People & Place

Warren Kirk documents change in Northcote

Though change in our suburbs is inevitable, reminders of days gone by will always exist. The past catches up with the present in photographer Warren Kirk’s new book Northside: a time and a place. A tribute to our memories, and a reminder to look closer at the world around us, the book documents some of Melbourne’s most rapidly changing suburbs.

“Some time ago, one evening in the early 1990s, a friend and I were walking down the southern end of High Street, Northcote, when we suddenly realised we were both hungry. We started looking for a place to eat. But gentrification had not yet crept across Westgarth Street, and, as it was mid-winter, there weren’t any open restaurants or cafes in the vicinity.

I knew we could trudge up to the pub on the roundabout on St Georges Road. My friend suggested we walk further up the hill, to the Croxton Park Hotel in Thornbury. Just as we were resigned to that walk, I glanced into the window of what initially seemed a dark and empty fish and chip shop. Far in the back I could make out a few men seated around a table, playing cards.

‘Hey, Sol,’ I called out to my friend. ‘Let’s try in here.’

As soon as we walked in, I felt guilty. The ovens and the grill were off, and the spotlessly shining bain-marie was empty. The men looked up, startled. A middle-aged woman, with a strong and beautiful face, a face harshly lined by experience, was sitting, smoking, at the nearest table.

‘What do you want?’ she asked.

‘Sorry,’ I answered in Greek. ‘We thought we could get something to eat.’ I nodded towards the gamblers. ‘I realise we were mistaken.’

We had turned to leave when she stubbed out her cigarette, rose up from her chair, and said,

‘I’ll cook you something.’

Quickly, firing up the grill, she prepared us a small but tasty meal of grilled lamb, fried potatoes, and a green salad. We were so ravenous that we gulped the food down, and she and the men laughed at the enormity of our hunger.

‘Dear Lord,’ I heard one of the old men exclaim.

‘Those poor children were starving!’

We weren’t starving. Far from it. It was just that the food was delicious, and the kindness and generosity were humbling. She wouldn’t take more than five dollars, and even that we had to force on her; and as we walked out the door, I glanced through the window again, to see her switching off the grill, and grabbing her gloves to wash down the surfaces.

Many years have passed since that quiet evening in Northcote. It was a time before smart phones, and so the place, the faces of the woman and the old Greek men — they only exist in memory. And now that this part of the north has become gentrified, memory, too, seems unreliable. I walk past the same strip, and I can’t be sure of the location of that fish and chip shop. It seems more a dream now than a memory.

And this is why I am so grateful for Warren Kirk’s photographs. His work gives that old north back to me. But unlike memory and unlike a dream, his photographs are bold, and the compositions and the framing are evidence of an artistic sensibility that is both exact and generous. His work is sharper than memory. The easy thing to assume is that my response to Kirk’s art is an indulgence in nostalgia; that what I am gazing at when I look at his photographs is the past. But that is to make a fundamental mistake about the integrity of his work. It isn’t homage to the past. What his work does is ask us to recognise the beauty in what exists in the here and now in our northern streets.

Yes, the milk bars have gone, replaced by expensive organic grocery stores, and hipsters sip coffee while tapping on their phones and laptops. But the barbershops are still there, where old migrants congregate on Saturday mornings to get their hair cut. And walking up High Street or Sydney Road or the Boulevard in Reservoir on a Sunday, I pass elderly Greek and Italian and Macedonian women, dressed simply and elegantly, walking in groups of three or four to catch the tram that will take them to the Catholic or to the Orthodox Church.

Apartment blocks are rising everywhere in the north, but if you really look, if you really take heed of what is around you, you find that nestled between the high-rises are small stores and offices. Cobblers. Auto-electricians. Picture framers. Travel agents behind smoky, dusty windows: this one offers deals for those who want to return and visit family in the Mediterranean. This one advertises flights to East Africa and the Middle East. Globalisation and the gig economy haven’t yet triumphed completely. Kirk’s photographs are also quietly about resistance.”

This is an excerpt by Christos Tsiolkas published in Northside: A Time and Place. To read the full text and see all photographs in the series by Warren Kirk check out the book available through Scribe and all good bookstores. You can check out more of Kirk’s work over on flickr.