What Thornbury was like before the bearded hipsters moved in

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Back in 1998, there was not a hipster beard to be seen in Thornbury. Cafes and bars were thin on the ground except for the old-men Greek cafes, where the smell of strong coffee and even stronger cigarette smoke would waft out. Coming from the inner south, which was chi chi-gentrified, my new area felt like a different planet. Things were different in the north, it seemed.

I was a child of the south-eastern suburbs, when growing up going to Fitzroy was a daring adventure. I lived in share houses in Kew, Hawthorn and a flat in Port Melbourne. But when it came time to buy, we couldn’t afford the elegant villas in Albert Park or the single-fronted weatherboards in Port Melbourne, so off to Thornbury we went.

People enjoy a drink at a bar on High Street, Thornbury.Credit: Paul Jeffers

But, still, Thornbury. No one lived there. Where was that? North of North Fitzroy. Oh dear.

I moved to the north ungraciously. Nothing was good enough, it wasn’t like bayside, the east or south-east. Instead of the beach, there was a muddy creek. If you wanted to go out for dinner, you’d go to Brunswick Street in Fitzroy or Lygon Street in Carlton. Instead of elegant rows of Victorian villas there were kilometres of post-war red-brick houses, weatherboards and 1970s orange brick veneers.

In those first few months we felt out of place. My husband drove to South Melbourne Market to go shopping as he couldn’t find stalls at Preston. I hung out with my former mother’s group back down south as I couldn’t find kindred spirits. Yeah, I probably wasn’t trying too hard as I was grieving for my own south-of-the-river life.

But little by little, I felt more at home. I found my tribe of mothers through kinder and school pick-ups. I took long walks around the creek and got to know where the powerful owls hung out. And my husband embraced Preston Market; the store holders know him by name, ask after the family and order in special items for him.

Back then in 1998, our local shopping strip was a hotchpotch of a supermarket, a greengrocer and a TAB. It closed all weekend with the only activity outside the betting shop. There were empty shopfronts and a petrol station that morphed into a vacuum cleaner shop. Over in High Street, more empty places and a few old-school shops: the hardware shop, the Italian butcher and Psarakos Market.

My next-door neighbour, Flo, moved to Thornbury in 1942. She remembered when our road was a dirt track and the kids would scream down the steep hill on rickety bikes and then head down to the unofficial tip by Merri Creek to scrounge old car parts.

Thornbury had its origins in the 1880s. Originally a farm, the area began to grow and the first tram and train lines were laid in the early 1890s. It was an area of industry with factories jostling up against the train line and where huge brickworks dominated Separation Street.

Slowly the place began to change. As people were priced out of Northcote and Fitzroy, they moved north, and the demographics changed from empty-nesters to young families with kids on tricycles. I’ve seen an old mechanics workshop change to a furniture shop and then to a tiny cinema with a bar out front. Instead of driving across town to see live bands I can stay close to home and go to gigs at half a dozen bars.

The supermarket is still in my local shopping strip, but now there’s a barber, a bar and several cafes. I can buy pizza, do yoga classes and buy plants from the garden shop. The TAB is long gone, but crowds of chatting neighbours waiting for their coffee gather outside the cafes and give the area life.

Local Thornbury tip: if you turn up at certain times of the year, you’ll encounter funny little unofficial happenings. The Rossmoyne Street Scarecrow Festival, street parties in back laneways. Down on the Merri Creek you may see a guy playing bagpipes, silent disco fitness classes and if you are very lucky, a glimpse of the Merri Creek goat. (I still haven’t seen it.)

I’ve learned to love Thornbury. If I visit the beach, it’s always a little bittersweet, yet when it is time to drive back and tackle the Punt Road gridlock, I head home without any regret.

Erica Murdoch is a freelance writer.

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