(Image: AP/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

Poor old Melbourne, Grim City, looking sad and battered, a miserable place. And then COVID hit, and there was a lockdown, and it got even worse. Boom boom. 

No, but seriously, the pandemic has knocked the city backwards by decades. When the full lockdown was on last winter, it was like weekends used to be in the ’70s, ghost trams rattling through empty streets of closed shops, as the wind chilled the bones. I loved it, but it wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

The long lockdown appears to have killed the last vestiges of “Melberlin” of the ’90s and ’00s, the bizarre moment when our dowdy little burg became some sort of hip destination. But that had already been killed off by the determination of Labor to turn the CBD into a somewhat alienating student village, not particularly connected to the life of the rest of the city.

The policy has hollowed the place out, a decline Labor was largely indifferent to. That has come back to haunt them, leaving the city with reduced resilience to the full economic shock of what turned out to be the world’s longest lockdown, another Melbourne record (largest tram network; longest railway station; oldest western Chinatown; something about the state library dome I forget; the dim sim; hook turns; blue heaven milkshake flavour). 

Now, one is told, state and city council officials are quietly melting down over what will happen when JobKeeper is cut off. The whole country will suffer, but Melbourne is going to be hit hard. Retail was already suffering, with blocks of empty shops along once chic boulevards like Chapel Street.

There’s already been a few iconic places lost (vale Dogs Bar, Migo’s hole-in-the-wall cafe, Touch of Paris hair salon beneath Flinders Street Station, the Lebanese nut and sweet shack in Greektown, and soon the Theosophical Building on Russell Street, a century-old piece of history, part of an intact heritage block, to be demolished in an act of the sort of moronic vandalism I thought we’d left behind, but apparently not).

There’ll be many more to go. There’s a lot of panini cafes and hot pot places that won’t be missed, but what will replace them? Effectively, Melbourne has been accelerated in the process all cities are going through. The world’s longest lockdown has made it clear how much urban life was in zombie mode, shambling on long after death.

Such acceleration should be an opportunity to make bold experiments with urban living. Will the Andrews government and the city council (a very junior player) take it up? One doubts it.

The two strategies seem to be: drive people back into offices, and put art into vacant shopfronts. The latter is the desperate move I’ve seen in every dying US Midwestern city you’d care to name. It’s a sort of urban last will and testament: “Ha, we have no commerce, but please look at this crimson sculpture of the cookie monster in a shop window, a bold statement against racism.” 

Trying to push people back into offices — which they are actively resisting — is even more ridiculous. That people should have a workplace they can go to, a focus, is a good and necessary thing. But the full-time mandated office is unnecessary and archaic.

The 40+ hour office is the open prison of capitalism, nothing else, a showroom for the waste of life. Reducing its reach would not only free up untold hours of human activity, but greatly reduce emissions on our rush-hour bumper-to-bumper freeways. 

But the opportunity offered by the interruption of our long lockdown is dizzyingly radical, almost too much to contemplate, and certainly beyond the scope and ability of the Andrews government. It means accepting that the old idea of the city, as an autonomously running thing, is over.

From now on, cities will have to be actively curated or they will simply die. Millions will retreat to teleworking, online shopping and video streaming. What once held society together — rich, multiple, necessary and random face-to-face interaction — attenuates. The desire persists, but the critical mass is no longer there.

This is assisted by the criminally poor, wilfully negligent neoliberal non-planning of outer urban areas we have engaged in for decades — the placeless exurbs whose only focus is a Coles or Woolworths, or that agora and forum of our time, a Dan Murphy’s with a carpark.

If you don’t think this general social breakdown could happen, it already has, in the US. If you wonder how things like the QAnon phenomenon could occur, that’s one reason — ordinary social interaction so dissipates that common sense begins to fall away. In a high-tech, neoliberal era, society doesn’t simply happen anymore. But trying to shoehorn people into offices, freeways and trains isn’t a solution (except, of course, for Transurban and for Metro, the commercial property developer that builds the occasional tunnel).

The city has to be rethought as a place whose focus and activity is less dependent on high-volume retail and administrative work, and more oriented to multiple uses that are less cash-dependent. Art in windows is just frippery round the edges.

If the city is to be revived, it means first of all busting commercial retail rents downward, with punitive levies on vacancies longer than three months. That in turn means re-adopting some of the zoning that used to limit the number of restaurants — which stopped the city turning into what it now is, one long, monotonous sushi roll. 

With lower rents, more interesting businesses — retail, artisan, makers — come back into the city. Lower rents means working artists and craftspeople can be subsidised, at relatively low cost, to create shopfront workshops.

Select buildings could be taken over for public housing, to reverse this government’s class cleansing of the poor from the inner city. Colleges and universities could work out of individual buildings scattered across the city, rather than pulling them down to create dreary monoliths. Voluntary organisations would fill rent-reduced spaces. 

Forcing commercial rents down across the inner-city — with state compulsory purchase threatened for recalcitrant vacancy-holders (and a beefed up arson squad, to keep an eye out for “petrol stocktakes”) — would address the problem of social demobilisation caused by COVID. But it would do so precisely by not addressing the problems that the market is suffering in the wake of it.

These were problems that were already apparent: that the market no longer needs the city. It would be happy with everyone in their isolated McMansions, going crazy, and buying more stuff to assuage the craziness. If governments and publics don’t separate out the fate of economies and cities, and treat them as two interrelated yet distinct things, cities will simply decline indefinitely, for decades.

The COVID crisis — and especially Melbourne’s long one — was a potential blessing: a reminder that neoliberal capitalism depends on the steady increase in the velocity of life, trade, etc, that simply cannot be sustained. 

Will we take this opportunity? Of course we won’t! The imagination, courage and audacity is not even remotely there (if it is, I couldn’t be happier to be proved wrong). But perhaps this moment acts as a prelude to a prelude. We will fail, the empty spaces will pile up, until the city is a ghost town, and eventually, having exhausted all other alternatives, we will take the sensible course of action, and make radical change. 

Or we could reintroduce compulsory weekend closing, W class trams, the Chat ‘n Chew coffee lounge, Little Reata as the only place to get a drink after 10pm, and seed the clouds for extra rain from April to November. Grim City, mon amour…