It’s only 12 minutes from Flinders Street, but in many ways Footscray, the proud jewel of the working-class west of the city, feels like a world away from many of its more gentrified downtown cousins. .
Like most of Melbourne’s suburbs, property prices continue to rise, and there is a faint smell of almond milk coffee. But true to its blue-collar roots and reputation as home to some of the most authentic Asian and African food Melbourne has to offer, Footscray still retains its unique character.
The area is known for its multicultural influences (residents hail from more than 100 countries), its industrial history, and its vibrant arts community, not to mention its jam doughnuts. And I’m here for a guided tour, courtesy of a recently launched augmented reality experience.
64 Ways to Be Footscray is the latest addition to a growing series of artist-curated urban adventure experiences in Melbourne. A CBD route has been active since April 2021, and one for Collingwood is in the works. The interactive tours are designed to offer visitors and locals alike new ways to understand and interact with some of the city’s most culturally and historically rich neighborhoods through innovative guided expeditions through space and time.
A pair of headphones, a free app, and the ability to safely cross the street is all you need to participate. Then it is simply a matter of tuning in and giving yourself over to the experience.
At Nicholson Street Mall, near Footscray Station, the adventure begins with a brief, chaotic interaction with a musical surge activated by public art, before moving on to a nearby arcade, passing money exchanges, mending shops and coffees.
“Take your time, take it, there’s no rush, time is yours,” urges a soothing voice as traditional African melodies and sound bites from locals describing the space are layered on the soundtrack, activating the senses and imbuing ride with atmosphere and perception.
Emerging from the back of the arcade, the app took me around corners and down alleyways. He had me peek through gaps in fences and dragged me behind a busy barbershop playing a game of repeat after me with an interactive light box installation perched high on the wall of an old theater. Meanwhile, I listen to an ethereal sound collage of local knowledge, personal stories and original music from Melbourne creators.
The site of an old forge, a busy grocery store, and a long-reused dance hall contain the history of the community, told in snippets, as if heard in one of the spaces themselves. Exploring the alleys and back streets, with the soundtrack leading the way, a rich picture emerges of a neighborhood that has long been in flux, as have the occasionally wacky rises.
At the end of the ride, almost an hour later, I found myself back where I had started with little sense of direction or how I had gotten there, sitting on a large rock and listening to the song of primordial native birds. Across the screen of my phone, a kaleidoscope of delicate wildflowers covered the mall as visions of the landscapes and ceremonies of traditional owners told by the elders danced in my ears.
64 ways to be