Brunnie: Once Was Cool Street Is Selling Up


Liz Conor takes a stroll down memory lane, when Fitzroy was Fitzroy, and houses didn’t sell for $2 million.

And what will you pay us? I asked the man from Collins, wanting to stick their real estate sign on our house to direct punters to a sale a few doors up. Your payment will be helping your neighbours get a better price for their home, he assured. Oh that’s smooth, I snipely assented and of course we got onto valuing.

They also sold Peggy’s last weekend. A few doors down from the upper reaches of Brunswick St one of the original miner’s cottages, with the proverbial outside dunny and the jasmine scent still carrying the strip lawn all the way down to the back lane fence. It went for nearly 2mil.

Peggy was born in this house and raised her daughter in it. Most days she perched on the brick fence and chatted to the neighbours, marking our parade through the years from babes trailing tiny loose limbs in pouches, to feasting on toes in prams to steadying bikes.

She remembered the railine through Park Street, the grain silos with Tea, Sugar and Flour graffiti vertically from their rims. She remembered when our place was The Railway Hotel – the local corner pub, and later her milk bar. She herself had graduated from the fence to a seated frame when she told me she had ‘the Big C’, an advanced melanoma showing through her thinning white hair.

Our neighbours going on sale a few doors up are, like Peggy, nearly the last of the working-class of Fitzroy. The Mummy remembered getting her milk from ours, but we rarely spoke because the Daddy had a mate who, when they weren’t ogling under a bonnet, ogled my younger self such that I scurried indoors. Their round-faced little girl was older than ours. But few of the kids in this street met by roaming the strip park outside, climbing trees together, or stretching out in the grass to ponder the ants’ trails.

Peggy died in softer, plusher surroundings than her cramped intergenerational dwelling, in an aged care facility in Northcote. Her little cottage stood empty for years. Only last year was it rented out to bright straight-limbed young things who set up on a couch on her stoop and stared intently at their laptops with their feet propped on milk crates.

I took my now 17-year-old in to the inspection to farewell Peggy. Now her home could be a museum not only to the original workers who thronged Fitzroy, but the squalid houses their kids rented out to students like me. From her age I shared six of them in streets around North ‘Roy. Rowe, McKean, Delbridge, Falconer, Brunnie and Park.

One of them appeared in Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip. All of them held stories that died with their owners. No doubt neighbourly intrigues carried on just doors apart, women stiffly averting their eyes in the aisles of Piedemontes.


We found Peggy’s lino trodden and cracked over wonky floorboards. The dear little dunny, funny lego-scale ‘outhouse’ – its sheets of unforgiving wax paper hung on a nail, long gone.

A few frizzled carrot heads and trailing tomato were potted with thyme in the narrow concrete-hemmed garden. The waterlogged Masonite ceiling panels swooped down over the tiled shower cubicle, mortar and mould indistinguishably sweet and dank.

A deco panel was fitted over the original fireplace with a procession of cast sailing boats. A little room off the lounge was so cramped a mattress bedded on milk crates was wedged into 3 walls. The kitchen was still lined in tongue and groove, with its little push-button latched cupboards, the fridge also raised on milk crates.

It was no doubt bought by a young professional couple who’ll struggle in it for seven years, and when careering kiddies make it unliveable, they’ll rip it down and slap up a vertical concrete panel bunker with carefully spaced paving under a climate-conscious cornucopia of succulents. The jasmine spilling over the back lane will go and another jaunty, may I say slightly smartarse roofline, will Bogart the Fitzroy sky along with the glut of cheese graters currently going up all along Nicholson and Holden. Pretty much have to go to the Cemetery to get good sky in Melbs these days.

Another of my student dives was up a little known stairwell off Brunswick St, rising into an unlit warren from under a wrought iron arch a few doors up from the Blackcat Café. Millions will have passed by without ever peeking into that dusty dim grotto. The letterboxes have changed since I was there; an aluminium cabinet of dinged flip ups has replaced the hinged padlocked mini-lockers warped ajar.

A Brunswick Street cafe in Fitzroy. (IMAGE: Attila Siha, Flickr)
A Brunswick Street cafe in Fitzroy. (IMAGE: Attila Siha, Flickr)

Studio 17 is straight up and out on the landing. I was there in 1990, Brunnie St’s heyday. I’d pick up a load of firewood at the BP on Johnston, having coasted down the hill from Uni, and wheel it home balanced on the rack of the three-gear Raleigh I’d inherited from an older sister who’d joined the Margis.

