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  • lisa phelan

Recollections of Lygon Street

Lygon Street has been in my life and consciousness for over 40 years. I first remember being intoxicated with its style as a young impressionable teenager, in 1976, when I followed my big brother into Melbourne Uni one day to see what Uni life was all about. What Uni life was all about was Lygon St. This was where you went before lectures, after lectures, to skip lectures, day, night, anytime at all, to soak up the atmosphere. Students were hobnobbing with professors at Jimmy Watsons, musicians and poets were clashing over ideologies in Tiamo, the wogs were congregating outside Notturno’s, the cool kids were playing pool upstairs at Johnny’s Green Room and the style set were pretending to be more philosophical than they really were at Café Paradiso.

Lygon Street wasn’t just for the second generation Italian mobs and their hotted up Toranas. It was a mecca for the young, the cool, the intellectuals, the creatives and the geeks, who all happily shared the street while chasing their dreams and following their heart. The street’s energy was infectious, its arts scene visceral and its Italian food comforting, familiar and great value. The vibe was amazing!

There was always a reason to be in Lygon Street. In Readings you would always try and bump into the Johnny Depp look alike rummaging through the vinyl section for Pink Floyd albums and pray that the Italian stallion coming out of L’Alba’s would lean into you and whisper ‘ciao!’ as you walked by. You could get a real coffee, a heavenly gelato in summer, see a movie, see a play or just hang around the outdoor tables, people watching. And you could always count on running into someone you knew, to share the collective joy of being in the street and participating in its culture.

With the end of the decade approaching and the 80’s looming, denim, big curly hair, discos and Countdown became cemented in our lifestyle. Theatre, dance and music were enjoying a renaissance, spawning some incredible talent that offered new sounds, new moves and new fashions. Skyhooks were big. They were irreverent, anti-establishment, wore make-up and sang about Carlton culture and Lygon Street. Red Symons and other famous musicians, journalists and academics could be regularly seen at Tiamo, writing and debating. After disco-ing the night away at one of the city venues you inevitably ended up at Notturno’s or L'Alba's, where you could get spaghetti and pizza to satisfy your cravings at 4am. You'd find yourself there with all the other night dregs, make-up smudged, heels kicked off and feeling overly emotional about some Latino hunk.

The Carlton Movie House just round the corner in Faraday Street was as grungy as you could get. The seats had become un-anchored to the floor and the place hadn’t been cleaned since 1970, but its range of late night arthouse movies and selected re-issues drew an eclectic mix of viewers doing all sorts of weird things in the back rows. La Mama theatre, around the other corner, was showing some impressive live theatre, a lot of it coming out of Melbourne Uni, introducing some great actors that would go on to become stars. Some of the plays were so intense, so esoteric and so challenging that you couldn’t understand any of it but you loved it all the same and discussed its interpretive nuances for hours afterwards.

The Lygon Street Festa was a huge drawcard throughout the 1980’s when the influence of the Italian community was at its peak. It attracted more than 700,000 people from far and wide shutting down Lygon St, Elgin St and Queensberry St to let the masses through. It was the birth of outdoor street festivals in Australia. You always went in a big group, all dressed in high waisted jeans with big patterned shirts, shoulder pads and frizzed hair, whether you were a girl or a guy, and strutted your stuff down the street like you owned it. There was the classic waiters' race, chariot race, break dance competitions, bands, the greasy pole, street food, gelati and for us, it meant gathering on restaurant balconies to belt out old Italian dinner dance standards to the accompaniment of our friend’s piano accordion. We thought we were culture icons!

Electric boogie break dance at the 1983 Lygon St Festa.

Picture: Rennie Ellis/State Library

Electric boogie break dance at the 1983 Lygon St Festa. Picture: Rennie Ellis/State Library of Victoria

Papa Gino's was the only place to go for window made pizza, University Café was a cool drop in place and Twins on the corner was the antidote to a big night out, serving big fat greasy souvlakis. Shakahari opened as one of Melbourne’s first vegetarian restaurants, bringing to the street a taste of the hippie movement. Café Paradiso served the best lasagne in Melbourne in its back courtyard and at Café Sport, across Grattan Street, students and Italian nonni gathered together over coffee and cigarettes to watch the soccer on TV and shout obscenities at the referee. Genevieve’s, round the corner next to the Carlton Movie House, captured the movie crowd, late nighters and arts students. And every Sunday night The Whitehouse on the corner in Faraday St became packed with Uni students all wanting to drink wine, mingle and be noticed.

Lygon Street was a rite of passage. You fell in love there, you tasted Italy there, you went there for artistic stimulation, discussion and collaboration, you played, you watched, you danced, you went there before a big night, after a big night and for a big night. It was a street that offered a lot of things to a lot of people yet somehow managed to give an intimate experience to each individual. It will always remain my first big love affair in Melbourne.

Over time, through its many incarnations, the makeup of Lygon Street has drastically changed, but somehow its essence has not. The face of the street, importantly, is still very much linked to the wave of Italian migrants who came there in the '50's to introduce Melbourne to coffee and food as a way of life. But it is also reflects the last 60 years of living in inner city Melbourne, where life along Lygon Street was a cosmopolitan contemporary shake-up of food, ethnicity, academia, social reform, arts and culture. Visit it on a sunny day and spend some time soaking up its ambience… it’s hard not to fall for it.

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