Look What They Done To Our Scarbs, Ma…

Cottesloe has the reputation of being Perth’s best beach. I’ve never understood this. It’s crowded as a bastard in summer, parking is a nightmare, the shore is shoulder-to-shoulder tourists and byootiful people, and there’s not much of a body wave. And the main drag is too upmarket.

Take Indiana Restaurant (pic from their website)…indiana-cottesloe.jpg
Pricey and pretentious. Actually, worse than pretentious – grandiose. And so ostentatious it has imposed itself as a Cottesloe beachfront landmark impossible to ignore.

The Blue Duck’s OK, I guess. It has become a bit of an institution at Cott and offers a great elevated seaside view to sip a coffee over – but it’s a yuppie mecca, as is the entire area.

A real beachfront main drag is about greasy burgers-n-chips, icecreams, soft drinks. Not calamari @ $30 a go, or wedges with aioli. Not aproned wait staff with silly Neighbours accents. You don’t want airs and graces at yer beach food-n-drink joints. You want no-bullshit with character, with perhaps a hint of brusqueness, like you get at Peters By The Sea, at Scarborough.


Peters By The Sea is a site of heroism. This story might or might not be apocryphal – that’s not something I care to investigate – but it goes like this:

When Alan Bond erected Observation City (OK, call me immature and I’ll answer, but really, the bloke was a rampant sky rooter), his vision was to push over the entire beachfront strip and replace the row of hamburger joints, pool and games dens that had defined Scarbs for generations with a Surfer’s Paradise-style battery of high-rise phalluses. Bond offered the shop owners big bucks to move out, and one by one, they succumbed…but Peters By The Sea refused to sell. While Peters remained, the development Bond had in mind could not go ahead. Rumours went around that he had upped his buying price to silly levels – millions – but Peters was not for sale, and wouldn’t be bought out at any price. Eventually, Bond had to abandon his grand vision. Peters By The Sea has taken on mythical significance for me ever since. It represents something quintessentially Scarbs.

Scarbs has always been my Perth beach of choice (well, Brighton, actually….which is right next door). The sand is clean and white and the beaches broad, stretching into the distance north and south. The sea bottom slopes away gradually, so most days you can wade out to the break and stand shoulder deep, waiting for a wave. Scarbs and Brighton have the best and most consistent summer body waves on the metro coast (which is not much of a boast). And when the swell is up, there’s enough mongrel in the surf to keep things interesting.

The same could be said of the human environment. New arrivals won’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but anyone who’s been here longer than 5 minutes – make that 20 years – will recall Scarbs as a working class suburb with some rough edges and a beachfront youth culture that always had a bit of an unruly side to it. Those with some Scarbs history will recall the parties in the Stanley Street and Drabble Road areas. And the notorious Scarborough Hotel Sunday sessions. Drunken pizza queues afterwards. The ubiquitous screech of tyres, one step ahead of the law. Even today, hoons haunt the carparks, taunting the cops with their doughnuts and burnouts. It’s almost as if the delinquent ghosts of decades past are calling to them, urging them to preserve the traditions that have made Scarbs what it is. Or was…

Things have changed in recent years. Scarborough the suburb is now priced out of the reach of average incomes. Lux units and big double-storey houses have sprung up like toadstools. Peters By The Sea has had a makeover or two, but they’re still serving up their 60s style burgers twixt toast, not buns. The rest of the strip is upmarket and pricey.

Oldtimers might take some consolation in the constancy of nature – the sand and sea is still as it always has been, surely? Well, no. The hordes of Poms and South Africans that have taken over the northern coastal corridor of Perth have changed the personality of the summer beaches of Scarborough and Brighton – and not for the better.

On a good beach day, the carparks fill up fast from Brighton north. If you roll up later than 9.30, you’re relegated to one of the shitty beaches to the south between Brighton and Floreat, where access to the sea is a hot walk through dunes, and the waves suck themselves full of sand before rearing up and dumping flat-splat on the shore.

If you do manage to beat the crowds at Brighton, it’s only a matter of time before families arrive with their umbrellas and wind shields, and set up camp right on top of you. The newcomers don’t have the sense of personal space that was once understood and observed as basic beach etiquette in these parts. And they seem loud, graceless, somehow disrespectful, assuming possession of their adopted beach as a right rather than a privilege, as if they’ve merely moved from Durban to Capetown. They have no concept of paying their dues, and no inkling that they have moved in on a place special to locals who were there long before them.

I am being a tad unreasonable. I know that. I don’t care. These people have usurped my sacred site (a sadly familiar refrain in this country).

But what does it matter? Scarbs will soon be no more anyway. Late last month, despite years of persistent and sometimes rowdy protest from local ratepayers, the State Government approved the City of Stirling’s plan to allow buildings of up to 12 storeys along West Coast Highway and the Scarborough foreshore. Locals have fought the Council for years over this. A little beachfront hamburger joint beat off Bond and his millions, but corporate power is but a fart in a cyclone next to that of local councils, it seems.

Those who understand what Scarbs was know that multi-storey development will destroy what remains of its essential character – which no other beachside suburb in Perth comes close to.

I’m not going to attempt to be precise in defining that character. If you share my experience of Scarbs, there is no need. If you don’t, there is no point.

I may be coming across as a middle-aged nostalgic pining for my wild youth, but that’s not it at all. I was always on the fringes. I attended my share of Stanley Street parties, but was never one of the wild ones. I took my place in stoned, drunken queues at the pizza joints on Sunday nights, stoned and drunk. But I was not one of the cool tanned surfs with straw hair and a hot pouting babe incidentally draped over them. Not one of the leather clad Harley Davidson crew who were top of the pecking order at the Scarbs Sunday Session. Not a hoon, or a dealer or a bogan. Not even a larrikin. I was just one of many who liked the atmosphere of Scarbs. Who lived there in share accomodation in my youth. And who returned with magnetic inevitability to the beach every summer as the years went by, to find sanctity and solace and something damned close to religion in the cold, clean, boiling surf with the community of regulars who all recognised each other, watched each other age year by year, but never spoke.

The Brighton regulars are gone now. Or maybe they’re still there somewhere, lost in the crowd. If ever we see each other again, we’ll know what each other is thinking. And still, not a word will be spoken.

To the young guys and girls who gave their weekends for the last two summers, collecting signatures of beachgoers at Brighton and Scarborough for petitions that were ignored, the City of Stirling says “fuck you”. To the ratepayers who protested loud and long at Council meetings, “fuck you”, too. The City of Stirling knows what’s best for you, and the bucks you pay them in rates. Your opinions do not count.

Soon, there will be nothing left of Perth’s last character beach. In its place, there’ll be just another yuppified coastal strip of the sort you might find anywhere in the urbanised world. Monied types and tourists will strut their stuff, flitting in and out of expensive shops and restaurants. Maybe there’ll be some big tasteful fine-dining landmark constructed close to the beach, where the hoons used to do 360s through flaming petrol – a scaled-down replica of the Taj Mahal, perhaps.

And Peters By The Sea will stand resolute, a lonely shrine to the memory of Scarbs, poignant to the few who remember and care, unnoticed by the rest.

FOOTNOTE: I’m pleased to report that this blog post was judged one of the Best Blogs of 2008 by Club Troppo and Online Opinion.

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