Here’s a word for you: ‘Nuance’.
Rarely said, almost as rarely understood, but profound in its meaning and it’s time more Gippslanders knew it. More than just fancy linguistics, it’s the kind of term that helps us define and thus articulate, the many subtleties of character and difference that make a place good or bad, familiar or friendly, comfortable or cringeworthy, Insta-shareworthy or a quick swipe past. Can a greater understanding of what makes a place great propel our region forward? In this issue about regional identity, I wanted to explore this theme of ‘place’ by winding the mental-clock back to a time when I lived — and began identifying with — somewhere else.
I spent the best part of my 20s living in a small locale in Melbourne called Balaclava. For all intents and purposes, Balaclava is a pretty standard kind of place. There are no major landmarks, nor is it a major tourist destination. It’s on the very far bottom end of Chapel Street, so it’s quite a distance from the once glitzy retail mecca that draws most of the crowds. By contrast, it’s humble, cosy, and for an average passerby, perhaps a little bit ‘meh. Funnily enough, that’s kinda what made it cool.
Recently, staying in an Airbnb back in Balaclava, we enjoyed one of those moments where subtle familiarities – those only noticeable to someone who’s spent every waking minute in a place – start rushing back to you. For me, it was the fragrance of the jasmine blooms that line the residential fences between tightly-knit concrete and brick homes. Despite the vivacious lifestyle on offer in these ‘hoods, you won’t find one Lifestyle Awaits 1000m Blocks Available signs here. She’s a tight, thick, urban maze that projects an aural blend of trams clanking, Russian accents, and oddly, Jewish grandfathers dancing alongside ghettoblasters blaring out voluminous Jewish hip-hop (Yes, this happens.) This is the ‘real’ Balaclava. It’s energetic yet humble, draped in a mature and conservative religious veil, with an engaging Eastern-European ethnic sway. You won’t see it on postcards, but gee whiz it’s memorable, or should I say these days, ‘shareable’.
During our stay, I dropped my wife at an early appointment in St. Kilda and found myself in a cafe. Now, St. Kilda and Balaclava are only split by a highway — merely a kilometre or two apart — but for the weight of nuance, the two areas are very, very different. Beachside, Beaconsfield Parade’s famed palm trees mark a territory that harks back to Miami or Santa-Cruz. Teams of cyclists fly past every few seconds, heading in all directions. It feels more like a movie set from an 80s Hollywood comedy-action film.
The place feels alive — healthy — beautiful. I sit alongside some locals, what I imagine to be semi-retired dentists. (Is it the Ralph Lauren tops that give it away?) Anyway, they’re talking about Richmond’s post-grand-final antics, but not in a typical rough-footy-bogan way, their tone is more intellectual in a ‘sounds-like-I-might-lecture-at-Melbourne-Uni’ way, even with the should-be low brow topic of that photo of that guy with that naked girl. They thumb through local press and look at each other over specs shuffled low on the nose. It’s another very well designed establishment; the staff are en-point and the food is…let’s call it… ‘sculptural’. This is their community.
These particulars of observation embody the nuance of place, in this case, St.Kilda. It has its charms, as does Balaclava, but for two towns so geographically close, the experience from one to the other is massively different. Windsor and Prahran, further up Chapel Street, again, throw something different in the mix. Yet further still is South Yarra, vastly different once more.
The nuance of an area defines it subconsciously and it is this unspoken awareness, this detail, that plays out as a conversation in our minds when we ask ourselves simple questions like, “Where should we go for brekky?” In an instant, all of those unconscious subtleties bounce back into the mental picture and sway the decision one way or the other. The weight of the argument, and thus the profound lesson for Gippsland here then is this: nuance greatly impacts choice, and thus investment. The devil is in the detail. So, how can we use concept this to our advantage?
Our politicians, councillors, business owners and local people of influence spend countless hours in committees and meetings forging plans of well-intentioned collaboration, seeking investment and throwing dollars at projects to try and improve the economic prosperity of our region, but, the very fine art of fostering the details that make a place cool and attractive to tourists and investors is admittedly difficult to master.
Forgive my generalisations while I use Bairnsdale to illustrate a point: Bairnsdale, circa 2007-08… You’re a town that locals are rightfully proud of. For visitors heading east to the Gippsland Lakes, you’re a very welcome sight after the massive stretch of road between yourself and Stratford. You’re a petrol and snack stop on the way to Lakes Entrance, possibly, however, not much more.
