As evening falls, food delivery riders wait by their bikes on the main drag of Clayton Road shopping strip in Melbourne’s south-east. Some wear surgical masks. A few people walk quickly by on the wide footpath. Inside many of the restaurants, chairs are upturned on tables, lights off.
The coronavirus lockdown that began in Victoria on 23 March and only started easing on 1 June, has hit the Clayton Road shopping strip hard, as it has so many other main street retail precincts.
In this special reporting series, The Citizen goes behind the scenes on this ordinarily bustling strip 18 kilometres south east of the Melbourne CBD to meet restaurateurs, pharmacy workers, small business owners, ministers of religion and others as they try to carry on at the front-line of the social and economic shutdown.
Their stories provide a snapshot of locked-down life in the highly diverse social landscape of postcode 3168, as retailers and residents have stayed home to stop the spread. They also offer a glimpse of the realities for main street retailers, businesses and community leaders across the state whose lives and livelihoods have been upended by the unprecedented coronavirus public health emergency.
The Clayton Road retail strip begins at the angled intersection with Carinish Road, running parallel to the long-established railway line and newly built Skyrail, and south down to Centre Road. It’s about half an hour’s ride on the Metro Pakenham/Cranbourne railway line from the CBD. Clayton Station also serves as a pit stop for V-Line trains en route to Traralgon.
The railway line is the reason that shops are clustered there. The first shops opened around the station after it was built in the 1870s.
As shopping malls such as the nearby colossus of Chadstone appeared on the scene and began vacuuming up much of the average consumer’s shopping budget (and then some), old-school shopping strips like Clayton Road — shopfronts facing the street, awnings stretched over footpaths — have clung on by catering to different needs and passing trade, offering local flavour, variety and longevity, partly due to lower overheads making it more viable for small business owners to set up shop.
But the marginal bottom lines underpinning many such eclectic enterprises may make them particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the lockdown.
For foodies from further afield with a taste for variety at affordable prices, the Clayton Road retail strip has a reputation as a dining destination. The cultural diversity of the suburb is reflected in the choice of cuisines, from Chinese barbecue to Indonesian noodles, Greek deli goods, Indian spices and Middle Eastern kebabs, as well as the array of exotic vegetables for sale at the fruit market.
For locals, too, it is a place to meet friends over dumplings in a crowded, cheerful restaurant or to pick up takeaway, groceries or liquor, and drop into the chemist.
A stone’s throw from the shopping strip are two sprawling buildings catering for some of the locality’s diverse spiritual needs – the Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church and St. Peter’s Catholic Parish. With churches largely off limits to their congregations for the lockdown, worshippers and their leaders have had to enlist technology and imagination to find ways to come together online.
The Clayton population, when profiled by place of birth, is Victoria’s second most diverse suburb, with 110 countries of birth recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 census. Only the adjoining suburb of Clayton South is more diverse. Around one in four people living in Clayton were born in Australia, with the most common countries of birth, China (25.7%), India (10%), Malaysia (3.9%), Indonesia (3%) and Sri Lanka (2.7%).
As our reporters discovered – and as will be explored in this series – members of the Chinese-born population have reported finding themselves the targets of racial slurs in the fallout from the pandemic.
The proximity of Clayton to Monash University makes it a suburb of young people, with around 40 per cent of residents aged between 20 and 29. With many international students living within or near Clayton, and many relying on the restaurants of the Clayton Road strip for their income, the closure of dining rooms and the move to takeaway-only service has reverberated deeply.
When The Citizen started its conversation with the Clayton community, restrictions were at their toughest, with our reporting team working entirely remotely, conducting interviews by video messaging and telephone. Because we were unable to visit the strip in person, the interviewees became our eyes and ears, feeding back information about what it was like on the ground.
They described the sights, sounds and unnerving quietness of the once-busy strip. They told stories of hardship and stress, but also of resilience and gratitude for unexpected gifts.
As Clayton Road, along with so many other Victorian retail strips, gradually, tentatively returns to regular trading, there’s hope that things may return to normal, but also evidence that for some, nothing will be quite the same again.