Valley of indecision

July 10, 1991

By Claire Wagner

Brisbane's Fortitude Valley rocketed to national notoriety when the ABC screened scenes outside brothels and disclosed police corruption. CLAIRE WAGNER looks at the less "newsworthy" but more important issue of redevelopment.

Locals now warn visitors to stay away from this sinful quarter, a short bus ride from the city centre, which reminds a Sydneysider of a combination of Chinatown and old Woolloomooloo.

Not long ago, the intersection of Brunswick and Wickham Streets was the site of major department stores which had flourished since the 1890s. Household names — McWhirters, Overells, T.C. Beirne — have been displaced by decentralised establishments, the landmark buildings remaining amid smaller commercial premises, many of them run-down and emptying one after the other. Within walking distance of the late Victorian facades of stores and pubs are domestic neighbourhoods typified by stilted timber "Queenslanders".

A transition zone from the postmodern to the vernacular, the place presents a welcome relief from the curtain-walled centre nearby, where a desire to seem sophisticated has produced the ill-mannered giantism epitomised by Bjelke-Petersen's Executive Building, looming over the French Renaissance Parliament like a corrupt cop.

The brightest spot is the Chinatown Mall, completed in 1987, where excellent restaurants serve Brisbane's Chinese as well as tourists. With the long view characteristic of Chinese business, Hong Kong interests own a great deal of real estate in the area, where street signs and railway platforms are duplicated in Chinese characters.

The dingy peripheral brothels are incidental to the problem of reclaiming the area. Along with offices and light industries which appropriated residential streets, they moved into the vacuum left by decentralisation and now aggravated by recession.

Where is the public?

In addressing the Valley's problems, most seem to agree that people should be "brought back" to live there at medium densities, on the example of the two adjoining suburbs, pricey Spring Hill and socially mixed New Farm. Given political will and concerted vision, there are plenty of ready mechanisms, such as flexible zoning to enable people to live over shops and offices and the use of Commonwealth housing grants to subsidise developments or conversions.

But in a state where architectural critiques can incur lawsuits,

public debate has not gone much beyond affirmations by proponents of redevelopment, now temporarily silenced by the recession. For such a small area in such an intimately scaled city, there has been a singular lack of communication beyond the assertion of ethnic territoriality, and, in the absence of any common civic theme, antique habits of thought have surfaced, including idly expressed racism.

A trifle self-consciously, the Irish community has revived traditions such as the St Patrick's Day procession. To counterbalance the Chinese, some street signs have been triplicated to include Gaelic, though it is questionable that anyone who can read it actually needs to.

The Chinese presence has stirred some ancient Labor sensibilities. Early last year, the Chinatown Association ran into trouble over its handling of a promotions grant from the council, with criminal proceedings hinted at. A new association, which initially excluded the Chinese, was formed with the developer REMM Pty Ltd in the leading role. Its task was to manage and promote both the Chinatown Mall and the new Brunswick Street Mall, cheek by jowl in the next parallel street.

Endorsing this, minister for local government Tom Burns said we were all Australians, adding "The ones who should be represented are the people who own the buildings and are investing in the Valley". Secure in the knowledge that Chinese owned properties on the new mall, a community elder inquired whether REMM would perform the lion dance as well as organising events on the Chinese calendar.

Late last year the Brisbane City Council released its consultants' proposals for the inner suburbs in half a dozen weighty documents. They make all the appropriate noises: encourage affordable housing, ensure a rather careful social mix — and above all make this distinctive quarter a cosmopolitan focal point, engagingly bohemian like Kings Cross in the days before drugs and vice. An "arts precinct" linked with a teaching institution springs to most minds.

But cosmopolitan focal points are no more indigenous to a subtropical culture with a sabbatarian tradition than to anywhere else in suburban Australia. How to be cosmopolitan diners-out in a city which lacks even coffee houses, where much social life is still family-based; how to introduce climatically appropriate medium density housing where earlier traditions are lacking?

