Melbored? – Docklands and the Southern Star

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 7, 2013)

If myki were a public monument, it would be the Southern Star.

Standing 120 metres tall and towering over the Docklands suburb, the Star was supposed to be Melbourne’s answer to the London Eye. It was supposed to turn postcode 3008 into a bustling tourist hub. It was supposed to give Waterfront City its second wind. Instead, it gave Sydneysiders something to be smug about, as they realised they weren’t Australia’s only capital city to Darling Harbourise themselves.

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The Star only survived for 40 days, spinning from 20 December 2008 until 30 January 2009. It was then that engineers discovered cracks in the observation wheel, and announced its indefinite closure. Efforts since to reconstruct the Star have been marred by setbacks. Such news should surprise few Melbournians; having waited five years for the roll-out of a transport ticketing system, most locals expect a few more to come before the re-opening of their city’s apparent Star attraction.

Today, the Star is a motionless behemoth, reminding all below it that sometimes best-laid plans can go dismally wrong. Its passenger pods have been detached, and sit dejectedly in a field beside Harbour Town’s car park.

The Southern Star passenger pods

The Southern Star passenger pods

For those who dwell in the CBD, it’s easy to forget the Star exists. But as soon as one wanders west of Spencer Street, the gargantuan structure is unavoidable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; no one in the Docklands ever seems to complain about this dysfunctional relic blocking their skyline view. Then again, that’s primarily because there’s never actually anybody in the Docklands.

I often ask myself: if something happened in the Docklands and nobody was there to see it, did it really happen? Indeed, in three years of working at Etihad Stadium – the only Docklands attraction to regularly attract more than a dozen visitors – nobody has ever asked me directions to any of the suburb’s postcard destinations.

The Docklands looks nice......pity nobody ever visits it.
The  Docklands looks lovely. Too bad nobody ever visits it.

The real victims of the Southern Star’s failure are not so much the tenants and vendors of Waterfront City, but the occasional tourists who pass through the region. They look lost as they wander around the precinct, posing next to public art nobody has ever seen, and visiting shops nobody has ever visited. In their defence, some of the attractions are reasonably nice; the mural of Australian entertainers is worth visiting, and the view from Yarra’s Edge is a token Melbourne money shot. Meanwhile, the Bolte Bridge is an impressive sight if you’re able to ignore its eerily close resemblance to the Twin Towers.

The problem is that cities aren’t made of bricks and mortar, but of people. The Docklands was a superfluous addition to the Melbourne map – an artificial hang-out spot concocted merely to fill up empty space. Likewise, the Star was Melbourne’s unoriginal attempt to mimic Singapore, London, and the great American cities.

It’s a chicken and the egg scenario: is the Docklands a ghost town because their main attraction broke down, or did the Southern Star get so depressed by its setting that it committed infrastructural suicide?

It’s a question I reflect upon at the Harbour Esplanade tram stop, waiting for an exit route. When the number 30 arrives, I swipe my myki on the reader, but it doesn’t work.

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