By Sunday 8 August, more than a million Australians will have tuned in for the 17th Season of The Block. With the series return set in Hampton, now is a pertinent time to reflect on one of the shows more controversial seasons and its legacy in Melbourne’s south-east
In 2018, The Block transformed the long-standing 80-bed rooming house Gatwick Private Hotel, on the iconic but contentious Fitzroy Street in St Kilda, into six luxury apartments. Despite its grand art-deco façade of the 80-year-old Gatwick – or “Gatty” as it was commonly known to locals and tenants – life inside the rooming house was far less glamourous – the site notoriously known for crime, violence and on occasion, murder.
But the hotel provided a place of refuge for people without substantive alternatives. A boarding house with long and short stay options that required no referral, no bond, and asked no questions about your past, a saving grace for many in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and a crumbling social housing system.
For filming to commence, the City of Port Phillip and the state government, in partnership with local housing services, worked to relocate some of the residents that were displaced by the redevelopment.
However, as is commonly the case with redevelopment projects of this nature, the alternative accommodation is often unsustainable and/or in other parts of the city, removing residents from the localised social infrastructure and communities that they rely on – a recurring issue in St Kilda.
Displacement and the new urbanised Australian dream
Following the closure and sale of the Gatwick, ABC News reported that an “alarming” number of female former-tenants, who had been displaced, were now in jail due to charges that “directly related” to their homelessness. Support workers also reported former tenants were sleeping at 7-Eleven across the road from the former rooming house.
A year later, former owner and operators, siblings Rose Banks and Yvette Kelly, estimated that nearly half of the residents who had been relocated to private boarding housing had since been kicked out and living on the streets, and seven former residents had died.
The sisters had been able to keep the hotel running thanks to a loan from the state government, only on the condition that the premise continued to run as a rooming house. However, the attitude from the state seemed to change over the years.
Prior to Channel 9’s purchase, political pressure was building for the Gatwick to close. As the sisters were eventually forced to sell, then Housing Minister Martin Foley commended the development: “With much of Fitzroy Street and surrounds being held back by the Gatwick we can now look forward to working with traders, council and the community to turn a corner in the area’s future.”
The closure of the Gatwick – along with a string of other local boarding houses – received mixed responses from local residents. Some expressed support for the move as it promised a reduction in crime and anti-social behavior that surrounded the hotel and its guests, offering a potential boost to business for street traders who had been experiencing a decline.
Others were less enthused claiming the closure would not only displace existing tenants, but the redevelopment would have a ripple effect on surrounding boarding accommodation, housing and rental prices, and the broader social fabric of the neighborhood.
The story here is a very established one – buy up dilapidated housing and infrastructure, often accessed by the poor, replace it with shiny high-end housing, displace the poor – and repeat.
What happened with the Gatty was nothing new – except that this time it was being led by the entertainment industry rather than just developers. It created a viewing spectacle for millions of Australians. Audiences (or “block heads”) were invited on the journey of redeveloping the Gatwick.
From the dilapidated building that it once was – with the first few episodes spent recoiling in tandem with the contestants as they discover faeces on the beds and mold on the cracking walls. Through to the reveal and auction of the final product, emblematic of the new “urbanized” Australian dream – penthouse views with underfloor heating and entertainment space within the inner city.
Despite the risk of displacement, there is ,however, of course a purported benefit to this process – that housing prices rise (though beneficial only to those who already own property in the area), local amenity and the streetscape improves, and street life becomes safer and more vibrant. The area becomes more chic, and more desirable.
However, in the case of Fitzroy Street, it begs the question if these benefits, despite the trade-offs, have actually been achieved since the Gatwick’s closure?
Revitalising a protagonist and legend
The redevelopment of the Gatwick has undoubtedly been part of a large change occurring along Fitzroy Street, and in the St Kilda area more broadly with surrounding boarding houses, Fawkner Mansions, Elwood Sands and Meryula closing shortly after. The dilapidated former backpackers and boarding house Oslo Hotel on Grey Street followed on from the success of the Gatwick season.