Fast forward ten years to 2017-18. Your main snack stop that used to be Maccas, is now a trendy little café called, The Wooden Squirrel, or ‘the place that used to be Little Alice’. You have a super cool indy art collective called The Foundry. East Gippsland Gallery is being driven by an infectiously motivated director. Not far away one of the region’s most regarded wineries Lightfoot & Sons opens its new cellar door with spectacular views. On social media, the rising profiles of Sweet Afton Creative, Light & Type, Brand Nirvana, and Kindred Wedding Fair among others are bringing a sleek visual aesthetic to the town. There’s Wy Yung’s Live On The Hill festival. Add a picturesque river, a great park and skatepark for kids with the best yellow slide on the Princes Highway and suddenly (over years) Bairnsdale, you have emerged as one very cool customer. Natural beauty: check. Liveability factor: massive. An attractive prospect for major organisations or government departments to relocate to? Surely! Round of applause!
This critical mass of edgy entrepreneurial peeps has turned the perception of an entire town as a mere highway stop on the way to Lakes Entrance (for many) on its head. The town is now brimming with creatives. They’ve collectively assisted in redefining the identity of the town and a corner of our region.
What’s happening in Bairnsdale is happening in towns right across all six councils of Gippsland — trendsetting small businesses bringing a nuance of cool to their locale, punching well above their weight as factors of economic attraction and adding to what’s already great about our hometowns. It’s not easy for government programs and council committees to replicate this phenomenon, but knowing it exists is an important step. Ultimately, Gippsland’s profile is rising.
Luckily, what benefits one town or council is actually benefiting and contributing to the positive redefinition of our modern Gippsland. After the clichés — cows, rolling hills, Lakes, the Prom, Phillip Island, brown coal generation — we’re left with the true Gippsland, and the details that define it are ours to sculpt.
As I’ve said before, momentum creates momentum. Greater incentive programs and funding opportunities encouraging a culture of contemporary startups (rather than corporate silver bullets) could ultimately lead to the same end game but with greater benefit. How? Because with a critical mass of diverse creative businesses comes a more tangible sense of energy in our streets. Big developers in Melbourne have known this for years — look up any high-rise apartment brochure and see if they don’t highlight the cafes, galleries and retail offerings just a short walk away. So what’s that one extra, cool ‘thing’ you can bring to the table when those travelling executives or semi-retired Polo wearing dentists come to town that will get them putting down cash, and be sending their mates back here to do the same?
In an era of digital sharing we’re seeing good signs that many influential types are getting busy in Gippsland — highly credentialed founders of The Long Paddock in Lindenow; influential coffee roaster Sal Maletesta of St.Ali; founder of international marketplace Alibaba scouting our haunts; chef Alejandro Savaria of Pastuso actively participating in our gustatory dialogue; wine-makers William Downie and Patrick Sullivan tending vines in the west; trend-setting Broadsheet magazine dropping articles featuring Gippsland; and, internationally acclaimed photographic artist Bill Henson, having shot in our region numerous times — to name but a few.
When people and organisations like these speak, ‘industries’ listen. Could influencers like this be the secret to incoming investment and entrepreneurship within our shires? Either way, it’s something to encourage. Sure, there’s natural beauty, affordable property, access to stunning landscapes, friendly people — but let me be clear; it’s not ‘our’ idea of Gippsland that they’re coming for, it’s their own. Our opportunity is to learn to recognise what it is about our projected identity that people like these are connecting with. It may even be something we’re not even aware of ourselves.
It’s been seven years since I returned from Balaclava to live in Gippsland, lured back by family, landscape, affordability of property, and proximity. As time has passed, it’s the many exciting people and projects that keep emerging (sometimes from difficult circumstances) which are inspiring the drive to publish this paper.
After the clichés (beautiful as they are), we’re left with a Gippsland that is brimming with vast opportunity for both locals and newcomers the likes of which we may not have seen since the post-war immigration wave of the 1950s and 60s. It’s empowering to think this could be an exciting new redefinition of what it means to be from Gippsland, and even more exciting to be adding our humble ‘thing’ to the detail.
In our birthday issue it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge some important peeps: the traditional owners of our region, the Gunai people; our premier partners, advertisers and talented contributors of which whom without we couldn’t produce this magazine; the countless readers who write with humbling comments of support, and to all the people eager to contribute — we appreciate your enthusiasm and patience while we learn how to be publishers. Happy Birthday to us and happy summer to everyone right across Gippsland!