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City of Contrasts - the 1930s

Images can deceive. As Melbourne neared its centenary year in 1934, idyllic views across the Yarra River presented a city of 'unrivalled loveliness' in postcards, posters and even rugs.

This tranquil image belied what was actually happening in the streets of central Melbourne. The Great Depression had hit hard. One-third of the workforce lost their jobs, and there was little social security. Men and women wandered the streets, surviving on greasy soup and the odd sermon doled out by fund-starved charities.

The crisis sharpened the divide between the right and the left of politics — violence frequently followed demonstrations. The rich made the poor angry; the poor frightened the rich.

Amidst this tension, Melbourne endured. With many rickety buildings deemed a fire hazard and demolished, the city took on a more uniform and permanent appearance. The finest interwar buildings — built to the height limit of 132 feet, plus a parapet — were commercial. Beside them, public buildings and churches looked smaller and older.

Looking south down Russell Street
magnifyLooking south down Russell Street

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