A new world city?

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


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?