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I now no longer live in Cheltenham (A: 20 km SE of the Central Business District, B), somewhere I've never really formed an attachment to. I now live in Oakleigh (C). Oakleigh is the outermost limit of where I was prepared to live: 15 km southeast of the CBD. End of Zone 1 for metropolitan transport; there is a cost barrier between Zone 1 and Zone 2, but a more important psychological barrier. It is suburbia, but it is at least suburbia that gets lumped together with the inner city on some maps. Those maps are unfamiliar to my friends at Melbourne Uni, who congratulate themselves if they venture as far as St Kilda (D, 3 km south). But if your world extends beyond the self-conscious inner-city bohemia of Brunswick (E), you can tell the difference. My friend Tania has bought in Ivanhoe (F) (but will construe it as Heidelberg, G, if you don't look at the map too closely, for some reflected bohemia), and overlooks a generous serving of parkland; when she heard my news, she exclaimed: "Oakleigh. That's a bit... urban, isn't it?"
And it is a bit. It's still tree-lined in the residential streets, and there are lawns; but the lawns are measured, and the old weatherboard houses are increasingly being subdivided into brick units. That's a trend sweeping outwards from the inner suburbs for a while now: more people want to live closer to town, especially if the alternative is the exurbia of Cranbourne (H), Point Cook (I), or (heaven help us) West Sunshine masquerading as Caroline Springs (J). So houses that took up an entire block in 1920 are being replaced by two or three units of higher density housing. Murrumbeena (K, two suburbs up from Oakleigh) has already succumbed to this, and it's now noticeable in Oakleigh too. The Great Australian Dream of sprawling lawns and gardens and sundecks lives on, but not inside Zone 1. In fact, it's a diagnostic for another pair of suburbs I was looking at: Bentleigh (L, also 15 km SE, around train station, lots of units) vs. East Bentleigh (M, no access to trains, houses left brick and sprawling as they were in 1950.)
I should at this point praise the weatherboard houses as giving a historic depth to Oakleigh that is absent further out: the weatherboard is 1920s, and the undistinguished brick veneer of middle suburbia, like East Bentleigh, is associated with the postwar urban spread instead. I should, but I can't bring myself to praise weatherboard: it's always looked impoverished to me, and it does not compete for character with the Victorian terraces of (*sigh*) Brunswick.
The other urban thing about Oakleigh, which has made it very attractive, is the set up of its shopping centre. My house is walking distance from Chadstone (as long as you have a packed lunch); Chadstone (N) is the Biggest Shopping Mall In The Southern Hemisphere—i.e. an unnavigable sprawling suburban mess, strewn with the skeletons of shoppers looking for parking. But Oakleigh itself has a bunch of shops 5 minutes walk away from me, including four computer stores (it's almost-but-not-quite walking distance to Monash University, O), lots of restaurants, a couple of late-night supermarkets, and more Greek food shops than I have use for. The walkscore.com index gives it a walkability rating of 74%.
Critically, Oakleigh now also has a patisserie that stays open past midnight. I haven't availed myself of the post-midnight confections yet; but knowing that it's there, and seeing people spilling out onto sidewalk tables past 7 pm, is reassurance enough to me. Having anything open here past 6 pm is an urban thing, and unknown in the suburbs. (Pubs excepted; but suburban pubs don't arrogate public space to themselves the way sidewalk tables do.) Having a midnight café option is something I've always found a comfort—enough that I spent way too much time in Denny's in Orange County past 2 am, commenting on thesis drafts. (Tania's, in fact.) It's a victory of sociability over seclusion, of activity over repose, of urbanity, dammit, over dormitory suburbs.
And as those of you in the know will have gathered, of the contemporary urban Greek scene over the suburban Australian scene: the patisserie is doing what Salonica does by night. Oakleigh is now Melbourne's Greektown, and the original Greektown of the CBD is on its last legs. Oakleigh being Greektown is not why I ended up buying there—it was more an intersection of price ranges and luck, and if I was made of money, the sweetspot would have been Caulfield (P). I already know shoppers in Greek sound like, I wouldn't have minded finding out what they sound like in Yiddish. But a familiar streetscape is not a bad thing and off the main shopping street, Oakleigh is no longer as monolithically Greek as it used to be; so it's familiar without being oppressive.
Oakleigh is no South Yarra (Q), where I went to high school, South Yarra with its head held high in chic and affluence; and the Portman St Mall of Oakleigh is no Chapel St, full of Beautiful People doing their passeggiata. Which is a shame: the passegiata (or volta, as the Greeks calls it, using a different Italian word—the public stroll in your Sunday best) is a fine pastime, and would have done me some good. But Oakleigh is not the rough suburb it was in the '80s either; the murals of the late '80s at the train station, monumentalising ghetto blasters and Metallica T-shirts, look out of place as well as dated. Oakleigh's liveable enough, it's home, it will do.
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