Occasionals – How’s Brisbane Doing?

A new world city?

Introduction to Meanjin to Brisvegas: Brisbane’s journey from colonial backwater to new world city

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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The opening line in the novel The Go-Between penned in 1953 could equally have been written about Brisbane sixty years later.  There are just two and a half decades separating Brisbane in 2014 from the Brisbane of 1989 when the City began to shed the country town straitjacket that it had already well outgrown.

Yet the scale of the transformation is so remarkable that it stretches credulity to imagine that it has happened in just one generation.  It is not only the city’s skyscrapers that have grown and morphed in gleaning reflectors of sun, stars and fireworks during the annual Riverfire festival; the people are cosmopolitan and connected to the World; and serious world-scale business is transacted.

Just when it happened is not easy to pin down. But sometime since the dawn of the New Millennium, Brisbane became a world city. The timing is fitting because Millennia capture people’s imagination as times of some grandeur and of hope, new beginnings and new horizons.

The makeover is surprising too, because it has happened rather suddenly. People now still yet to enter middle age can remember Brisbane as having a distinct flavour of a subtropical country town, with the politics and prejudices to match, and the languid heat of a pre-air conditioned era. Back then it was the poor cousin to the great Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Even, or maybe especially, people from Adelaide looked down their noses at Brisbane.

I had a small bit part in some of the early moves to modernise Brisbane, firstly as an economic development consultant and then as a senior bureaucrat in the state government. I remember working with the team of a large national firm providing advice to the Australian Government in 1990 about the most suitable location for a new high technology, knowledge intensive village with strong international links. It was to be a joint venture with the government of Japan in the days when the Land of the Rising Sun was dominating the World’s best business minds. We flew around Australia checking out potential sites, discussed options with state government officials eager to host the wondrous, rather ill-defined future utopian village, uninspiringly called the ‘Multifunction Polis’. We gazed into our crystal balls and our recommendation to a high-powered panel of leading Australians meeting in a swish boardroom in Sydney’s CBD was that the northern end of the Gold Coast would tick all the boxes. A leading economist, who retains a national profile in public policy to this day but who must remain anonymous under Chatham House rules, spluttered into his tea and ridiculed our suggestion.

‘Brisbane’, he huffed, was ‘second rate academically’. It would just not sustain a world-class knowledge precinct of the type under consideration.

The Professor’s comment was blinkered, short-sighted and unduly harsh even back then. Two decades on it is demonstrably wrong and, further proof if needed, of the folly of leaving decisions about the future in the hands of economists.  Economists project existing trends into the future. It is a singular failure of that profession to understand change.

My bit part came to an end in 1996 following some politically inspired corporate manoeuvring that saw me made redundant and I went into self-imposed exile in London, and then Sydney.

I returned home in 2013.

And how Brisbane has changed! It surprised me. Local excursions into reconnection and nostalgia threw up pleasant changes. Brisbane was out there in the streets, basking in its sub-tropical splendour and making a statement about being a modern, even tentatively cosmopolitan city.

Good food, trendy bars and colourful panache were around so many corners. The river was being used. Apartment blocks had sprouted throughout the city centre and its fringes. Of course, some of this had started before I left in 1996, but it seemed to have gathered critical mass while I was away so that the sum of the new now outshone the old.

I was impressed to see James Street in Newstead had been transformed into an especially posh spot. It could slot right into the middle of fashionable London, if only that city had the weather for a laid-back, alfresco lifestyle. The Riverside apartments had grown into a soaring presence that added an imposing scale to the business reach of the river that was best seen at night as the  ‘bejewelled skyscrapers’ described in Gerard Lee’s 1981 comic novel True Love and How to Get It as they cast their glitter onto the steel grey waters. Boundary Street in West End, one of my old haunts, had shed most of its starkly dressed and pierced Goths, and cheap eateries to become metrosexual trendy. Park Road in Milton seemed to have become what Lygon Street is to Melbourne, an entrenched coffee hang out with its European feel. The model of the Eiffel Tower that had previously seemed so kitsch was now a reassuring postmodern symbol of cool like some Jeff Koon porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson.

