Back To The Ghetto

The decision to site the upcoming LGBTI Pride Centre in the seaside suburb of St Kilda is both a terrific advance for the community, and a disastrous step backwards.

St Kilda has long had a reputation as a raffish, down-at-heel place, a ‘haunt’, as the saying goes, of marginalised people. It is for this reason it still hosts Melbourne’s Pride March.

“Densely populated postwar St Kilda became Melbourne’s red-light district, home to low-cost rooming houses. Since the late 1960s, St Kilda has become known for its culture of bohemianism and as home to many prominent artists, musicians and subcultures, including punk and LGBT. While some of these groups still maintain a presence in St Kilda, in recent years the district has experienced rapid gentrification pushing many lower socio-economic groups out to other areas.” [Wikipedia]

The government would like to “revive” St Kilda, and in particular Fitzroy Street, which is frankly the rough end of the burb. It houses “crumbling” apartment building The George, which is plagued by drug users shooting up on the fire escapes, and sex workers taking advantage of its lax security to entertain their clients in its hallways.

It is also the site of the Gatwick Hotel, shortly to be closed to undergo “The Block” treatment by Channel 9. The Gatwick has a long (and horrible) history as a dangerous home of last resort for people with nowhere else to go, a crime, drugs and sex work hotspot. Across the street from the Gatwick stands the proposed site of the Pride Centre

“The Centre will be based at 79 – 81 Fitzroy Street in St Kilda and will be offered on a freehold basis provided it operates there for the next 20 years. The state government has invested $15 million into the Centre as part of its major $29 million budget package towards LGBTI projects and initiatives.”

The decision has met with a mixed response. On the one hand it is abundantly clear that the city desperately needs a Pride Centre to provide a safe secure home for the myriad gay organisations based here. On the other hand, from other perspectives it looks very much like the state government wants to move the gay community out of the city centre and back into its old ghetto in St Kilda.

There is a perfect city centre location which once looked like becoming the Pride Centre by default. In 2007 the City Melbourne offered space in an office block it no longer needed to community organisations, at half commercial rents. LGBTI radio station Joy 94.9 took the entire top floor, with another floor taken by the now-defunct ALSO Foundation. Sundry smaller organisations leased space from ALSO.

The building, an art deco mini-skyscraper that was once the ComBank HQ, was rechristened The City Village. It’s in the CBD, close to the retail heart, business district, and metro stations, with trams running past the door. Which is why the City would now like its building back. The lure of commercialising such a prime city centre location is just too much.

To repeat, I am thrilled beyond measure that we have such a generous and supportive state government willing to back a Pride Centre with cash and political clout. I am pleased they appointed a board that appears to be highly professional and competent. But I think that Board set the wrong selection criteria and in consequence have chosen the wrong location.

Access is problematic. Fitzroy Street has trams, it’s true, but it’s a 30-45 minute ride from the Flinders St. There is no metro station within walking distance. And for the more affluent (even though they may be less likely to need or use the centre) who can drive there, parking is limited, and expensive.

Once upon a time, St Kilda, because of its rundown character, was something of an LGBTI enclave. Small apartments and bedsits were available cheap. Those days are long gone. Gentrification has seen many old buildings replaced with swish and expensive new blocks, and subdivided houses reunified. Spiralling rents across the city have forced most LGBTI well out of the city. Daniel Reeders has summed up the problem here

“Locating the Pride Centre in St Kilda ignores the needs of queer people in emerging population centres in the West, the outer North, and the outer South-East. The Pride Centre must be located near a major train station, within easy reach of the centre of Melbourne’s hub-and-spoke transit network. In creating a centre to celebrate the triumph of queer community over historical inequities, the Andrews Government should not be creating new ones.”

The Board should never even have shortlisted locations that were not close to a City Loop metro station. Siting the Pride Centre in St Kilda is not a step forward, but back. Back to the time when St Kilda was a cheap and affordable home for LGBTI people. A gay ghetto.

The government hopes that, along with the gentrification of the Gatwick, it will lift the reputation of the area, attract new businesses and revive existing ones. Probably gay ones.The tourism industry would love to turn Fitzroy Street into a Gay Destination, a “Castro-On-Sea,” a new stop for the tour buses come to gawp at the queers.

This is on a par with the usual marginalisation of our community: Pride March is stuffed safely out of sight on Fitzroy St.; Midsumma, after an abortive break out into central locations, is once more back in the scruffy patch of land called Alexandra Gardens. And now Joy 94.9 looks likely to be exiled from the CBD too.

I repeat, I’m thrilled we’re getting a centre, something I have long wished for. I just wish they would put it in the city where it belongs, instead of bribing us to go back to a shiny new ghetto.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)