For many non-Queenslanders, Woolloongabba is probably one of the few Brisbane suburbs they could name. When the footy or cricket is on, it is the destination for thousands of people from around the country, but the rest of the time it is a pretty unglamourous place. The intersection of all those major roads means it is constantly bombarded with traffic noise, there are no parks, and no real central downtown area for people to congregate – the cul-de-sac at the end of Logan Rd is full of cafes but is hardly a social hub, same goes for the shopping apartment complex on the other side of Ipswich Rd.
The Gabba is a geographically big suburb where lots of people live; but carved up by the freeway and the busway, full of big warehouse style shops; it almost seems more like a thoroughfare than a place of its own.
Woolloongabba was apparently a gathering place for aboriginal people because of ready access to food. The name is said to mean “Whirling Waters”, so named because its series of hills and creeks would flood when it rained. Which early white settlers found out the hard way, hence the fact that the main horse and cart road from the farms of Ipswich into the city (what we now know as Annerley Rd) was given the name Boggo Rd.
That name these days is most linked with the prison whose buildings still stand in Woolloongabba – the place that erupted into a riot in 1983 when a protest against prison food led to Prisons Minister Geoff Muntz saying that if prisoners didn’t like the food “they can starve for all I care”. A friend who moved into the area in the late 80’s has told me that as well as hosting the city’s prisoners, Woolloongabba was known as “the murder capital of Brisbane.”
That’s hard to imagine these days, but still the suburb carries a touch of urban neglect. The ornate Broadway Hotel burnt down 10 years ago and has sat empty ever since, slowly accumulating more and more graffiti. The much loved Lifeline op shop caught on fire in 2012 and has also never returned.
I lived in a squat around the corner from the cricket ground for about six months a couple of years ago. I missed the social connections that came so easily with West End’s public life and cultural drawing power, but I quite liked Woolloongabba’s unpretentious working class style – where people in singlets and thongs relax on a public bench on Stanley St with a hundred cars a minute flying past them.
For the last year and a half I have been a suburb further out but ride through Woolloongabba nearly every day for one thing or another, and so witness the changes in the suburb as they happen.
Woolloongabba has a notably high number of pubs – probably due to the proximity to the sports ground and the suburb’s industrial background. And most of them still unashamedly cater for a working class male clientele – the Australian National Hotel advertises itself as Brisbane’s home of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The Morrison Hotel has a ridiculously huge billboard on top of it proclaiming “Brisbane’s best steaks”. Similarly, the Norman Hotel proudly announces itself as “Brisbane’s worst vegetarian restaurant.”
Notwithstanding that the Gabba is also a hub for Indian grocery stores, the steak is the food I would most readily associate with Woolloongabba. Which is one reason why the advertising for the new Sth/City/Sq high rise development being built (by development companies Pellicano and Perri Projects) on the corner of Logan Rd and Deshon St is so incongruous. Because the advertising hoardings that run along the site don’t just proclaim the Gabba as “the new urban centre”, they also contain a bunch of images – some of them food. There is not a a steak in sight, instead there are plates that say “hola amigo taco” and “ciao sexy pizza” (yes, really) and picture of take-away coffee cups, lobster, even that most manly of foods – a bunch of asparagus.
Now I’m certainly not one for a one-dimensional definition of masculinity, but there’s no doubt that this advertising is not aimed at the traditional Woolloongabba demographic. Throw in some of the other pictures in the ads (coathanger, bottle of cologne, umbrella, dress shirt and shoes), and we begin to see that Brisbane’s so-called “new urban centre” is targeted to that very urban species – the metrosexual.
The development there – a proposed seven towers ranging between 14 and 21 stories, with “apartments, a hotel, supermarket, boutique cafes, restaurants and cinema” – was the subject of protests from local residents at the start of last year. The protesters were especially concerned that the development approval required relaxations of the local development plan, and have concerns about flood management (those old whirling waters again). But I think one less tangible reason why people are against the development is the rather presumptuous claim of the Sth/City/Sq website to “introduce Woolloongabba” as a new hub. For people who have lived in the area for their lifetime, and potentially generations before that, you can understand why there is some resistance to a development company “introducing” their suburb as something that doesn’t look very much like the place where they currently live.
The scope of the marketing for the Sth/City/Sq development is quite amazing really. Beyond their billboards and onsite display centre; the website promises not just a set of towers but a revolutionary new urban hub, and they have even for the last two years sponsored a free festival called “End Of The Line” that brings indie bands from around the country to play on the streets of Woolloongabba.
I like indie music too, and the things that Sth/City/Sq say they’re about – community , greenspace, style and authenticity – all sound pretty good, but the question must be asked whether this development company really cares about these things in themselves, or whether they are only useful inasmuch as they can be used to sell apartments and commercial spaces. Because these corporations are obliged to deliver results for their shareholders, and I somehow don’t think increased creativity is the dividend they are looking for.
While Sth/City/Sq claims to offer a lot to the suburb of Woolloongabba, in a lot of ways the more successful they are in marketing the suburb, the worse it will be for the people who already live there. Not just because of the loss of the place’s current identity or increased traffic congestion, but because every time fancy buzzwords, music festivals or pictures of asparagus push up the price of apartments in the new development, by the rules of supply and demand they also push up the price of all the other buildings in Woolloongabba. Which means every house or business that currently calls the Gabba home will have to start paying more money if they want to keep doing so.
If you’re into cafes and boutique stores then it’s great living in a hip suburb; but ask anyone who once lived in Fitzroy, Newtown or West End but now can’t afford to; and they’ll tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In these suburbs, even the creative types – like the bands who play at the End Of The Line festival – get forced out as real estate agents happily capitalise on the “hip, alternative” vibe to push up rents further.
Meanwhile the ability of people of low income (who didn’t come to Woolloongabba enticed by pictures of lobster or cologne) to live close to the city; or in a place where they have lived, worked, and helped to shape; just got that bit harder. As property prices go up too, governments begin to see less economic sense in keeping public housing in these high demand areas when it can be sold off at a huge profit.
Change is inevitable, and the point of critiquing gentrification is not to wish that a suburb would forever stay the same. As I said at the start, the current design of Woolloongabba is hardly ideal. But the carving up of the Gabba for construction of a web of main roads should be a warning – this suburb has already suffered once from economics being put before actual community needs. It would be a shame to see it happen again.
What’s happening right now in Woolloongabba is a great example of how a corporation, with the help of a pro-development government, can remodel, rebrand and ultimately transform a whole suburb in the interests of their own profit margin. Not only that, but it’s an example of the role that seemingly unrelated things like music, food and “hip” culture play in the process.