this (confined city) life
Brisbane. “The best country town in Australia,” my dad used to say; and so, after a stint in southwest Queensland in the early 1950s, instead of returning to the Sydney crush he settled his young family in “Brizzie”.
Earth closets stood like sentry boxes in suburban backyards. Not all streets were fully bituminised. We swayed and lurched on trams that ran along arterial roads to the CBD — the major shopping hub — and halted the traffic at every stop. Commuters caught steam trains infamous for their soot. The nearest surf was a pilgrimage away. But we had palatial city cinemas; two popular coffee lounges; we had the Ekka agricultural show, with an arena large enough for the young Queen’s visits, for Corpus Christi celebrations, for Billy Graham’s proselytising.
Sometimes international artists performed in the City Hall or Festival Hall, when the boxing ring was dismantled. We had Cloudland, with its marvellous sprung floor, where the young danced and dated. The best country town in Australia, indeed.
But all that was 60 years ago, and no one would want to go backwards. Today, sophisti- cated, quasi-cosmopolitan, we call ourselves River City or, ludicrously, “Brisvegas”. We have fine venues; we breed international achievers. And so on.
Why, then, am I suffering disconnection with the city? Why a feeling of disappointment and ill-ease? Am I an ageing curmudgeon who can’t accept change? Can’t cope with the increased pressures of a population that has almost quadrupled since 1954 — and brought a vibrant, creative society?
Last week I read Tim Winton’s Island Home and I recognised “what oft [I] thought but ne’er so well expressed”, the physicality of being Australian: to love the arc of our endless sky, the stab of distance, the foam of aquamarine surf, the glare off tawny paddocks and olive-blue hills. I knew instantly what is irking me about Brisbane: the city has lost its sense of space.
We subdivide our blocks and replace trees with bricks. A river trip on a City Cat presents more glass than grass. We are converting our streets into parking lots. Clusters of high-rise apartments mushroom in their own shadows. Concrete and bitumen ribbon aggressively through landscapes. I feel claustrophobic.
And as I watch Brisbane grow (or go), I also grieve to see the opportunities squandered to build a unique city, if only to attract tourist dollars. Adopting environmentally responsible building practices, we could have created a model metropolis without reliance on energy-eating, temperature-raising devices. And we insist on building densely on a floodplain; bless the volunteers who clear up after each disaster.
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