It was a bustling Saturday morning at the Queen Victoria Market. A trader manning his fruit stall shouted over the chatter of the crowd, “Three boxes of strawberries for $4! Three boxes of strawberries for $4!” But they paid him and his fresh berries no mind. After all, they were there to shop for the necessary ingredients to feed an Easter Sunday dinner party.
But little did they know that underneath that iconic Victorian architecture, underneath that booming voice from behind the stands, was frustration that echoed beyond the crates of fresh produce.
Since July 2017, the Melbourne City Council has been proposing a facelift to the Queen Victoria Market in a bid to bring the 141-year-old institution into the 21st century. While the initial plans to create underground parking and trader facilities have since been scrapped, they are now pushing to transform the open-air carpark located at Queen Street into a public space to be used by the community. Unfortunately, this redevelopment comes at a cost to the most loyal patrons of the market: the traders.
As of the first weekend in May, thirteen traders with prime locations along Queen Street will be relegated to other locations within the market as part of the first phase of the redevelopment. In their place will be tables and chairs for shoppers to take a coffee break, leading on to a grander plan for a permanent “Queen Street Plaza”. This move will affect almost half their daily earnings, the traders claimed.
Iris Zhang, one of the affected stall owners, will see her store frontage shrink from 18 metres to 5.8 metres. “We have a lot of impulse purchasers and tourists visiting our stall along Queen Street,” she explained. “If we go inside, they’ll never find us.”
Also affected in this upheaval is Jenny Pyke, the chairwoman of the trader’s representative committee and a trader of over 40 years. “I lose the frontage, I lose my former location, and any seniority priority that I have is gone,” she lamented over a latte at Market Espresso on String Bean Alley. “I’m to be replaced by non-paying tables and chairs.”
The traders are not the only ones frustrated with the current situation. Having been born and bred in the market – her father was a trader from the 40s to the 70s – Mary-Lou Howie can confidently call Queen Victoria Market her second home. Five years ago, she founded the group Friends of Queen Victoria Market as a platform for traders and shoppers alike to share their memories of the jewel in Melbourne’s crown.
Since then, it has grown to become an activist group that was responsible for overturning the first plan to build the underground facilities. “I did a call-to-arms to the public and got more objections from that than Heritage Victoria ever saw, and they rejected the plan,” Mary-Lou told us as we were walked through the market’s deli section. “It shocked the council, and they have never forgiven us.”
Mary-Lou Howie has been shopping at Queen Victoria Market for decades and is dedicated to protecting its heritage.
Despite not owning a stall in the market, Mary-Lou is fiercely protective of its historic relevance, heritage, and culture. “My children shop here, and my grandchildren adore it,” she said. “I retired from work and I just devoted my life to protecting the market.”
But why are the traders so opposed to a revitalisation of the market? “The people of Melbourne have a right to have their market stay as authentic as possible,” Rosa Ansaldo, a fruits trader who has been at the market for 32 years said. “We don’t want sterilisation, we don’t want all these changes. We want to keep it as it is, as this is a people’s market.”
Iris echoed Rosa’s sentiments and compared the magic of the market to the manicured retail experience that China has built. “When my parents and their friends come to this market, it’s because it’s an open-air space. It’s an icon,” she said. “If they want a container or a lock-up shop, they can see it everywhere in China. They’ll never see anything like our market there.”
Since they were notified of their impending move into the sheds, the traders on Queen Street have also attempted to negotiate with the council and Queen Victoria Market CEO Stan Liacos. “They said they didn’t like the tarps, boxes, and the trucks, so we suggested that we put up umbrellas and move the cars and boxes, but it was still a no from Stan,” Iris explained with an increased exasperation.
“They’re bullying us, dictating us,” she continued as her voice cracked, tears brimming in her eyes. “I’ve got a young family with two little children, and this has been really stressful for us. I don’t know how I can continue to support them.”
Earlier in March, another long-time trader at the market, Betty Jennings, was forced to relocate her regular stall location in L shed, a spot she has occupied for nearly six decades, to make way for a containerised retail space.
“I was informed by the CEO to not waste money on a lawyer as he’s the boss, and he’ll do what he wants,” Betty said in a statement made on the Friends of Queen Victoria Market’s Facebook page. The 84-year-old trader worries that the new position, which does not have adequate weather protection, would be detrimental to her health. “I am no longer a spring chicken,” she continued.
The post created such an uproar in favour of Betty that the market’s council eventually came to a compromise in April, allowing her to remain in her L shed while the shipping containers will be moved to accommodate her.
One way the market and the council could strike a compromise with the traders would be to buy out their existing leases, Jenny said. “Don’t try to starve them out, don’t let the place run down so everyone suffers,” she continued. Betty’s case was the first example of how the two parties can amicably reach a solution that works.
But in the long run, the traders need the council to be on the same page as them. “We need them to help us trade better, not make it harder to trade,” Rosa said, suggesting that more incentives like cheaper parking could draw families from out in the suburbs. “We need to reward loyal customers. People are coming to a market, not a shopping centre.”
Similarly, Mary-Lou also stressed the importance and significance of shoppers who buy in large volumes (she regularly spends up to $250 a week at the market), and oftentimes they’ll drive to the market in their cars and make use of the adjacent open-air carpark.
“If I had to go into a high-rise building and down into a carpark, I won’t be coming back to the market,” she said of the plans to move the market’s parking space into a 38-storey apartment tower at the corner of Queen and Therry streets. “The carpark is intrinsic to the viability of this market.”
As the day wore on, the shoppers were spent and slowly made their way to the carparks, eager to get on with the rest of their day. That also signalled to the traders that the time to pack up was near.
“We’re here moving from seven in the morning, and there’s an energy happening from that time,” Jenny said. “When we’re packing up at night, there’s still an energy.” Despite the barrenness of the market at night, there was a surreal, almost otherworldly aura surrounding the sheds that have watched the rise and evolution of Melbourne for the past century and more. “There’s a madness in it that you don’t get anywhere else.”
This is what the traders and shoppers are fighting to protect, the magic in the air that makes the market live and breathe. “It’s about preserving a part of their working history,” Mary-Lou said. “You can’t curate anything better than this if you tried.”