I was living above the Black Cat when it was a clean stark space with red lino top tables, cacti, the light flooding in the corner windows. Their Nuclear Alaskas were streaked with lime syrup and served under a shower of pricking sparks.

So I took my 17 year-old up my old stairs after we paid our last respects at Peggy’s and showed her my own late-teen door. Told her how we’d got a grand piano up there only to be evicted when it started to assert itself through cracks in the shoe repairer’s ceiling below.

Studio 17 had no kitchen. We lived on coffee and the first breads from the boutique bakeries springing up then. The dorm bathroom next door with its slated wooden mats is unchanged. The old dowager of a building was a warren then of dancers, architect and design graduates and painters. There was No Yoga (Naomi Klein’s next release surely). The two ‘rooms’ in our flat were only partitioned. I liked to tell myself they were visually private if not acoustically as I ‘bonked’ (always hated that word) my sweet-faced young Yorkshire man with the Cheshire smile.

Heroin hadn’t hit Smith back then, nor ice cream Brunnie. There were hydroponic homegrown spliffs, blowsy summer afternoons in the beer garden at The Standard, speeding in the Seaview Ballroom to the Violent Femmes. Ecstasy hadn’t been invented yet. If you wanted to hold a feminist meeting to Smash the Dominant Paradigm you photocopied stencilled flyers at Janet Powell’s office behind Lygon St and armed with, get this, a roll of sticky tape, you wrapped them around the splintered lampposts up and down the street.

Me and the Yorkshire man would stagger out of bed together and get stuck into the Jacob’s Creek over breakfast at Mario’s then resume snogging in every doorway up Elgin, missing classes. On the rare occasion I did make them he’d appear in the doorway and open his fly leaving me wheezing over distinctly unfunny Latin conjugations.

I learnt important lessons that year. Skinny dipping in the Unimelb moat is vincit propositum given it is only shin deep, fretus vestri sententia, and the central staggered aisle in Old Arts Public Lecture Theatre is not so commodious for ‘bonking’. Inde sine dicens I failed Latin and he had to repeat classics I think it was.

I was lucky to get sacked from Café Bohemia before it caught fire. It was one of the few late night cafes in Melbs then. We finished late so one night a glossy-haired waspish waitress and I trailed our boyfriends over the fence of the Botanical Gardens, and on leaving skinny-dipped in the Blue fountain. It has a sensor that downed the topiary spray as soon as we got in, giving marginally more cover than the Melbourne Uni Moat, ut fortuman haberet.

I picked up shifts at The Fitz where I was soon celebrated as The Worst Waitress on Brunnie. Late lattes bathed in their saucers, tie tips dipped in soup. I juggled shifts at the Treble Clef at the Arts Centre but got sacked for putting an iron through their thoroughly deserving saucy French maid livery. On to the Upstairs Café, where the requisite post-shift spliff, my boss assured me, had to be partaken lying on cushions on the floor, just in case people two stories down looked up and sprung us smoking bud through the windows yeah right.

All radiating out from Brunnie St once centre to Melbourne’s pre-hipster dreamscape. Within steps of breaking out of that hooded stairwell I’d have run into an old flatmate, a current classmate, a ex-flame’s brother, his drummer and so on. The Fringe Parade was ad capite ad calcem on Brunnie then. As I explained to my young daught it was then an unspoiled esplanade for any wellspent misyouth. Soon its Grub St offerings will become as lifeless as the abandoned nightstrip of Chapel. Another spirited Melbourne strip undergoing Slow Death by Boutique.

As it transpired, I was recounting most of this to the young woman who now stands in my place in this vanishing quarter, and there sitting against the newspaper rack in Mario’s was one of its principle impresarios, Henry Maas. We nodded cordially as we have for 30 odd years, he from under the feathered hoardings of Cooltown, the plays, gigs, burlesques and comedies all in venues I’m mouth-wateringly still to sample, up along the arteries into Coburg and Preston where perhaps she’ll strike out and form a domain of criss-crossed intrigues, missed classes and other life lessons that never quite leave you.

And Peggy’s, along with our nameless neighbour’s, selling up a few doors from the upper reaches of Brunnie, stood unchanged through it all. Last stands to the gentrification of ‘Roy (to which I aided and abetted), long ago enough to see the ‘character’ anchors of a neighbourhood yanked up at 2mil a pop.




Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.