(Image: Supplied)

The balcony of our apartment in Footscray faces east, the Melbourne city skyline perched on the horizon. The railway and Buckley St funnel out on either side of the building in opposite directions.

The road, usually so reliably bustling you have to wait several minutes before you cross, whatever the time of day, is now largely empty, save for the fairly steady noise of big delivery trucks from the nearby ports.

There’s a disused lot across the road. The plywood fencing surrounding it is plastered in posters for comedy shows, gallery exhibitions and concerts. They feel so archaic, so of another era, they might just as easily be advertising the cigarettes nine out of 10 doctors recommend for pregnant women.

I have never felt — and I hope never again to feel — so acutely, so painfully, how nice it would be to have the option to go see Tommy Little or Boney M.

It’s the first evening of Victoria’s newly-official police state, with on-the-spot fines for unauthorised congregations and non-essential travel.

I left the house for the first time in what I think was four days, but could have been longer.

Exercise is one reason you may leave the house, and for my first hour out, which I spent in neighbouring Seddon, I barely see anyone not either camouflaged in active wear, or brandishing their dog like papers at a checkpoint.

Indeed, in nearly three hours walking the early evening streets, at least five police cars pass, conspicuously slower than normal traffic.

Almost everyone is doing resentful little figures of eight around one another on the pavements to maintain 1.5 metres distance.

But it’s not just that. People avert their eyes, quicken their step, talk a little quieter. The only time I can make out individual words is when a couple passes, bickering, some of their words turned to a hiss by the masks they wear.

There is, as in all things, a huge contrast between pearly white, increasingly-affluent Seddon and rackety, multicultural Footscray. They are a few blocks and several realities apart.

The main streets of Seddon, fully in the grips of gentrification, are lined with pure discretionary spending — florists, bath oils, yoga and barre studios, lovely hand-painted lampshades and artisanal birthday cards. You suspect the suburb will be gutted. A store that quite literally specialises in vases and cakes is not built to survive a recession, let alone all of this. A “For lease” sign hung, embarrassed, in one empty shop window.

The impact on Footscray might be less immediate, partly by dint of its huge proliferation of restaurants — injera, pho, roti, bahn mi, point to a map blindfolded and their national cuisine is probably here — which can stay open to do take away, and partly because it’s always a been a little bit rundown.

Gentrification is coming, but before this crisis, there was already a decent number of empty shops with windows covered in graffiti.

Still, there are now spots where every store is shuttered: the African natural hair barber, plastered with images of fades, dreads, braids, cornrows and, for some reason, the early nineties comedy hip hop duo Kid N’Play. The electronics store with its signage half in Vietnamese. The injera bakery that also sells prepaid phones.

The same is true for my favourite Footscray building, though that’s nothing new. It’s a VCR repair store, with hand-painted brand names above the door. In a gorgeous example of never wasting a crisis, they’ve amended the “We’re closed until April” sign that was on the door since Christmas to include “because of coronavirus”.

There are moments of odd, tender normalcy in all this. At one point I see a man rounding a corner with his young son, and gesturing at the empty street with a smile. The two hunch into a racing stance and break into a little mock competition, until they see an older couple coming in the other direction and come guiltily to a halt.

Mostly the streets are clear outside the restaurants, with the neon “open” sign glowing merrily in brilliant reds, blues and greens, the lights and the music on, the chairs all up on the tables. Those groups of older men who used to hang outside, just smoking and talking, are almost entirely gone.

And then a single car passes with a sound like a retreating wave, and you realise there are no other people for a block either side, and that bright sizzle of neon is all you can hear.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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