“Urbanism is the modern fulfilment of the uninterrupted task which safeguards class power: the preservation of the atomisation of workers who had been dangerously brought together by urban conditions of production.” Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967)
The Yarra River divides Melbourne more than just geographically. It is the polluted, poisonous brown snake that divides the northwest of the city from the southeast. It is a psychological division of the city. The Yarra River is the major psychogeographic feature of Melbourne.
‘Psychogeography’ is a portmanteau neologism by the Lettrists, a proposal for a study of the relationship between psychology and geography. In reality it was an excuse for the avant-garde of Paris to drunkenly wander the streets and for Stewart Home and other British Neoists to write magico-nonsense (Mind Invaders, ed. Steward Home, Serpent’s Tail, 1997). But if we take Debord seriously then the psychogeography Melbourne appears to divide and restrict the movement of its inhabitants, with a spoked network of railway tracks, tram tracks and roads. Whether this “safeguards class power” as Debord argues or merely the result of stupid and short-sighted governments is a matter for political debate.
For more on the psychogeography of Melbourne see Mapping Melbourne and Simon Seller’s “Urban Wasteland: A Pyschogeographical tour of Melbourne”.
The Yarra River was called Birrarrung meaning “Place of Mists and Shadows” by the Wurundjeri tribe, the local aboriginal people. In 1803 when NSW Surveyor-General Charles Grimes named it “Freshwater River”. In 1835 it was renamed “Yarra Yarra” by John Helder Wedge of the Port Phillip Association, in the mistaken belief that this was the Aboriginal name for the river. The name was subsequently condensed to the Yarra River.
The Yarra is not a wide river and there are many bridges; for a visitor of the city the river may not seem like a major boundary but it is to Melbourne’s inhabitants. People living south of the river rarely go further across than the CBD or MCG. And people living north of the river rarely go south of the river. I could go into generalizations about the affluent southeast and the working class northwest of the city or how the radial spread of the city train-lines, tramlines and roads to explain this division.
The river has become a tourist attraction. In a copy of London’s Southbank, the south bank of the Yarra was made into an arts precinct, later extended with a restaurant and casino area. Princess Bridge has become a prime location to photograph the city at sunrise or sunset. The south bank of the river was the first to be improved, although this had always had parks and boatsheds. A riverside walk and sculptures have been added to the north bank of the Yarra it remains dominated by the railway lines and Flinders St. station until the construction of Federation Square and Birrarung Marr park.
I live in the north and I rarely travel south of the river, except to go to the NGV or other venues in Southbank. I am sorry that I haven’t written more about the galleries and street art south of the river.
(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)