I first walked into West End in May 2011. I knew very little about Brisbane’s geography, but I had heard a talk given by prominent West End advocate Dave Andrews and thought it sounded like a place I would like to go. Amazingly, within a few minutes if wandering around exploring the suburb, I ran into Dave sitting at a cafe. I chatted with him very briefly, and he sent me around the corner to a community house where “there are people you should meet”. They invited me in for tea, I stayed a couple of weeks. The rest, as they say, is history.
I open this article about West End with this anecdote for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is to acknowledge that though I love West End, though I have felt a sense of attachment to this place I have rarely felt elsewhere and though the culture and history of West End fascinates me; I am a relative newcomer to the suburb. Even of the five years since that first day, I have only resided in the actual West End postcode for less than two of them.
Secondly though, this little recollection actually says a lot about West End. It’s almost like a West End cliche. Running into people on the street, neighbourly hospitality, a stopping place for travellers and vagrants, local celebrities who talk about West End as an independent entity. This story helps to illustrate the point that gives this article its title – I’ve lived in small towns, outer suburbs and inner cities around the country; and West End more than anywhere I’ve been genuinely fits the description of an “urban village”.
There are many factors that I think have contributed to this. One is a fluke of geography. Despite being walking distance from the city, West End is virtually an enclosed peninsula – almost encircled by the Brisbane River, with even the land based part partly closed in by Highgate Hill.
Added to this is the historical demographic of the area. Both aboriginal (who traditionally called the place Kurilpa or “Place Of The Water Rat”; and since white settlement have always had a strong presence in West End thanks partly to Musgrave Park being traditionally used as an informal gathering space) and Greek (who made West End their own when post-war migration coincided with white Australians’ pursuit of the suburban backyard dream) cultures are strongly community based, which contributed to the character of the area.
Cheap rents and proximity to universities and the cultural hub of the city made West End very attractive for students, artists and political activists. The introduction of free university education and the development of youth counter-cultures in the 70’s helped to develop the social and political culture that we now commonly associate with the place. In this environment, residents could develop a local network of housing co-operatives, community gardens, DIY social services and local press. Alternative religious communities like the Waiters Union, the Catholic Workers and Ananda Marga chose West End as a home. The streets were sprinkled with alternative businesses (the Catholic Workers started ethical consumption store Justice Products, while there were multiple incarnations of anarchist bookstores, cafes and social centres).
This culture became self-perpetuating – people moved in to West End because they wanted to live in a community like this, which further strengthened the sense of local identity. People who didn’t live in the suburb recognised and valued it too. People would travel to West End for a night or day out because it was a place that contained and encouraged styles and ideas outside of the mostly conservative Brisbane mainstream.
This identity was also solidified by threats to it. When Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s dream of holding Expo 88 in South Brisbane meant mass evictions of low-cost housing in the area (a high number of boarding houses and hostels, dating back to the time when nobody wanted to live in West End, mean there has always been a high proportion of disabled and low-income residents); the response was a massive anti-Expo campaign and a distilling of what people wanted to preserve about the area. More recently, changing demographics and increasing development in the inner city has again been the catalyst for residents to protect what they see as important, from bushland in “The Gully” to small businesses and limiting the size of new developments.
Among these local characteristics was a prioritising of supporting local businesses and preserving public space. These both contributed to the village feeling of West End – it’s hard to walk down the street without running into someone you know, and you see the same strangers out so regularly that before long they become acquaintances. Local homeless or panhandlers are often known by name to businesses and locals. When I first came to West End I went from knowing no one to running into friends on the street in literally days. Share-house culture and local social centres (in my case Turnstyle) also helped that process. It meant that I very quickly developed an affinity with the place.
These things that made West End into the distinctive village that it has been are now threatened by other factors – once people moved to the area because they shared these same values, but now people are lured in by the attraction of property investment, proximity to the city or getting their kids into the catchment area for Brisbane State High School (that might sound hard to believe for people from other places; but literally the attraction of this school, which functions as a kind of publicly funded private school in terms of reputation and extra-curricular activities, is one of the key reasons families now move into the area).
The result of this is that the old make-up of the suburb is changing: artists, activists, eccentrics and the disabled making way for a new demographic of inner-city professionals. So too the main street – the anarchist bookstores and cafes are long gone; in the last year we have seen long-running West End businesses like the fruit and veg shop on Vulture St and George’s Seafood close. In their place is an ever-expanding array of craft-beer bars and coffee shops.
It is in this context that local opposition to the “West Village” development by Payce and Sekisui House on the old ABSOE site (corner of Boundary and Mollison streets) has emerged. The proposed development is made up of seven buildings up to 15 storeys each; containing 1350 residential apartments, a supermarket, retail space and a 450 space carpark. Quite a sizeable development for the main street of a suburb, but the plan of the developers is not limited to just the one site. Late last year they held an exclusive event launching their plan to “re-brand” Boundary St.
Notwithstanding that the street’s name harks back to a time when aboriginal people weren’t allowed in the city after dark, most West End residents quite like Boundary St as it is and don’t feel it is crying out to be “re-branded” by a development corporation with no links to the community.
No doubt the development will radically change what the centre of West End looks like – the strong sense of local identity may be drowned out forever by a set of new shops (presumably the massive supermarket on the site will not be a locally owned business), new architecture and massively increased pedestrian and motor traffic. It’s impossible to measure in monetary terms the value of West End’s cultural contribution to Brisbane as a whole – opponents should not be written off as just “not in my backyard” reactionaries.
But the other irksome thing about “West Village” is all of its talk of villages and “lush, sub-tropical community heart” – “re-imagining the precinct as a cathedral in the round… Places to sit, gather, relax… with views of our big blue sky”. It’s like a parody of the way the most parochial resident might talk about West End now, except it’s written by the people who are in the process of destroying that sense of community and urban village that West End possesses.
The sense of community that people created over generations is co-opted into advertising rhetoric by a corporation with no community aspirations beyond delivering a profit to its shareholders. And those suckered in by the marketing will never know what it feels like to live in a community that has developed organically with the consensus of its residents.
In a funny way, the changes of the ABSOE site over the last few years is like a metaphor for the transformation of West End as a suburb – gentrification in a microcosm. Not long ago it was a functioning furniture factory, like West End’s working class culture came from docks and factories along the river. I remember when the upstairs rooms at ABSOE became art studios – people running DIY events and living there against zoning regulations until a fire in the building led to a council crackdown (hope you don’t mind me blowing your cover now guys). This is like the creative and radical era of West End’s cultural formation. For the last two years, the Boundary St night markets on the site give you the quirky alternative West End experience but in a commodified form – food and handicraft stalls, a bar with live music, firepits with paid staff to go around stoking them up. Meanwhile down the street are the hipster bars and cafes that offer an “alternative” aesthetic if not an alternative vision of society. The next stage of ABSOE? High rise towers, fancy shops, the history of the site preserved in building façades but not much else. Unfortunately it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to envision the metaphor extending across the suburb.
The thing about West End’s sense of community and and local identity is that (as opposed to West Village’s) it didn’t just happen – it was generations of hard work, leaps of faith, visionary ideas and heroic failures that made it the iconic urban village that it is. It should never be forgotten that when development companies and property investors advertise their sites with “community” and “creative” buzzwords, it is this hard and voluntary work they are profiting off.
But this history should also be a reminder to us, wherever we reside, that we can actually shape the places where we live and make them into the kind of spaces and communities we dream of. The last ditch resistance to the West Village development currently underway by people who care about West End shows that this suburb hasn’t given up on this process, but neither should any of us – suburbs or inner city, country towns to apartment towers; the communities we want around us are ours to create .