Long journey to the (new) East
Fighting the Bushfire:
Reinventing the East Brunswick Club
A creative journalism thesis
Submitted July 2007
La Trobe University
Part three: Long Journey to the (new) East
Pam and husband Peter had fought a long battle in East Brunswick to get to the official reopening day at the East Brunswick Club. Just short of eight years to be exact. Their redevelopment was not much appreciated by the old regulars who were being squeezed out of their old habitat. Many of them had been quite outspoken about hoping to see the Benjamins fall flat on their arses after their huge investment in change.
But the couple had fought many battles before, and these have hardened their business sense over the years. They are persistently hard working and they wear their history on their faces. Their skins have definitely thickened from experience over the years and both have a slightly worried look about them. But beneath their anxious appearance, they are warm and caring people, and anyone who has the ability to even remotely relate to their history will understand this. Their business depends on them overseeing every little detail of the process, and they have a hard time letting go, but that’s how they like it. Like a family, their business is their life and will always be their baby. And they love it too much to step too far away from it. When their worried wrinkles give way to a big smile, it’s quite heart-warming in an almost parental kind of way.
The Benjamins moved to Melbourne with their two daughters in 1988 from New Zealand, after running various hotels in their homeland. Throughout the year I spent with them at the East, their stories would flourish after closing, and I would listen eagerly. To say that they had fought battles does not necessarily mean these were all negative. On the contrary, their lives have been eventful, and more often than not, a little out of the ordinary.
They bought their first hotel 30 years ago, in the remote location of Tarawera, between Taupo and Napier on the North Island. It was a country tavern in the middle of the bush, resting on ancient Maori land, so remote that they had their daily deliveries dropped by helicopters. Their daughter Cherie was a toddler and they had a newborn, Karen. “It was hard graft,” Pam told me one night over a tall vodka and tonic – her weapon of choice when her multiple cups of tea starts wearing off in the late evening. “A small place always is. It’s far harder than running in the city. You have to do the cooking, the cleaning, the baking, the washing… You have to do everything yourself.”
Apart from seasonal coaches with guided tours of the bush, the regular customers were local Maori and young deer hunters, and a few members of the Ministry of Works. Everything about the business is different in such remote areas. There were no banks or ATMs anywhere near, so they had to operate with various forms of credit, particularly food from the hunters. “When you’re in the country, you know, you gotta have credit. The Ministry only got paid once a month or the hunters didn’t get their money until they brought in the produce and things like that. So you always had lots of credit. Sometimes, you know, they couldn’t pay their credit, and that’s how Cherie got her horse.” Cherie had told me about the horse, a Clydesdale called Specto. I was amused by the thought that such trade was going only twenty years back, but at once realised that such a life was as far removed from my background as their tavern must have been from the big city. “It was definitely different. It was a start,” Pam sighed. “It was a start in the industry, but I wouldn’t go back.”
After moving around in New Zealand, the Benjamins took over the Papamoa Tavern in Mount Maunganui. Now, the area is a millionaire’s paradise resort surrounded by beaches, with the dormant White Island volcano as backdrop. But, after several unpleasant run-ins with local biker gangs in the mid-1980s, involving physical threats and heavy armoury, the Benjamins decided it was time to take their business elsewhere and moved to Melbourne.
“One night we had like thirty bikies pull up outside. Oh, dear God! They were just animals. Pete had his hands behind his back because, you know, you can’t touch. The minute you touch it’s all over. I was behind him, and it was all spitting and cursing and calling everything. All of a sudden they’d pull up a security guard with a steel stake from our garden, ready to kill… I mean, it was like you could never relax. We were broken into at night-time and all our alarms were going off. It hasn’t affected the girls or me that much, but it still affects Pete because of the violence. He was always there. He wouldn’t just let his security deal with it. He got the broken ribs and he did all the dirty work himself.”
Between them and their daughter Cherie, the Benjamins share more than a lifetime of experience in the business. They have lived and worked together all the way, obviously, under highly variable business-conditions. But they no longer have to sleep with loaded guns next to their beds.
The battle continues at the East
The Benjamins bought the East in October 1998, after a few years managing the Yarra Valley Country Club. Their purchase marked the end of their brief experience of a more romantic life style. At the time East Brunswick was completely different both in demographics and infrastructure: this was then mostly blue-collar workers, and old factories on the verge of shutting down. The Benjamins ran the pub like it had been run before, as a TAB with sports betting, regular pool and darts competitions and cheap lunches for the factory workers. When they took over the lease, they also inherited about twenty residents upstairs, each renting a small room with shared amenities.
