Community, Lifestyle, Local History

The Lygon Street Culture Shift

January 17, 2017
Lygon St

An opinion piece by Jake Peric

Nothing will ever match the warm feeling of eating at your grandmother’s abode, especially if you are Italian. Once your grandmother places a warm plate of food in front of you there is no way you would leave it there to sit and lose its temperature, either due to its great taste or the upsetting look upon her face.

Growing up in a mixed diversity ethnic household, these kinds of values were greatly cherished. It is these values, still extremely prevalent in Italian culture, that absolutely thrived upon introduction into Australia, due not only to the freedom of the country, but also to the cultural blank canvas upon which it was thrust upon.

In 2006, the Australian Census stated that Victoria had the highest population of individuals with Italian heritage in the entire country, with Lygon Street at the forefront of Italian culture in Metropolitan Melbourne.

The mass migration of the 1950’s, also known as the Southern European migration, which saw mainly those of Greek and Italian backgrounds enter the country, brought with it the warm family culture often associated with Italians, and by the time the 1960’s had come along Lygon Street was already synonymous with Italian culture.

Today, even people who don’t often frequent this part of Carlton are still aware of its Italian links, partly due to the portrayal of the street on television, most notably in the 2007 series Underbelly in which crime figure Alphonse Gangitano, or the Black Prince of Lygon Street, was a central figure.

Make no mistake, the area screams Italy. From the food, to the automobiles and to the fashion sense too. From Ferrari’s to Versace, almost anything Italian can be found on this street; particularly the widest variety of Gelato in Melbourne.

But in my opinion, change is afoot. If you were to travel there at this very moment, you will strangely notice that the street showcases more than just your average pizzeria. Right away you will see some Shisha cafes. Not only that but on most nights they are filled with clients (me being one of the frequent visitors). A heavy Arabic presence has in fact occupied some of the street, and while the Italian culture is still prevalent, there has been a noticeable shift.

One of the Shisha café’s in question, The Balcony Shisha Bar, has actually been rated in the top 10 of its sort in Melbourne. Gone are the days of your generic well tailored Italian man sitting outside at a table with a checkered tablecloth, with a cigarette in one hand and a cappuccino in the other. Lygon now has other aspects that make a make a visit worth your while.

Cinema Nova has been a hidden gem for sometime, and since it opened it’s doors in 1992, it has gained notoriety for playing contemporary cinema, showing films that wouldn’t traditionally get a theatrical run at a Hoyts for instance. This cinema will play almost anything, and has just about every genre you can think of. Nova is typically associated with the hipster subculture, yet somehow, being placed next to what some would consider a monolithic café Brunetti’s, it doesn’t look out of place whatsoever. With this one attraction alone, Lygon now attracts the same crowd you would typically expect to see in Brunswick.

Alongside the heavy Arabic culture and hipster based establishments are other restaurants of different cultures. Lemongrass, for example, is a well known and extraordinary restaurant serving Thai cuisine. It’s both weird and amazing to see these places thriving on Lygon Street, an area historically and widely known as ‘Little Italy’.

It is my opinion that this is a tremendous showcase of how far multiculturalism has come in this country, when even a street that has been synonymous to one culture for decades, still has the space and tolerance to accept other cultures on the street.

Don’t get me wrong, the Italian presence is still massive and takes up a great portion of the street, but to see a traditional style Italian restaurant next to a Shisha café and this not look out of place or peculiar, is an amazing feat. I honestly forget that Lygon Street is regarded as the ‘Little Italy’ of Melbourne sometimes; such is the diversity of cultures now so apparent.

Australia truly is one melting pot of cultural identity, and it baffles me that there could be some in this country that totally oppose immigration of any sort. For me, Lygon is a great example of multiculturalism done correctly, and if other such locales could follow suit then perhaps Australia’s racist label could well and truly be scrapped.

So before associating Lygon Street only with Italian culture, take a second to notice the diversity that has found a place in the area. Take some time to explore the different types of restaurants’, cafes and other sources of entertainment, and I promise you won’t regret the journey.

Feature Image Credit: Declan Hooper


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1 Comment

  • Marty Boy November 4, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    You’re right mate, about Lygon Street. I used to go there during the 1980s & 90s, it was far more “Italian” then. Many of the Italian settlers moved out to the suburbs like Doncaster, Reservoir etc.
    Many Italo-Aussies also now live in regional centres like Shepparton, Mildura, Morwell etc
    I heard Daylesford (in Central Victoria) does a good “Festa” these days.
    Also other factors like increasing commercial land values, have made old school Italian cafes no longer economically viable to run near the city.
    There’s still strong Italian culture in Victoria, but you’ll have to go to the regional cities these days, also the same with the Irish community. The Irish culture is more strong in regional south-west areas like Port Fairy or Warrnambool (inc with the local Aboriginals who also were mixed with Portuguese spice sailors & Irish colonial settlers).
    As the Spring Racing Carnival attracts the hordes of young Italian-Australians these days (esp in Flemington & Moonee Valley) , so the Lygon Street Festa would no longer be economically viable, with half of the young Italians at the races!
    But on the good news front the Hispanic Fiesta (this coming 18-19th Nov) is becoming bigger & bigger every year and has replaced Italian Festa, as the main inner Northern Suburbs “multi-cultural” festival these days.
    Keep Writing! Well Done!

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