Friday 30 May 2014

Fashion Victim: Noise & the Melbourne CBD

I’m a fashion victim. But not in an actively chosen way, more a passive-smoking way.

I have no interest in fashion, but it’s been wafting right into my face for years now. Over the last year, it’s been almost unbearable.

I live in an apartment in Melbourne’s Central Business District (what Americans would call the Downtown), across the street from the former General Post Office building.

For several months from late 2013 there were three (count 'em!) construction sites in full swing in the neighbourhood.

The former Myer Lonsdale Street building was being transformed into the Emporium shopping mall; the adjoining Strand Arcade being similarly gutted and rebuilt; and the GPO being noisily reshaped into the home of Swedish fashion chain H&M (pictured above, ruining our sleep at 1.30am in early April).

It was the end run of a decade-long metamorphosis in which the block bounded by Bourke, Elizabeth, Lonsdale and Swanston Streets has become a dedicated fashion hub.

From the initial redevelopment of the GPO from post office to upmarket clothing outlet, through the David Jones and Myer rebuilds on Bourke Street, through the recent construction frenzy, that’s been the unifying story: a resurgent CBD reclaiming its fashion crown from suburban upstarts such as Chapel Street and Chadstone.

In the process, there’s been a massive re-sorting of the kinds of businesses found in and around the block.

When Narrelle Harris and I moved in in 2003, we had a wide variety of shops nearby: the 143-year-old McGills newsagency with its magazines, interstate newspapers and stationery; a second-hand bookshop in the Strand Arcade; a cheap homewares shop a few doors from us on Elizabeth Street.

Slowly but inevitably, they’ve been squeezed out, to be replaced by either food or fashion. Those two business types may seem opposed to each other, but I suspect they live in a yin-yang relationship of mutual dependency.

If you’re not the right shape for the latter, of course, you can cheer yourself up with the former (somewhere, a thousand psychiatrists just nodded sagely and adjusted their serious-looking eyewear).

The problem with this rise of the fashionistas and their noisy engines of reinvention? The city is now full of residents. Near the corner of Elizabeth and Little Bourke alone there are hundreds of people in residence, not to mention the poor souls who’ve been staying at the hotel within the old Money Order Office at the heart of the devastated area.

To be fair, the Melbourne City Council made some effort to restrain the enthusiasm of builders. Construction permits for the GPO building were issued, for example, with a midnight end time – really too late on a weeknight, but something that could be tolerated if it were actually complied with.

As deadlines loomed, however, fines were regarded as loose change compared with the millions of dollars dedicated to creating the fashion hub.

So when the wee small hours were pierced once more by the whine of proximity alarms, the grind of saws and the clanking of heavy machinery, I had two choices: make another stressful and possibly fruitless call to the council’s 24-hour security line, or drag out the foam mattress.

This is what it came to. To escape the endless noise, I bought a cheap foam mattress, which I dragged home on the train from a big furniture place in the outer 'burbs (as the only mattresses one can buy in the CBD are expensive ones).

I placed it behind my desk in the living room, as far as possible from the window, and tried to sleep there. Narrelle endured bravely in the bedroom, as her side of the bed was further from the chaos outside.

At least it’s mostly over. Though internal work continues at the Emporium and Strand Arcade, the three buildings have been opened to the fashion-buying public and our noise issues have mostly reverted to random loud party-goers leaving nightclubs on a Saturday night.

It’s about time. Fashion is no good for me; it keeps me up at night.

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