Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Melbourne / Berlin: a district-by-district guide

Melbourne and Berlin have a lot in common.  They're both the most culturally vibrant cities in their respective countries,  they're both roughly the same size,  and they're both full of fascinating people and places.  Not surprisingly,  they also appeal to the same kinds of people:  Berliners who visit Australia often rank Melbourne as their favourite city,  and Melbournians travelling through Europe always seem to fall in love with Berlin.  And Nick Cave is by no means the only one who's ended up living in the other city for years.

When I moved to Melbourne from Berlin,  I found myself inevitably classifying areas of the new city in terms of areas familiar to me in Berlin,  as a way of orienting myself.  I was amazed how easy it was,  and how neatly it all seemed to fit.  This is my guide to Melbourne for Berliners,  and to Berlin for Melbournians,  according to what Australians call  "suburbs"  and what Berliners know as  "Bezirke".

Caveat:  it's only a rough approximation,  and there are plenty of differences between the two cities,  not least stemming from the fact that the dominant ethnic group in Berlin is the Germans and in Melbourne the Anglo-Celtic Australians.  But I think it gives anyone familiar with either town a pretty good idea of how things fit together in the other - at least in the inner city areas.  I'm basically restricting myself to those;  I could go beyond that but I'm not very familiar with the outer suburbs of either city,  and let's face it,  outer suburbs just aren't very interesting anywhere really.  The further out you go,  the more boring and/or nasty things tend to get,  and let that be warning enough for you.

First a rough geographical overview:  inner east of Berlin  =  inner north of Melbourne,  inner west of Berlin  =  inner south of Melbourne.  Centre  =  centre.

Northcote  =  Friedrichshain.  Not long ago considered very dull,  now increasingly hip with lots of new little cafes/galleries/live music venues and other  "alternative"  things.  Some of these have established themselves,  most however are rather ephemeral and will disappear relatively quickly,  to be replaced by others.  In other words,  an area in flux,  with a lot of interesting things going on.  Some bits are much more hip and/or upmarket than others.  Ethnically still pretty much dominated by the traditional majority group,  although slowly becoming more diverse.  Note that Northcote does not have a Simon-Dach-Strasse area:  the closest thing to that is probably the Bridge Rd-Church St area of Richmond.

Richmond  =  hard to classify in Berlin terms:  something like the Hauptstrasse area of Schöneberg mixed with Simon-Dach-Strasse area of Friedrichshain.  Close to coolness but not quite there,  despite sometimes trying very hard - with the exception of a few venues which are genuinely very good indeed.

Brunswick  =  Neukölln  (Nord - the parts closest to Kreuzberg).  Similar to Northcote/Friedrichshain in terms of being in flux,  rapidly becoming much more hip,  lots of new arty-alternative things popping up.  However,  both poorer and hipper than Nthcote/F'hain and even more interesting things going on nowadays.  Much more ethnically diverse as well:  this is an area which has long been an ethnic minority stronghold,  particularly for the Arab/Turkish/Muslim ethnic minorities,  but with other groups as well.

Coburg  =  Neukölln (Süd/south).  Geographically one step out from Brunswick/Neukölln.  Similar to that area,  only not becoming hip.

Fitzroy North,  Carlton North,  Clifton Hill  =  Kreuzberg 61.  Comfortable,  relaxed,  leafy area of the city,  full of quiet well-ordered streets with nice little cafes,  bookshops and organic groceries.  A few good bars and music/performance venues.  Lots of people who vote Green.  Becoming more expensive these days,  more yuppie-ish,  but still very alternative in character,  if rather "safe" and unexciting.  Traditionally an ethnic minority stronghold  (with main ethnic group Italian in Melbourne and Turkish in Berlin),  but less so these days as rents rise.

