The St Kilda Festival is an oasis within a historically wild ecosystem

The inaugural St Kilda Festival in 1980 drew an attendance of 15,000 and was a relatively tame gathering. Current mayor of Port Phillip, Dick Gross was there that year and recalls it as “being string quartets at thirty paces, really.” 

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Nathan Doran

The late ‘80s saw the festival shift from high culture to popular culture, with numbers hitting 100,000; by the ‘90s, it had reached 250,000. From then onwards it was a hit. Gross believes “the formula was obvious for St Kilda – culture, sun and sea. We’d have garden festivals; no one would come and it would rain. St Kilda Festival; people would come even when it rained”. 

As we tip toe into 2019, St Kilda Festival has arrived once again. The daytime extravaganza enveloping the beachside suburb will draw shoulder to shoulder attendance of no less than 400,000 visitors. With St Kilda enduring its recent troubles, this year’s extravaganza may be particularly crucial to the celebrated area.

St Kilda could be seen as a complicated case – the suburb is cultured by layers of history. Once considered a sophisticated place during the Victorian era and leisure spot for the wealthy, from the 1930s to 1980s, St Kilda was plagued with violence, street prostitution and rampant drug use. 

Mayor Gross describes St Kilda’s chequered past as “pretty wild, you’d have street prostitutes pretending to weed your garden to avoid the cops, you’d have police chases through your backyard, we had a lot of rooming houses with people that had just got out of jail.

“Fitzroy Street was wild on Saturday night, it felt quite dangerous and edgy, you’d see a whole pack of salvos walking down playing their instruments.” Even though St Kilda’s history has not always been roses, Gross is sentimental. “It was a cacophony of sound and sights.”

Despite being a mixed bag of violence and debauchery, it was always considered the nucleus for arts, entertainment and bohemianism in Melbourne. “The city was dead, the suburbs were dead. St Kilda was a monopoly on Sundays, it was the only place in the whole of Melbourne, apart from parts of Carlton, where you could get a decent coffee. You’ve got no idea how dull Melbourne was.” 

St Kilda appeared to be the exception, and now what’s left is a place that feels somewhat antiquated. St Kilda’s proximity to the city attracted wealthier clientele, increasing the cost of home ownership and forcing away those who cemented its reputation as an incubator of creativity in Melbourne. The gentrification of the suburb has sapped a lot of its charm, turning it into a commercial plaza with a cycle of retail centres. 

Mayor Gross would be the first to admit to the area’s decline in recent years, “that was its glory days ... now it’s competing with everywhere in Melbourne and has become more orthodox”. While crime has dramatically decreased, there is a price to pay.  

The mayor is optimistic though, since his re-election in 2018 there have been glimmers of hope. Reinvestments in The Prince and George Hotels, as well as the reopening of the iconic Espy in November 2018 looks to rejuvenate St Kilda. 

“There are lines down the street … The Espy is a huge unfolding success and it will help reignite Fitzroy St and indeed the whole suburb.” Coupled with the Palais Theatre, the largest enclosed seated theatre in the country, the refurbished Hotel Esplanade gives St Kilda some traction and this year’s St Kilda Festival may just reestablish it as a key precinct for live music. 

To preface, the event is absolutely free of charge to the public. Featured is a selection of 47 Australian artists whose presence rivals any local music festival. Several stages planted throughout St Kilda at landmark locations will host the acts. 

Headline attractions are The Preatures, The Cat Empire and DZ Deathrays, whose track ‘Like People’ recently banked a position in triple j’s Hottest 100. Some under-the-radar acts to look for come in the neon-laced synth-pop of Olympia and the prolific deep funk of The Seven Ups. 

In the past the festival has featured notable Australian artists like Client Liaison, DMA’S and Tkay Maidza while still in their infancy. The New Music Stage Competition highlights emerging prospects performing for a position on next year’s main stage, as well as a cash prize.

There’s a litany of other activities on the day too, including: disco yoga, medieval combat, a ramp with BMX and skateboarding demonstrations and a vegan Harikrishna food market, while Catani Gardens will be transformed into a wonderland for the young. 

St Kilda is reclaiming its stripes this year. It may not be the hub of artistry it once was, but with redevelopments of local live venues and a mega event for the public, it’s prospering for the next generation. As the mayor puts it, St Kilda Festival this year represents that “we’re still here, we still have live music.”

St Kilda Festival takes over St Kilda on Sunday February 10. For more information on the program head to the festival website.