The new Brisbane I returned to had just rediscovered inner city living, like so many other cities in the world that had abandoned it for the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. It was exciting to see the vibrant, modern city centre that Brisbane has become.

And so now, they say, Brisbane is new a ‘World City’. Really? Pick the odd one out in this list: London, New York, Paris, Brisbane, Tokyo, Beijing.

Brisbane is certainly now a city on the world map. But does it really qualify as a World City? Being a world city is clearly not just about numbers. There are cities with more people than Brisbane but they are not world cities. Durban in South Africa has a population of three and a half million, Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab region has five million people, and of course there are several cities in China – Tianjin (eleven million), Nanjing (almost seven million) and Harbin (over five million) to name just three – that have larger populations but are not regarded as world cities.

Part of being a world city is about its institutions. How does Brisbane shape up?

There usually needs to be at least one well-regarded University that is connected to the world through research, scholarship and foreign students. Yes, University of Queensland, and increasing Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University, are substantial places of learning, so that gets a tick.

There is generally a well-known sporting team in an internationally prominent sport. Soccer is probably top of the list – it truly is a world game – and that might nudge a few cities over the line, like maybe Manchester and Barcelona. Hosting a major sporting tournament with a worldwide profile helps too. Brisbane hosts world-class rugby, cricket, swimming, and the Commonwealth Games. Tick that box too.

The nature of the corporate environment is important. If the Big End of town is puny, a city struggles to eke into the ‘world’ class.  The mining and gas boom has added significant heft to the corporate corridors of power in Brisbane. Just take the gas industry, for instance.  In only five years, Queensland’s natural gas industry has grown from a few hundred employees and a few companies with big ideas to the situation now where close to $70 billion worth of natural gas projects are under construction employing more than 40,000 people. Much of this is directed from Brisbane. Then there is G20 2014 Summit. Another box can be ticked.

There has to be a good dollop of culture. We boast the Southbank art galleries, and their blockbuster art exhibitions, touring megastar musicians, first class theatre, a writer’s festival. We had Expo ’88. Is that enough for a tick in that box?

World cities have some distinctive physical characteristics. The river provides a unique sense of place to Brisbane, and the whole of Southbank incorporating the libraries and art galleries at western edge joins great city ‘South banks’ in its own unique subtropical style.

But despite these attributes, Brisbane in reality falls short of world city status in some key indicators. There are too few major corporate headquarters; there is no major stock exchange, we are not home to a renowned cultural institution; celebrities are not being photographed on our streets or in our nightclubs; we are not a hot spot for tourists. We are therefore probably in the World City second division. In fact one international collation of world cities ranks Brisbane in the beta category several rungs below the only two alpha double plus cities of London and New York. But given some of the complex problems the global cities face – extreme congestion and pollution, unaffordable housing, endless queuing; impossibility of getting tickets for major events,  – the second tier is probably the best place to be for most of us. We get more of the upside less of the downside 

After the initial flush of reunion and reorientation, I took to pondering whether too much had been overrun in the rush to urban chic. Even La Boite Theatre in Petrie Terrace with its cosy 1970s face-brick intimacy had upped sticks and moved to the new chrome and aluminium Cultural Village in Kelvin Grove. The state library on South Bank had been disassembled to return in a grander guise. The Art Gallery was split in two. Lang Park rugby ground was a gleaming glass edifice dedicated to its sponsor. Amazons water playground on the other side of the river in suburban Jindalee had been flattened to be replaced by an expensive riverside housing estate.

Some of the special places dear to me remained untouched or perhaps unobtrusively maintained. The Japanese Garden at Mount Coot-tha’s Botanical Gardens; the Brisbane Jazz Club at Kangaroo Point; New Farm Park; Bent Books and the Three Monkeys Café in West End; the rock hard, dusty ground at West’s Rugby Club in Sylvan Road, Toowong; the Stradbroke Island ferry; Mount Nebo Village.