Fitzroy  &  Carlton,  parts of Collingwood  =  Prenzlauer Berg  (especially south of Danziger Strasse).  Once the hippest part of town (and originally very working-class),  but became much less hip over the past decade or so as all the fashionable young wannabes moved in.  Now increasingly expensive and increasingly mainstream and "trendy".  However,  still a number of good bars and music/performance venues hanging on in various places.  Also lots of nice leafy streets and still some interesting little cafes and shops.  The alternative past is by no means completely dead,  but the area is not as pleasant as it once was,  and nowhere near as affordable.  Ethnic diversity:  fairly low.  (Note Fitzroy/Carlton doesn't have nearly as many babies as Prenzl Berg:  still more a young singles place than a young families place.  Fitzroy/Carlton also doesn't have the old,  fairly mainstream gaybourhood that Prenzl Berg does,  although there is something of a gay presence there and it's likewise fairly mainstream)

Abbotsford  &  parts of Collingwood  =  Kreuzberg 36.  Not long ago quite seedy,  poor,  gritty,  very hip in the slightly scary inner-city-ghetto kind of way - drugs,  punks,  loud bars,  etc.  Now increasingly gentrified,  but retaining a respectable amount of its earlier character.  Very strong hippy tradition as well.  Located on the banks of the river,  with some nice green spots.  Features a major arts centre  (in a refurbished historic building complex)  and a sizeable children's farm.  Also has the city's biggest not-totally-mainstream queer scene  (although some of the most interesting queer stuff is now happening elsewhere,  especially in Melbourne where it's moved to Brunswick and Melbourne City).  Still an ethnic minority stronghold (Turkish in Berlin,  Vietnamese in Abbotsford).  Also continues to have a very strong sense of community,  with people willing to protest against new developments they feel will alter the character of the area.
Note:  Collingwood/Abbotsford was never quite so hip or vibrant as Kreuzberg 36 was in the eighties;  it lacks Kreuzberg's legendary squatting past.  Kreuzberg 36 is perhaps unique in terms of its steeped-in-tradition cool and the strength of its community spirit,  although both have weakened in recent years under the pressures of development and rising property values - something also confronting Abbotsford/Collingwood.

Melbourne City,  South Melbourne  &  Port Melbourne  =  Mitte  &  Tiergarten.  All the main tourist landmarks,  plus the main business district and the city's major parklands.  Also includes the main arts precinct and museums.  Lots of fashionable galleries,  eateries and nightlife,  and the city's most expensive residential districts.  Also the city's most expensive shops.

I'm less familiar with the south of Melbourne and the west of Berlin,  so the following are only a very rough comparison:

South Yarra  (west of Chapel St)  =  Mitte  (Spandauer Vorstadt)  but minus Oranienburger Strasse.  Expensive and fashionable,  but mostly in a rather quiet and understated kind of way.  This place has style - expensive style.  However,  still a few surprisingly down-at-heel corners surviving if you look hard enough.  Lots of art galleries and boutiques.  Next to the river.

South Yarra (east of Chapel St) & Toorak  =  Charlottenburg.  Also expensive but less fashionable.  "Old money" area.  Possibly not quite as many art galleries in the Melbourne area as in Charlottenburg,  but I haven't really looked closely at either area.

Prahran & Windsor  =  Wilmersdorf/Schöneberg.  Includes the city's traditional mainstream gaybourhood.  Generally similar to Mitte/South Yarra  (the latter being next to it in Melbourne,  on the northern edge of the gaybourhood)  but not quite as expensive or as fashionable.  Fairly boring on the whole.

St Kilda (minus beach)  =  Schöneberg/Tempelhof  (minus airport).  Fairly mainstream,  still relatively working class,  still some very seedy corners but on the whole undergoing gentrification  (and St Kilda has been going upmarket with startling speed,  more so than Tempelhof or Schöneberg).  Probably more ethnically diverse than the other areas in the inner south of Melb/west of Berlin,  which tend to be very much dominated by the majority group.  [Edit 26/01/08:  St Kilda is probably more like Prenzlauer Berg - not only is it going upmarket from poor origins,  it also used to be a quite alternative area popular with artists,  and there's still a fair bit of artsy stuff there.  It also has a reasonable gay presence,  spillover from adjacent Prahran/Windsor.  Possibly even more like Prenzl Berg than Fitzroy/C'wood,  as those areas have a few patches which are very Kreuzberg.]

And that's it - everything within the borders of my world,  which essentially consists of the central areas of two cities on opposite sides of the planet.  I'd like to have been able to talk more about Melbourne's inner west - the Kensington/Footscray/Yarraville area - but I really know very little of it,  although from what I've heard it sounds a lot like Wedding/Moabit.  If you want to check out maps of any of these places,  you can find Berlin here and Melbourne here.  Explore and enjoy.