The 1980s was a more innocent or naive time. Or at least it seemed so to me, given I was a teenager for much of them. Once, circa 1984, I was on an English class excursion to the city to see a movie, and we actually took a chartered bus rather than public transport, and I remember it driving past the Flagstaff Gardens.
I was quite impressed to see a dero strewn on each park bench in the Gardens as our bus drove past. My dad had told me that the Flagstaff Gardens were a bit of a no-go area due to their proximity to a Salvation Army depot in Franklin Street, which was regularly frequented by the deros. It was a bit of an eye opening experience for me then.
Nowadays, if I am on the south side of Victoria Street in North Richmond, between the station and Lennox Street, I barely bat an eyelid when I notice ice users swatting away at invisible demons.
There happens to be a safe injecting room somewhere around there, to the chagrin of local shop keepers and residents.
Now there are plans for the state government to open another safe injecting room within the Hoddle Grid, ie the centre of the city. More particularly, there is a specific site in mind on Flinders Street between Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street.
This proposal has Bad Idea marked all over it, but the brainiacs running the state have not twigged to this yet.
You see, that particular city block has two important Melbourne landmarks located there. One is Young & Jacksons, the most iconic pub in Australia. The other is Degraves Lane, a 100 metre long alley festooned with restaurants, bars and cafes along almost its whole length.
Y&J can probably survive a safe injecting room located several steps away. It has plenty of in-house security, lots of police regularly walking by, and being on the busiest pedestrian intersection in Melbourne will mean that the punters continue to flood in and spend their money in one or other of its bars.
Degraves Street is a totally different proposition. Like a lot of Melbourne’s laneways (of which it is one of the two best ones), it relies on a la fresco dining – tables located on the lane outside each restaurant.
Whist it is not totally unknown to happen, vagrant drug users rarely enter actual bars and restaurants to beg money or otherwise harass the clientele. But they do have a marked tendency to infest outdoor dining and drinking areas on footpaths and in lanes.
Take a case in point from a few years ago. Myself and some colleagues were out one Friday night having farewell drinks for a colleague moving overseas. We were outside a wine bar in Little Bourke Street at the Spring Street end of town. One vagrant, whose face was well known to various of us as he regularly worked that block, came up and bothered me for loose change. In the hope that he would go away and leave everyone else alone, I gave him all the coins in my pocket. Sadly, he then tried to work the entire table for more cash, which struck me as quite impolite, to say nothing of the lack of consideration for the bar owners, who were trying to make an honest living running that business.
Imagine what will happen if a safe injecting room is placed in the proposed location in Flinders Street. Virtually overnight, the a la fresco dining scene in Degraves Lane will be destroyed.
If such a place needs to be imposed in the CBD rather than in a ghost town like Docklands, some more thought might be given to where such a room might be placed, so as to minimise the damage to the laneway culture of Melbourne. It definitely needs to be far away from Degraves Street, or Hardware Lane, or the elbow of a la fresco dining along Bourke and Spring Streets.
I would suggest some moribund pocket, like Flinders Street at the Spencer Street end, where there are abundant bouncers from the King Street nightclubs and strip joints to prevent any flotsam from disrupting those businesses, and where, aside from the after dark life of King Street, the city closes outside of weekday business hours.
Otherwise, the best aspects of laneway and restaurant culture in central Melbourne will be destroyed quickly.