Hypercolor tees, Stussy pants and Knox City: ’90s Wantirna was a white-bread affair

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Don’t know where Wantirna is?

To put it in shopping terms, it’s the leafy suburb between Eastland in Ringwood (former nickname: “Wasteland”) and Westfield Knox – a hulking box of a shopping centre that’s been pumping out crap TV ads since 1977.

In automobile terms, it’s just off Eastlink, and a 24-minute drive to Fitzroy, or a 25-minute spin for a dip at bayside Carrum.

And importantly, in 1990s local nightclub terms, it was a $12 taxi ride to Jooce in “Ringers”, or a free courtesy bus home from Stylus in Ferntree Gully, after an ill-considered number of illusion shakers.

As my ever-tolerant Mum explains, unassuming Wantirna – not typically considered a destination in its own right – is an easy place to live. “It’s just very convenient,” she says.

“To what?” I ask. The list appears endless – bike and walking tracks, shops, hospitals, the pool, sporting clubs, the hills, the 1000 Steps … and so on.

This must be the reason why so many people set down roots in green, clean Wantirna and happily stay for decades.

It’s either that, or Wantirna Macca’s, whose golden arches dominate the high side of “The Triangle” (the wedge bordered by Mountain Highway, and Boronia and Stud roads), where I grew up.

Once market gardens, Wantirna started becoming the suburban dream in the 1970s, with big blocks that would much later be mercilessly carved up by townhouse developers.

I landed in “Sunny Wanny”, as my family calls it, in 1977, direct from Box Hill Hospital.

While being born was certainly a landmark time for me, over in Wantirna South something even bigger was brewing: the grand opening of Knox City Shopping Centre.

It was all quite a big deal apparently. But so was primary school in the 1980s, with its Hypercolor T-shirts, time capsules, Con the Fruiterer impressions and pre-TikTok dance routines.

It was almost an entirely white-bread affair – in terms of the multicultural make-up, and the contents of my lunchbox.

On weekends, there were bargains to find at the trash and treasure market, on the site of the former drive-in.

Wantirna in Melbourne’s leafy east.Credit: Justin McManus

I was also popping on my bloomers for the Knox City Cougars basketball club, where overpriced warm-up tops were in vogue. My resourceful mum decided to save a few bucks and make one with iron-on letters instead. End accidental result: “Gougars”.

In my teenage years, Knox City was the entertainment capital. Even hanging around the bus stop, preferably in your Stussy pants, had its own special cachet.

When the shopping centre later expanded, there was a dizzying array of new entertainment options. Go no further than the Pink Cadillac restaurant, with a real Cadillac inside.

However, there was also plenty of local excitement happening in our wedge of Wantirna.

A horse and rider near a single-lane bridge in Cathies Lane, pictured in 2000.Credit: Jason South

Working as I did at the local Harry Heath’s supermarket (now an IGA) in Wantirna Mall, you really felt at the epicentre of community life, or at least our little slice of it.

Apart from the staff romances and stocktakes, there was a broad range of customers, including a crim who’d once broken out of prison with his warden lover, inspiring a made-for-TV movie.

PA announcements – “mop and bucket to aisle nine please” – were frequent. On one occasion, my friend Angie began alerting customers that someone had left their car’s handbrake off.

Just as she was about to announce the registration number, she realised it was her Ford Meteor preparing to slowly roll down Mountain Highway.

Naturally, some things have changed, with the video rental shop long gone, and a Vietnamese noodle shop in the mix. The yummy Chinese joint still pumps out the lemon chicken and prawn crackers.

Now, not everyone can afford a ’70s-sized block, with Wantirna’s median house price hitting $1.1 million.

The suburb has also become much more multicultural, with 2021 census figures showing 23 per cent of the population had a Chinese background. And there’s a growing Indian population.

The roads are definitely busier, although during lockdowns, it was the walking track along Dandenong Creek that really copped the (foot and two-wheel) traffic.

Cyclists riding on the Dandenong Creek Trail in 2014.Credit: Eddie Jim

My old primary school was razed long ago and will become a 51-home development, adding even more townhouses to the area.

Knox Private Hospital continues to gobble up all the land around it. And Myer, the long-time linchpin of Westfield Knox, made headlines when it left town in mid-2021, with the shopping centre now undergoing an extreme makeover.

But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The wide streets of Wantirna, sitting in the shadow of the gorgeous Dandenong Ranges, remain a magnet for families.

And while I moved out many moons ago, I still regularly roll into Wanny to visit the parentals, seeking a slice of comforting familiarity – and if I’m lucky, some ’70s-style pink pavlova.

Larissa Ham is a Melbourne journalist and writer.

This piece is part of The Age’s Life in the ’Burbs series.

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