But it has reached the stage where we need to preserve what is now quaint, charming. Like the Brisbane Jazz Club. Its home is a shabby clubhouse at Kangaroo Point with a million dollar view over the river. This ramshackle building, about the size of a three bedroomed suburban bungalow, has a prime waterfront location overlooking the high-rise offices and swanky apartments of the financial district, and the Story Bridge. It is dwarfed by apartment developments behind it.

Before any of these developments, the Jazz Club would have reflected just how much of a backwater Brisbane was. The small stage on which the musicians play is in a cramped, hot building in need of a repaint and some structural work. Now, amidst all the new-found inner city glitz, it is refreshingly original and a link with the everywhere disappearing past. The context has changed. It is now an oasis of what Brisbane was in the middle of what it has become. The music has not changed; it is still mostly very good. It is testimony to how many very good musicians somehow manage to survive in the town. And indeed in the past few years some have even prospered.

So Brisbane at the turn of the Millennium really became part of the world. You can tell by the cost of an apartment. When I returned after those seventeen hectic years and an expensive divorce in London, I was glad to be able to rent a two-bedroomed unit in Toowong. To put my feet up literally and metaphorically; to get back into Brisbane’s more laid-back swing, to get my head together again, as they say. I took evening walks next to the rediscovered river. I bought a bicycle and took to cycling along its banks. I watched Saturday afternoon rugby at West’s Rugby ground. I became a regular at several cafes in Toowong High Street and Village, usually taking a leisurely breakfast at one or other of them. I got a part time job teaching journalism at Queensland University of Technology at Garden’s Point, abutting the city botanical gardens. I was able to take the City Cat to lectures. This was cool, also literally and metaphorically. Though I found out Brisbane had joined the world in another way – expensive public transport.

It did not take too long for some of the deadening influences to creep back in on my consciousness. State politics was still depressingly parochial, introverted and petty. Men mostly, but now also a few misguided women, endlessly talking tough, constantly needing to prove their virility. It probably stems from a misguided view of modern voters, or maybe, as then Anti-discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward suggested, most politicians were probably bullies when they were kids and just kept on behaving badly.

I realized too that although I had been closely involved in much that happened in Brisbane in the early 1990s, I knew very little about what was under the surface of the place. Because I was an immigrant, I had missed the stultifying conformity that seemed to settle on the city in the later part of the 19th Century and was undisturbed for a hundred years. I caught only the tail end of the transforming ructions of the 1980s.

When I read Queensland author Andrew McGahan’s book Last Drinks, published in 2000, I found George Verney, the alcoholic anti-hero, echoing my thoughts. He returned to Brisbane after being away for ten years and was struck by the fact that there had been ‘so much change, and in so little time.

‘It was only after seeing the new Brisbane that I finally understood how profound a revolution it had been… I’d lived through the Inquiry… and lingered to see the old establishment topple into ruin, but I hadn’t stayed to see the new world that would emerge. And when I saw what the new world was, I realised for the first time how little I’d understood Brisbane, outside the small circles in which I’d moved.’

That was precisely how I felt. It was time to find out about my adopted hometown.

And I did. Before and since my stints as consultant and bureaucrat I have been a journalist for many years and have brought the methodology of that profession to this task. That means I have picked the brains of others better informed. I have also recorded a few of my own relevant brushes with the epochal events immediately after the Fitzgerald Inquiry of the late 1980s that so changed the face of Brisbane.

What follows are my personal views on the seminal, shaping events in Brisbane’s history: illustrative snapshots of the journey from the times of the Aboriginal peoples’ occupation of this part of the world until around the end of the last Century. It is too early to say anything definitive about events of the last 10 years, tempting as it is. Just as in a portrait an artist tries to capture the essence of their subject, to provide some insight into character and personality, so I have tried the same in this book. This differs from a work of general history in that there is no recounting of when Queen Street was paved, how the city’s suburbs were belatedly sewered or a chronological tale of State Premiers. It is rather an investigation into the characteristics, themes and events that have shaped the Brisbane of the new Millennium.

The past may sometimes be ‘another country’ but it shapes our lives. Some stories we celebrate; some we bury and ignore as the accepted values of the day change. I wonder, in a city where so much of the physical heritage has been wiped out and replaced with the modern, what are our tangible connections to the past? 

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