By Shane Scanlan
Having been sent from the country to work in Melbourne in 1941, local resident Alex Robertson has seen a few changes!
The lucid 90-year-old is still active in business and plans to be around for a while yet.
“Mum lived ‘til 97 and dad died at 94 so I’m confident of a few more years,” he grinned.
Having sold real estate for decades, Alex knows Melbourne better than most and loves it even more.
He sold the first apartment in the Spring St block where he lives about 40 years ago. Four years later, he bought his home and hasn’t tired of his view across the Treasury Gardens and out to the Dandenongs.
Mr Robertson’s commercial real estate business was for a time the hottest thing in town.
“Being in real estate is like being a jockey,” he said. “When you are winning, everyone wants you to ride their horse!”
“But, if you get tired or lazy, you can quickly fall away because there’s always someone moving up,” he said. “And that’s the way it should be.”
Mr Robertson has long been a “player” in the Melbourne scene and counts among his contemporaries captains of industry and knights of the realm. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 2016 for community service, particularly fundraising for the Northern Hospital.
He says his greatest contribution to Melbourne has been successfully championing to local and state governments the notion of the city as a tourist destination.
“The message was that Melbourne needed to be open for tourism,” he said.
The rise in visitation to Melbourne and the dominance of hospitality within the CBD are just two of the changes he has experienced as a CBD resident.
He said when he arrived in Melbourne in the 1940s, the city was divided into precincts, largely based on business type.
“You had customs agents and ships provedores in King St. The Western Market was still going. In fact, the Eastern Market was too. If it was still going, it would be the greatest tourist attraction in Melbourne,” he said.
Mr Robertson recalls seeing General Douglas Macarthur outside the former Menzies Hotel during WWII.
“He told the people outside milling around that there was no such thing as security – only opportunity,” he said. “I’ll always remember that.”
He said there once were nine pubs and 10 furniture stores in Bourke St alone.
In the here and now, Mr Robertson sees the top end of Bourke St as a “little village” and his building as a “vertical street”. But beyond that, he does not see a lot of “community” in the CBD.
He said he was initially attracted to CBD living because of its centrality and its ability to avoid commuting and choking traffic.
“It’s about proximity to restaurants, galleries and theatres and all that the capital city can provide,” he said.
But he is concerned about the seemingly unlimited growth in the city with a disproportionate investment in infrastructure.
“If we continue to go the way we are going, we will end up with only childless couples here,” he said. “Where are the schools? And the material child care centres?”
“There’s no doubt that there are some problems coming up in the future. And, to take our minds off it, they blow up $3 million worth of crackers – as a diversion.”
He said city dwellers living in confined, tiny apartments were now using local cafes to escape and find community.
“How else do you get to know your neighbours?” he asked.
“We really need to find someone to really make us aware of what the true situation is.”
“Someone like a Kennett or a Bolte. They need to be a really dynamic person – a trailblazer who is willing to give up on temporary solutions.”
But despite these concerns, the heart of the optimistic farm boy who came to the big city with the ambition to become an auctioneer still beats strongly.
“I was a dreamer – a poor student – so mum pulled me out of school at 15,” he said.
Mr Robertson’s experience proves that dreams can come true.