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Bruce Echberg

 

A street I know - Blake St., Nathalia, Australia

I have spent a good part of my life in a residential street in inner Melbourne with a view of the city skyline close by, across the historic Melbourne cemetery. The other street where I have lived and worked part time, for more than a decade, is 230 km to the north in inland Australia, well beyond the line of rural gentrification that is within an hour’s drive of Melbourne. Nathalia, with a static population of around 2,000 residents, is a world away from busy Melbourne life.

Blake street is the section of the Murray Valley Highway that passes through the middle of this little town with the crossing point of Broken Creek at the heart of the town and the reason for its existence here. Established in the Victorian period, Nathalia was first surveyed and gazetted in 1879. The coming of the railway in 1888 gave the town a further boost. The town, at its peak, boasted five hotels and four banks, a post office, bakery, department store as well as a courthouse and municipal offices. Now these uses are vastly diminished. The court building is gone and the banks have largely left town, however most of the buildings remain.

Blake Street Reserve was a tree-lined open space at the centre of the very wide main street designed in 1890 when the town was at its most prosperous point, supported by a new rail line to Melbourne. The design of the street, the trees, the remaining buildings along its edges and the infrastructure of a water tower and road bridge (1939) as well as a war memorial (1927) combine to create a heritage precinct of local significance.

Not that much has changed in the last 100 years because the population of the town is less than what it was a century ago and although business, transport, leisure and education have changed beyond recognition in the 21st century, the street still works as it did in its early years. Rail no longer extends to the town, but the highway that crosses the creek is of increasing importance for agricultural transport, resident access and regional tourism.

 

the-street-where-time-stands-still-postcard-view-blake-street-1910-around-end-early-rail-led-development-boom-showing-eastern-half-image-1900-showing-generous-road-space-before-era-car-aerial-view
Top Left: A postcard view of Blake Street in 1910 around the end of its early rail-led development boom showing the eastern half of the street
Top Right: An early image, around 1900, showing the generous road space before the era of the car
Bottom: Aerial view of Blake Street
the-street-where-time-stands-still-new-year-celebrated-closing-highway-through-traffic-filling-park-fairground-activities-food-live-music-bandstand-before-everyone-adjourns-cricket-ground-beside-creek-spectacular-fireworks-display-nathalia-australian-rules-football-team-important-culture-town-when-regulary-wins-grand-final-celebrations-extend-into-main-street-anzac-day-public-holiday-remember-war-veterans-solemnly-celebrated-throughout-especially-small-country-towns-like-where-community-commemorates-men-women-who-lost-their-lives-served-their-country-courthouse-hotel-water-tower-that-markers-southern-end-agricultural-transport-part-day-life
Top Left & Right: New Year is celebrated by closing the highway to through traffic and filling the park with fairground activities, food and live music in the bandstand, before everyone adjourns to the cricket ground beside the creek for a spectacular fireworks display
Middle Row Left: The Nathalia Australian rules football team is important to the ‘culture’ of the town and when it regularly wins, the grand final celebrations extend into the main street
Middle Row Right: ANZAC Day is a public holiday to remember war veterans that is solemnly celebrated throughout Australia and especially in small country towns like Nathalia where the community commemorates men and women who lost their lives or served their country
Bottom Left: The Courthouse Hotel and water tower that are markers of the southern end of Blake Street
Bottom Right: Agricultural transport is part of day-to-day life in Blake Street

 

 

Blake Street Reserve is the town’s primary open space for events and ceremonies including New Year celebrations, the annual war memorial event, markets and day-to-day commerce and socialising. It is recognised for its generous space, a landmark water tower (1939) at the southern end and a war memorial (1927) and Nathalia Bridge (1937) at the northern end of the reserve.

While primarily a place for commerce, Blake Street, with a reasonable range of shops, businesses, pubs and cafes, also has a few less visible residents in the modern mixed-use sense. There are even some private gardens along the street because of the generous allotments. As one of the residents who overlooks the street, I get used to the rhythm of life in the street from sunrise to pub closing time. Trucks carrying livestock, milk, fuel and hay can pass through or stop at your doorstep night and day. Families and grey nomads (older travellers) in motor homes and caravans also pass through and stop for a stroll, picnic or coffee break.

 

As one of the residents who overlooks the street, I get used to the rhythm of life in the street from sunrise to pub closing time

 

 

Then there are the locals from the town and surrounding areas that come to shop, catch up with friends or do business. Teenagers and young adults often congregate in the central reserve to keep cool in hot weather or socialise in the evenings. They can be noisy on occasions after too much alcohol.

Nathalia is typical of many Australian inland country towns that are beyond the influence of the big cities. Population is in decline, or stagnant, as agriculture has mechanised and young people move to the cities for tertiary education and greater employment opportunities.

For me, as a landscape architect who has seen much of the world, Blake Street and its surrounding community seem stuck in the 1950s, fairly uncaring of their heritage and closed to possibilities for revitalisation and improvement. It is not a wealthy or dynamic place like the bigger cities.

I have come to realise after several attempts to point out opportunities and better practice, that this is an ageing and conservative community with limited resources and a familiarity and pride in what exists now.

Spending time in this small inland town over the past 15 years is a welcome contrast in almost every way to life in central Melbourne with its rapid urbanisation and multicultural dimensions. Life is richer for me to be able to feel part of both communities.


Bruce Echberg is the founding director of Urban Initiatives, a Melbourne based landscape and urban design studio that focuses on design of public projects that enhance the quality of Australian towns and cities.

All photos: Bruce Echberg

 

 

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