Fitzroy Street has seen a variety of new activations too in the years since the Gatwick closed. The Renew Fitzroy Street project, in partnership with the City of Port Phillip, the Fitzroy Business Association and Renew Australia, has begun leasing out free-of-charge vacant shop fronts along the street for emerging traders to test new ideas with hope of revitalising the street. And at the top of the street, the new Victorian Pride Centre has opened, the first “permanent home” of Victoria’s LGBTQ+ community.
Despite these and other initiatives, the declining quality of Fitzroy Street continues to be an ongoing discussion. however.
Much of the revitalisation conversations centres on “the street” as the “thing” that needs saving – in a way personifying it. The historic strip is where tension between market value, gentrification, commercial and social interests, and demographic mix play out – and instead of calling to resolve the spiraling issue of homelessness in the area, we are seeing Fitzroy Street being flagged as the protagonist that needs saving.
The state of the street is often portrayed in governance and media discourse as the cause and not the symptom. If we can “save” the street – for example, beautify it, cleanse it of visible homelessness and crime – then we can restore it to its former glory, and with it, business.
However, the state of the street is merely symptomatic of the wider state of housing and social support in the area, and in Victoria more broadly.
MP Margaret Fitzherbert, who supported the closure of the Gatwick, noted that the issue extended beyond the boarding house: “It’s a failure of a couple of levels of government definitely, Fitzroy Street should never have been allowed to get to this state”.
This type of rhetoric begs the question: why the state of the street is the central concern, and not the fact that the Gatwick was the only resort for so many people?
By not actively calling out the issue of housing stress, homelessness and rising rental prices as the crux, and instead positioning the discourse as “the Gatwick verses Fitzroy Street”, the perceived/symptomatic issue (of the declining quality of Fitzroy Street) never becomes properly resolved. Nor does the actual underlying issue of housing and supporting marginalised peoples.
The Gatwick (though not in itself a saint) becomes a scapegoat, The Block a catalyst, and local traders and Gatwick tenants screwed over.
Challenging the veneer narrative
Three years on since the redevelopment of the Gatwick for reality TV, what impact has the sale had on the fabric of Fitzroy Street and the neighborhood more broadly?
First let’s acknowledge that if The Block had not purchased the property, it is unlikely that another buyer would not have eventually snapped up and redeveloped the property regardless – the writing has been on the walls of the Gatwick for some time. But the redevelopment of the hotel by a reality TV show gives the whole exercise a glossy optics that takes away from (ironically) the reality of what was happening.
The displacement of many vulnerable peoples and a rupturing to the geography of their community is obscured by narratives of “regular Aussies” and even Aussie Battlers/contestants getting a lucky break, and making their dreams a reality by designing luxury apartments with soft furnishings they have previously never been able to afford themselves.
This is not aimed as a criticism of fans or contestants of the show but rather a plea to acknowledge the reality of market and entertainment-led displacement, and gentrification within a broken housing system.
This broken system is why the Gatwick was not only an affordable place to sleep for people with no, or minimal, other options, but also carried with it a significant social function within the community which played out in a multitude of ways.
Some residents, who often felt unwelcome in different spaces, found community and acceptance at the Gatwick despite its reputation, and saw its closure as an “end of an era”. For others – in absence of proper harm-reduction state interventions like medically supervised safe injecting rooms – the Gatty was a cleaner and safer place to purchase and use drugs than the street.
The food van that would come frequently and park in front of the Hotel often gave residents an opportunity to hang-out as a group and check in with one another.
The Block’s production seemed to work hard to manage the protest and concerns and alter the narrative of the site’s contentious legacy – both the good and the bad. The show often focused on the architectural heritage of the site, with sentimental scenes of the contestants looking in awe at the reveal of refurbished original features in the foyer, rather than acknowledging the complex social history of the building. The optics of moving-on a community – both by the shows production and the government – that is frequently made invisible and also not properly acknowledging the footprints they left behind, supersedes irony.
Walking past the former Gatwick today you could easily pass by, unaware of its significant, albeit complex, history, with no signs left of what and who it used to be. However, the legacy and impact of its closure lives on well beyond the walls of the former hotel and the airing of the season of the Block.
Rachel Iampolski is a PhD Student at the RMIT Centre for Urban Research.