History repeated

The council's effort has an air of repeated history. The Valley was first settled by unwelcome immigrants, who arrived on the ship Fortitude in 1849, unannounced and unprovided for. The government segregated them behind a steep ridge in what became the

Valley, urban from the beginning, where they lived happily ever after.

Subsequently the Valley began to attract waves of poor immigrants, notably the Irish, whose social support systems, including the Catholic schools, also benefited the Italian community at New Farm and now serve the whole city. With the Valley as focal point, the ethnic subcultures have provided migrants with successful role models and identity. More recent arrivals, including Asians, are developing similar systems.

But some frequenters of the Valley are still in a limbo, glossed over in the council reports, euphemised by politicians. An architect, Mary Ganis, has questioned the sanitised and insipid "urban village" envisaged by middle-class trendies of both political persuasions, pointing out that the Valley is and should remain central to the city-wide networks serving the underprivileged.

Less visible and less easily cared for are the cultural isolates — disabled, aged, alcoholic, Aboriginal — whose more tenuous official and voluntary support services also focus on the Valley, which is accessible by public transport or on foot from New Farm rooming houses. An isolated pensioner with a cubbyhole in a rooming house would have no options to relocate in familiar territory.

This seems not to worry officialdom, who adopt the public relations semantics of social hygiene in speaking of "clearing out" the Valley as a means of redeeming its reputation.

The Labor alderman who represents the area, David Hinchcliffe, believes "a balanced social structure" would improve the image: a worthy notion, Mary Ganis agrees, but points out that the isolates' established territorial rights must be acknowledged.

Of these the most visible are the Aborigines. They have established themselves in a historic pub on the old intersection, where they get drunk and behave as rowdily as any number of white exemplars. Council's planning proposals acknowledge the need to incorporate Aboriginal motifs in designing for a sense of place, not noticing the squatters taking refuge from the skinheads in empty buildings.

Dreams

On a high point between the city centre and the Valley is a monument to a failed dream, the vacant site on which the late Archbishop Duhig sought to build the Holy Name Cathedral, on the scale of St Peter's in Rome. Since the church sold it, it has been the subject of many redevelopers' fantasies, including high-rise offices and home units, more recently incorporating a communications tower. It awaits more favourable times.

Nearly opposite the Aborigines' pub is another project which sceptics see as no less fanciful, the McWhirters Marketplace, conceived as the beginning of a boutique-led recovery. As described by Alderman Hinchcliffe, a committed supporter, it would be the beginning of a comprehensive redevelopment by REMM, including hotels, high-rise offices, mixed uses, government offices and a "residential component", inevitably up-market.

On taking over the building from Myers in 1988, REMM commissioned a US firm specialising in "festival markets" to redesign the heritage-listed store. No-one queried the location of a festival market in a singularly unfestive quarter. The aim seems to be to replicate the variegated markets in Asia or Southern Europe, minus the beggars, with specialist shops and potpourri stalls got up like gypsy wagons.

The building is attractive, redeveloped to include an atrium. An aerial walkway links it with the railway concourse, lined with premises to let. Tourists wander through on weekends, it is locked at night, and there seems to be a constant turnover of tenancies. It looks very like a preliminary to large-scale redevelopment and wholesale gentrification.

While the recession affords a breathing space to the disabled, aged, alcoholic and Aboriginal, the council is predisposed to pedestrian malls. Malls, its travelled consultants advise, encourage vibrant multicultural interaction and afford the opportunity for promenading — which would have to be as foreign to the local culture as serenading.

Sallyanne Atkinson opened the Brunswick Street Mall before Christmas with folk dancing in steamy subtropical heat, a lugubrious event devoid of spectators, possibly because the seats are unshaded. The closure of the street has further sapped the Valley's fragile economic base by making it difficult for customers who used to come from New Farm for their groceries. The slogan "Make no little plans" still appeals.

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