wealthy from 1880s through to the mid 20th century, when the area changed into the place where Melbourne’s ‘outcasts’ found a home.
St Kilda housed some of Australia’s first gay clubs and sex worker support services, including the art-deco Prince of Wales hotel, which hosted American military personnel during WWII and regular drag shows throughout the 70s and 80s. Early gay clubs like Girlbar, Mandate, Les Girls and Bojangles operated throughout the 80s and 90s, and the Daughters of Bilitis, the first Australian gay rights group, originally formed in a St Kilda flat in Acland Street in 1969.
However, in recent years the urban seaside boulevard famed for its rock and roll edge has fallen derelict – with only a few restaurants surviving amid the chain stores, empty shopfronts, convenience stores and late night takeaway spots – mostly inhabited by inebriated backpackers.
Alongside the Pride Centre, a new project called Renew Fitzroy Street, following in the footsteps of other Renew projects around the country, has already seen seven vacant shopfronts given over to local artists and artisans with free or low rent (until a paying tenant is found) in an effort to bring foot traffic and culture back.
“You can already feel a shift towards a new buzzy era of the street,” says Courtney DeWitt, co-owner of Domestic Fantasies, a 20th century furniture store that has taken up residence in one of the Renew shopfronts. Dewitt lives nearby, and believes “the opening of the Pride centre is a massive part of that. There’s no doubt in our mind that Fitzroy street is on the verge of a renaissance, the north side should be warned – we’re back baby.”
Her business partner, Corine Auzou, says she remembers living in St Kilda in the 90s when it felt like a living community. “It was full of artists, musicians, and a huge gay community. Everyone lived here – you walk out and bump into your friends you’d seen the night before at the nightclub – it was actually a community. But then a lot of people just left – it just wasn’t the same place anymore. Having the Pride Centre open up here has just given me renewed hope they are not going to let this street die out. We are going to bring it back to its glory days.”
When the Victoria premier, Daniel Andrews, officially opened the building he hit on a note that could equally apply to the Pride Centre as to renewal of St Kilda itself. “It holds the stories of struggle, the stories of pain and loss, but it sets the course for a future of hope. One of inclusion and equality,” he said.
“The space we’re in today is nothing short of amazing, fabulous even.”