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People's Park: The fight for our oval

The story of Brunswick Street Oval's metamorphosis – and those we have to thank for it


By Charlie Gill


Over the next few issues, The Rotunda will be publishing a series of articles highlighting the community activism of North Fitzroy residents throughout its history. The Brookes Crescent housing commission; the freeway that was planned to cut through Alexandra Parade; the walls of Brunswick Street Oval; the state government’s efforts to close Fitzroy High School and the Fitzroy Pool…Over the last five decades, the efforts of community activists have completely shaped what North Fitzroy is today.


There is no sight more quintessentially North Fitzrovian than Edinburgh Gardens on a perfect sunny day. Picnics are scattered across the grass whilst basketballers face-off on the court and dogs frolic amongst themselves.

Looking east. Photo from 1925 - 35 by Charles Daniel Pratt. Source: State Library of Victoria

Skaters ply their trade at the bowl, young people drink beers on Hipster Hill overlooking Brunswick Street Oval, and on the oval itself footballs are kicked

back and forth; frisbees are thrown

and caught.

It is the green jewel of the inner north. But just as diamonds are formed by carbon subject to extreme heat and pressure, Edinburgh Gardens’ status as community treasure was achieved

through sustained effort and struggle.


What now glitters resplendently under the summer sun was once an unremarkable and unappealing lump of coal.

The struggle that set the Gardens on its path to becoming a true community facility was the dispute over the fate of Brunswick Street Oval.

In 1969, the ground was enclosed on three sides by concrete walls around 15 feet tall. Sue and Tom Marino had just returned from travelling overseas and moved into a house diagonally across from the ticket box, which they’ve lived in ever since. (The ticket box is the only part of the wall remaining today.) The Fitzroy Football Club had left the oval and there were rumours it was going to become a speedway.

Instead, it was occupied by a large soccer club. At that time, the area was largely composed of Greek and Italian migrants. But as Tom – the first Italian to become a mayor in Victoria (elected to Fitzroy City Council in 1983) – puts it: “They said ‘oh, give it to the migrants’.’ They tended to lump them together. The migrants don’t even like each other.”

In the mid-seventies Heidelberg United (then known as Fitzroy United Alexander) briefly used it as a home venue, including for a National Soccer League game against the (ironically named) Brisbane Lions. Over 7000 people were coming to games and according to Sue, “it was just mayhem”.


Photo courtesy of Les Street

At that time, Fitzroy had the least amount of space of any municipality in Melbourne. It wasn’t just the oval, blocked from view by massive grey walls, that was inaccessible to the public. Behind the ground was a woodyard and the National Can factory that occupied all of what is now Alfred Crescent Oval. Cutting through the park was the train line, where timber and coal would be dropped off “at least twice a day”.

“Logs used to come in on the train, and they used to mill it there,” says Tom.

The site of Fitzy Bowl, then the council yards, was home to horses rather than skaters. Where the raingarden is currently situated was the ladies’ bowls club. (One of the few things that remains today is the Rotunda, built in 1925.) Overall, you’d be hard-pressed to find space to kick the footy and there was definitely no room for picnics.

Sue describes the thinking of many residents at the time – “We’ve got an opportunity to open up a massive space for the people. Why shouldn’t they be able to go in there and use the oval when they want to use it?”

 

Edinburgh Garden' status as community treasure was achieved through sustained effort and struggle.

 

“That’s when we started the campaign to get it open for the public, not for a big sporting organisation.”

So, they got to work. Meetings were held at various houses, support was rallied, letters were written to newspapers.

“It was lots and lots of lobbying... A lot of it was all done through the local paper, the Melbourne Times. And that’s the tragedy of people losing their local papers – local issues disappear.”

But not everyone was open to change.

“People were saying no one’s going to use it, that people only want to walk their dog. They said terrible things. So what if they only want to walk their dog, does it matter? It needed to be open,” Sue says.

Brian Stagoll, another long-time North Fitzrovian, says the controversy “split the community”.

“A number of people who were architecturally conservative wanted to conserve the wall.”

The council were far from any sort of consensus. Half wanted the soccer club to take up permanent residency while half wanted it open to the public.

“They felt if they kept the wall there, that gave them options for different uses. They had the option for something closed in there, where they could charge you,” says Tom.

“Some councillors were known to have said people only wanted it knocked down to increase the prices of their houses,” adds Sue.

It was during this deliberation that Sue, Tom and others protested outside Fitzroy Town Hall (pictured below).


Photo courtesy of Sue and Tom Marino

“There weren’t many of us, probably ten or something, with our banner out the front of the Town Hall saying ‘No binding caucus decisions’. We wanted it to be an open vote on how people felt.”

Architect John Courmadias, Sue and Tom’s friend who also lived opposite the oval, called in students from RMIT to create designs that could be presented to council.

“It was just a big community effort,” says Sue.

To initiate the changes, ratepayers would be paying half the amount needed to remodel the oval, the rest gathered through grant money from both the state and federal governments. But they never quite had enough.

Later, when Tom and John were elected to the Fitzroy City Council, they began laying the groundwork for the oval’s transition – and not just figuratively. Sue remembers:

“There was no money for a permanent path around the oval, it had to be gravel. I can remember when Tom was on council, they’d get the guys who were repairing the roads, if they ever had any tar left over, to go across and do another ten feet of path.”

Such were the lengths that these activists had to go to. Without them, the site could have held a bustling soccer stadium or even a speedway (though that may have been an unfounded rumour). Regardless, can you imagine a herd of latte-sipping bohemians packing the grandstand to watch the MotoGP?

But as it turned out, the oval was opened to the public. Around ten years before President Ronald Reagan uttered his famous words to a crowd of long-waiting Berliners, a different wall was torn down in late-seventies North Fitzroy – two historical moments distinct in their context but matching in their awe-inspiring immensity.



Looking south from the hill

Admittedly that comparison may be slightly ambitious. But the significance of the oval’s emergence from its concrete cocoon andtransformation into a community facility – both ornamental in its summer-day beauty and practical in its provision of space to the public – cannot be overstated.


Looking south from the hill, current day

The tearing down of the walls, which Tom says happened “fairly quickly once it was all planned out”, created a domino effect, triggering the gradual metamorphosis of the entire Edinburgh Gardens that, remarks Sue, “got more and more open space”.

Most importantly, none of it would ever have been possible without the work of people such as Sue, Tom and John among many, many others.

Sue recalls her and Tom’s travels in the late sixties, prior to their return to North Fitzroy in 1969, as something that sparked their desire to improve their community. They were accompanied by a lot of students from Berkeley University in San Francisco. (The Americans saw the Australians as safe to travel with, being “an old married couple of 21”).

The Americans told the Aussies of recent demonstrations in San Francisco opposing the demolition of People’s Park, a derelict site near the university turned public park by student activists. Not surprisingly, this laid the groundwork for Tom and Sue’s future activism, as then-governor Ronald Reagan regarded Berkeley as many regard North Fitzroy – “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants”. Viewing the park as a leftist defiance of property right, Reagan sent in police to allow construction to begin on the park. The ensuing conflict resulted in hundreds of injuries and one death.

(The park still stands to this day. Rallies were held earlier this year protesting the university’s plans to replace it with student housing.)

These stories of community endeavour inspired the young couple from Melbourne.

“When you’re 21, you think you can do anything” says Sue.

“If they can get a people’s park, we can get a people’s park. So that was the inspiration behind it.”

“It’s so wonderful now, just picture-perfect. It’s a tourist attraction as well as anything else. Every time I walk through there, I feel so proud of it all, I just think it looks so beautiful.”




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