The general notion about the place was that it was a ‘dirty old man’s pub,’ full of sleazy old men, union guys, occasional drug addicts and foul “lezzos with more balls than KENO (sic),” Pam told me. “Pete knew, the minute he saw it, that this was the right place. But to the girls and me it was really scary. There were 15 pool teams and the dart teams were all interbred. The turnover was great though. The union guys would come in at three o’clock sharp everyday and drink until at least nine and they often spent $100-150 in a night. There was no food, or hardly any food at all. We started our own functions as well, and it was a good business. But it was scary. Then we had the Melbourne Folk Club, oh Dear God! All in all it was like a big social club. Everyone was part of a union or a club of some sort. But, it always felt like we didn’t own the pub. They owned it. It was 99% regulars’ pub, and if we wanted to move a chair, we had to ask the regulars. Whatever business we had we owed it all to them.”
The TAB, especially, proved itself as an ulcer in the Benjamins’ business, despite its importance for the venture back in the day. People on the dole working cash jobs would use their TAB account instead of a bank account to hide money from the Government and, worse, it attracted a lot of people outside of the law who brought dodgy money into the place. Pam would follow these transactions daily on the surveillance cameras with a feeling of being paralysed. “They laundered their money in there. I used to watch it and it used to frighten me. But, what can you do. You can’t tell these people you won’t take their money. They’d walk in and have ten, maybe twenty grand, and they’d put it in their TAB account. You could have done that. You could have robbed the old bank up the road and then gone to the local TAB and place it all in your account. Back then you didn’t have to give the government any explanation as to where the money came from. It was all different… That’s the major reason I wanted it out of here. I detested it. And, we couldn’t open a band venue until we got rid of it. It had to go.”
“Basically, we had to get rid of everybody that was a customer here to open this band venue. Because if there were any of them left here, it wouldn’t be successful. They would just scare people away. You wouldn’t have gone in there and your girlfriend definitely wouldn’t,” Pam once told me, and this has been confirmed several times by both regular customers and staff remaining from the old days. Although a few people have said it had a certain novelty to come in for some pub grub also back in the day, they wouldn’t stay any longer than the course of their meal. “I used to live around the corner three years ago and came in to eat here sometimes. It was weird and the trivia always had questions about Melbourne Cup winners and that sort of stuff,” a regular Tuesday ‘trivia-junkie’ told me. “Yeah, I remember first time you took me here,” her boyfriend commented. “I used to hate the place.”
Redevelopment and gentrification
“Brunswick as a whole was a scary place only ten years ago,” Pam said in regards to the changing tide. “I remember; a girl wouldn’t really walk down the road by herself. I would hide all my jewellery just in case a druggie would want to belt you on the head and steal it.” But since ‘98, the suburb as a whole has been through several stages of gentrification. The Benjamins first thought about making the change in 2002, when Pete initially got in touch with Richard Moffat, the booker of the Corner Hotel and the Northcote Social Club. Together they found that the area wasn’t quite ready for a live music profile yet, but decided that they’d reassess the situation a few years down the track.
Around the same time, major changes in East Brunswick started to come into play. The factories shut down and the old shops on Lygon soon followed and were boarded shut. For a while East Brunswick had the distinct feel of being a ghost town. Changes started happening in Fitzroy, around the same time as the Cornish Arms began flourishing, and the circular effect from this was moving north at an increasing pace. Younger people eventually started moving into the suburb, turning the old factories into big warehouse apartments. At the time, the Retreat on Sydney Road got new owners and started setting the scene for a younger profile in the area, which finally made East Brunswick a place for live music.
“When all the factories shut down, we had to decide whether to reinvest or sell the place,” said Pam. “For us, to get rid of everyone it had to be the right time. The timing had to be right for us and for Richard Moffat, for the music-side, to come out… The old hotel was dying. All around the country the old corner pubs are dying. Pete and I lived in England for a few years and over there, life revolved around the local pub. Everything revolved around the local pub. But, that culture is definitely dying. People that used to come in to our hotel were selling out and moving because they started getting big money for their properties around here. Carlton and Lygon was starting to move. People were selling up and a lot of younger clientele were moving out to Coburg and Reservoir to buy cheaper properties.”
Many of the warehouses have been sold again, to developers who are currently erecting several apartment buildings further up on Lygon Street, with more planned for the future. If you walk up Lygon Street now, you can see a mass of apartments above the new shops, the strip in some areas is starting to look like something of a Brunswick Street in-progress, though some of the shops and cafés are still often struggling or short-lived.
In February 2006 it was also time for change also under the Benjamins’ roof. With consultation from Richard Moffat, they made the decision to finally close the old TAB. The whole thing was torn down and a box office was built in its place. The rebuilding process took a good three and a half months, leaving the place deader than the local Anglican Church on a Sunday throughout the whole period. But, the old regulars had disappeared, with the exception of a few who still enjoy the locale and its new profile. Pam and Pete had finally won the battle and the onset looked brighter for a more relaxing future, although changes always come with new obstacles.
Part one: “The end of an era, the beginning of another” | Part two: “Reinventing the East Brunswick Club” | Part three: Part three: “Long journey to the (new) East” | Part four: ”Fighting the bushfire” | Part five: “The year in review“