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After the attacks: Melbourne comes to grips with post-terrorism world

For 65 years Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar in Bourke Street has been the ground zero of Melbourne’s celebrated cafe culture. The home of one of Australia’s first espresso machines, it introduced a city of instant coffee drinkers to the joy of a frothy latte or short black. When its ebullient co-owner – Sisto Malaspina – was killed in a terrorist attack a year ago, the tragedy struck at the heart of Melbourne’s identity.

“It was a very, very sad day. He was just such a big figure, such a big presence and so full of life,” says Premier Daniel Andrews. “Pellegrini’s maps Melbourne’s journey. Waves of post-war migrants working extremely hard, family businesses building up from nothing to become a central part of our coffee culture.”

Mr Malaspina died trying to help. A year ago on Saturday, about 4.30pm, he went to assist a burning ute and was stabbed by unhinged terrorist Hassan Khalif Shire Ali near the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets. Tasmanian Rod Patterson and a security guard were also injured in the attack, before police shot Shire Ali, who later died in hospital.

Hassan Khalif Shire Ali tried to bring terror to Melbourne's streets.

Hassan Khalif Shire Ali tried to bring terror to Melbourne’s streets.Credit:Stuart Gaut

Melbourne mourned not just the loss of a much-loved personality but also – in the wake of multiple recent terrorist attacks – a loss of innocence.

The city that had been crowned the world’s most liveable for seven consecutive years until 2017 was now – like many other cities around the world – haunted by the spectre of terrorism.

“When one of these events occurs, whether it be tragedy in Bourke Street or terrible scenes in Brighton … it just brings home for everybody that this is a very real threat,” Mr Andrews says.

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“But we won’t be cowed by it. We haven’t changed our way of life. Multiculturalism is our greatest strength. I think there is a real sense of purpose in Melbourne that we will not be defined by these terrible acts.”

The past year has seen some soul searching. Police have been ordered to shoot and kill drivers who risk the lives of the public. The city is more fortified than ever. Thorny questions have been raised about how Mr Malaspina’s killer slipped through the net.

Homeless man Michael Rogers, dubbed Trolley Man after his attempts to ram the terrorist with a shopping trolley and briefly hailed as a hero, is back in jail after stealing and crashing a car. His supporters hope his moment in the spotlight might spark a conversation about homelessness, recidivism and the lack of support services.

But the hum of the city has never stopped.

In the hours and days after the attack, mourners began flooding into the city to lay flowers at the site. Queues to sign a condolence book outside Pellegrini’s snaked down Crossley Street.

“The fact they could feel connected and supported in that outpouring of grief was absolutely fantastic,” says lord mayor Sally Capp.

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“It was spontaneous, it was human, it was emotional.”

Three days after Mr Malaspina’s death, her own grief still raw, Cr Capp had to help support a bid for Melbourne to host the 2023 Rotary International Convention.

A lot was at stake. The bid was for the most valuable conference ever held in the state. It would attract 20,000 Rotarians and inject $88 million into the Victorian economy.

Sisto Malaspina in Pellegrini's.

Sisto Malaspina in Pellegrini’s.Credit:Joe Armao

But the timing could not have been worse. The team had been working on its pitch, which promoted Melbourne as a safe city, for four years. The selection panel arrived on the day of the attack.

“I thought: ‘Holy smoke’,” says Rotary bid team leader Hugh Bucknall. All those years of hard work and now this.

Cr Capp told the panel she was going to set aside the script. The community had been devastated by the attack, she said. And then she talked about everything that had made her proud. The police had responded within 90 seconds. The city hadn’t gone into lockdown. People had rallied around Pellegrini’s and Mr Malaspina because he was such an iconic and loved person in this city.

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“I was watching the response from the panel members and they were not only enthralled but they got a feel for the true character of Melbourne,” Mr Bucknall says.

And in that moment he knew they had won their hearts and minds. In February Melbourne was announced as the host city.

Last month Victoria Police introduced the first hostile vehicle policy of its type in Australia, authorising police to use lethal force against drivers.

The attack was witnessed by passengers on a tram travelling down Bourke Street.

The attack was witnessed by passengers on a tram travelling down Bourke Street.Credit:Twitter

In just three years there had been three attacks in Melbourne involving vehicles in crowded areas. James Gargasoulas deliberately mowed down six people, Saeed Noori ploughed into pedestrians on Flinders Street and Shire Ali tried to turn his ute into a car bomb.

“We will not wait for offenders to plough into people,” Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton told The Age last month.

Meanwhile the city has been fortified by an eight-metre barrier outside Flinders Street Station and anti-terror bollards installed along Princes Bridge.

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“We have gone a great distance in protecting Melburnians in the CBD physically but there is a lot more we have to do in understanding who these terrorists are,” says RMIT’s Professor Joe Siracusa, who specialises in security and diplomacy.

Shire Ali went unwatched by police even though he was flagged as a radicalised Islamist. His brother had plotted to gun down New Year’s Eve revellers at Federation Square and his passport was cancelled amid suspicions he planned to travel to Syria.

“We have to ask ourselves why is it that every time something happens we find out that this person was on the radar,” Professor Siracusa says. “There are no lone wolves in the world of terrorism. We are not spending enough time looking at who these people are once we get the warning signs.”

Erstwhile hero Michael "Trolley Man" Rogers is back behind bars after stealing a car.

Erstwhile hero Michael “Trolley Man” Rogers is back behind bars after stealing a car.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The National Homeless Collective hopes the attack might stimulate a conversation about the homeless.

Michael Rogers, aka Trolley Man, achieved fleeting fame when he tried to assist police, an intervention a magistrate would later say “was a sign of hope to all of the inherent goodness in people and a sense of triumph over evil”.

Police Commissioner Graham Ashton warned that Trolley Man’s actions were potentially dangerous. But Mr Roger’s instinctively selfless act inspired a crowdfunding campaign to replace his mobile phone, which raised more than $140,000.

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In an interview with The Age at the time, Mr Rogers said he “wanted to do something right” after a lifetime of crime.

National Homeless Collective managing director Donna Stolzenberg, who started the crowdfunding campaign, continues to support Mr Rogers in prison.

She says some people were angered when they found out Mr Rogers had a history of crime and heroin and ice use and was now back behind bars.

“We want people to remember that this fundraiser was to thank him for the acts he did on that day, not his past or future.”

Ms Stolzenberg says there is a lack of support services, including mental health and drug rehabilitation, for the homeless and people who have been released from prison.

“Until these obstacles are addressed, prison is going to be a revolving door for people like Michael.”

After Sisto Malaspina's state funeral his coffin was driven past past Pellegrini's.

After Sisto Malaspina’s state funeral his coffin was driven past past Pellegrini’s.Credit:Joe Armao

Back in Bourke Street at Pellegrini’s, Mr Malaspina’s legacy will live on. His son, David, took over the reins on Friday. He has regulars to meet and coffee orders to memorise.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill and I don’t wear cravats,” he jokes, referring to his father’s flamboyant sartorial style.

“People feel comfortable coming back here and I wouldn’t want to change that at all. You don’t tamper with the essence of the place. It’s got character.”

A memorial table and plaque honouring Mr Malaspina will be installed outside the cafe next year. David says he would love for the laneway, Crossley Street, to one day be renamed Sisto’s Way.

Asked if Melbourne has changed, David says he hopes the attack hasn’t scared off people. “For us personally though, the city is not as bright. It’s definitely not as loud. You could hear my father’s voice from outside the shop all day and all night.”

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