Traditional Land Owners
Carlton falls under the City of Yarra or Birrarung, which originally belonged to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation. Their connection to the land is tens of thousands of years old, when their ancestral spirit Bunjil, a wedge-tailed eagle, created all land and life.
One of Melbourne’s most cosmopolitan streets, Lygon Street, runs along a north-south axis beginning at the intersection of Russell and Victoria Streets (part of the CBD Hoddle Grid) and proceeds north through Carlton, North Carlton and East Brunswick.
Designed by Robert Hoddle in 1852, the surveyor general of Port Phillip District (Melbourne), his plans for Lygon Street incorporated generous tree-lined boulevards, surrounded by green open spaces.
Once Cameron Street, it was renamed in 1872 after Lord William Lygon, the seventh Earl Beauchamp, who was the Governor of New South Wales between 1899-1901.
By 1916 the tram route was established connecting Melbourne University at Swanston Street, to the inner north as far as Bell Street, Coburg.
Gold Rush Era
The Gold Rush began in 1851 and seduced several Southern European migrants to Australia, and Victoria specifically. The melting pot of ethnicities had a profound impact on the region’s identity and within 30 years a thriving village of local multicultural businesses was established.
Initially a Jewish ghetto, Italians were drawn to the area due to various employment opportunities, proximity to factories, the Victoria Market and cheap accommodation. A turf war saw the Jewish community relocate south of the Yarra, to areas such as Caulfield, St Kilda and Balaclava while the Italian community grew, with the support of family, friends and neighbourhood businesses.
The early 20th century saw the rise of fascism in Italy and post WWII the country was on the verge of economic collapse. America’s decision to halt Italian immigration saw Australia become an attractive destination and with the government’s ‘populate or perish’ program, 170,000 Italian migrants settled in the country between 1951-1960.
Gravitating towards Carlton because of job opportunities or sponsorship by relatives, the industrious nature of Italians formed a bustling and close-knit community. The steady expansion of businesses between Queensberry and Elgin Streets, such as cafes, restaurants, and clubs became a focal point for Italian social life and thus ‘Little Italy’ was born.
By 1960, 25% of Carlton’s population was Italian and recent census numbers have over 30% of Italian’s listed as Melbourne residents, predominantly in Carlton and Brunswick, which is the highest population nationwide.
Carlton creates Cafe Culture
Nestled in the expansive tree-lined streets, amongst the 19th century Victorian terrace houses with their decorative iron balconies, Little Italy boomed during the 1960s and 70s. Densely populated rows of boutiques, restaurants, theatres, bars and of course cafes thrived – and the desire for al fresco dining literally changed the landscape. The unique strip, unlike any street Melbourne had seen, was blossoming, not just amongst the locals but the student population, regional shoppers and the tourist trade.
Without a doubt, Lygon Street was the birthplace of Melbourne’s café culture. Espresso bars delivered coffee with never before seen crema; a creamy froth head over the rich, dark espresso when coffee bean oils combine with air bubbles. It is still hotly contested as to who installed Australia’s first espresso machine, but all the competition was centred in Carlton.
Nando Varrenti, the founder of Nando’s Espresso in 1954, relays the story of his mother, Eleonora, who packed a Faema espresso machine in her trunk when she travelled from Italy to Australia in 1953. Considered a foreign piece of machinery, Nando had to obtain a boilermaker’s licence before he was permitted to use it in his Carlton cafe.
In another first, Toto’s Pizza House (established 1961) is considered Australia’s original pizzeria. Owner, Salvatore Della Bruna, is attributed with inventing the controversial ‘Aussie’ pizza, including egg as a topping. Toto’s, along with several other Lygon Street pizzerias, introduced traditional pizza (and pasta) to the Australian household and is now one of our favourite fast foods.
Other iconic eateries still operating from this era include: Tiamo, D.O.C. Group Espresso, Brunetti’s, King & Godfree, University Café and Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar.
The diversity of cultures also challenged the status quo. The Victorian Trades Hall is the world’s oldest trades union building and home to left-wing politics. La Mama Theatre, the Carlton Courthouse, Cinema Nova and Readings created space for cutting-edge comedy, theatre, the arts and literature. Italian culture became so influential that in 1978 the Lygon Street Festa became a popular annual event, introducing Australia to the concept of outdoor street festivals and drawing enormous crowds. A mecca for academics, professionals and tourists alike, there was a distinct bohemian sensibility and the hipster revolution has kept that vibe alive today.
Italy’s competitive sporting culture also made a home in Lygon Street. Italian champion cyclist, Nino Borsari (1932 Olympic Gold Medalist) became stranded in Australia, where he often competed, prior to WWII. By 1942 he opened the now legendary Borsari Cycles and in recognition of his contribution to the city, there is a heritage-listed neon sign on the corner of Lygon and Grattan Streets, commonly referred to as Borsari’s Corner. Read more about Nino Borsari: Bike King of Carlton.
Italy’s football club has a successful track record and celebrations spilled into the street when Italy won the FIFA World Cup in 1982. The victory was such a momentous occasion, they repeated the festivities again in 2006, after another World Cup win.
You can also expect the precinct draped in the red and yellow colours of Ferrari when the Australian Grand Prix is in town and when AFL is in season, the navy blue and white of their beloved Blues, the Carlton Football club will be proudly displayed.
And did you know Little Italy has a Sister Italy? Piazza Italia ,on the corner of Lygon Street and Argyle Place, is a pretty little Italian-inspired piazza, dedicated to Melbourne’s sister city, Milan.
La Dolce Vita
Lygon Street has changed the culture and landscape of Melbourne and made it a richer experience for both locals and visitors. They have created La Dolce Vita – The Sweet Life.
So much of how we celebrate life is done with family and friends over a table of good food and great company. Little Italy’s rich history of delicious home cooking, spectacular coffee and dynamic street culture has created a precinct with soul, that always has a story to tell.