On returning to my hometown of Perth in 1985 after two years overseas, I decided to flee to Sydney. For me there is an amnesic quality about Perth (although perhaps it’s the same with any place you’ve grown up in) such that time spent away – even years – seems to assume an unreal, dream-like state very soon after returning; I was determined not to forfeit to the encroaching mists the fertile experiences of my time away. Nothing much seemed to have changed back in Perth, but I was not the same person who had left. I had developed a dread of family, and sensed (or maybe just anticipated) an agenda to absorb me back into the fold, where I would soon return to ‘normal’ as part of an homogenous blobby structure that rejected change as some potentially lethal threat to its existence and like white blood cells attacking bacteria, sought automatically to eradicate it. I felt that I would concede some hard-won independence of spirit if I hung around longer than a few days, so before the week was out off to a new life in Sydney I went.
It surprised me just how different Sydney was from Perth. In some ways I felt more foreign than I had in Europe. I knew nothing of my new home, and had no friends there to educate me. I didn’t even have a car, which had been a given in Perth. Taking public transport and walking, I set out on a reconnaissance mission in search of a place to live. Dodging a bottle as it flew by me and exploded against a wall just as I emerged from the train station for my first look at Redfern, hurled by the pursuer of a madly running miscreant who pelted past like a small truck, it occurred to me that my mission was going to be a little more challenging than anticipated. Redfern, then some years from the gentrification that would follow, felt dangerous – like an undetonated bomb – and I didn’t take long to conclude that it wasn’t for me. I explored North, inner West and East before I decided on a 3-person share house in Kensington.
In the two years in Sydney that unfolded, I learnt much about my newly adopted city, and through inevitable comparing and contrasting, discovered a few disconcerting things about Perth.
Firstly, there was an exciting buzz about Sydney that I had also tapped into in other great cities during my travels in Europe and Asia that was entirely absent in Perth – and still is. It is something, I suspect, that is only possible in a metropolis of millions. There’s a sense of community that you get walking amongst thronging crowds in a big city, an intuitive understanding that “we’re all in this together”; “this” is something to do with being part of a city with a strong, unique identity that is acknowledged nationally and internationally, that has history and globally recognized landmarks, a developed and evolving cultural personality, that has a sense of self-assurance quite unlike the catty parochialism of Perth (the resentful junior sibling, stuck on proving itself an equal), and most exciting of all, that is a hub. That is something you cannot fully understand if you have never lived (and I mean lived – not travelled) outside Perth, perched, as it is, all on its lonesome way o’er on the windswept West coast.
Dwelling in paradoxical harmony with this big city sense of community is a liberating anonymity. You feel released to ‘be yourself’ and to push that wherever you wish – in my case, this was probably enhanced by my (grateful) distance from family and the ties that truss, and relief at the stark contrast with Perth. Anyone who comes from Perth will confirm that it’s “a small place”. You rarely go anywhere without bumping into someone you know, and many’s the time you beat a hasty retreat into the nearest shop to avoid some unwelcome blast from the past intruding on your present. There’s a feeling you can’t get away from – or with! – much at all.
There is a myth in Perth that Sydney people are rude and unfriendly, the implied corollary being that Perth is polite and sociable. I found the opposite (my Redfern and some other ugly experiences notwithstanding). People I met in Sydney invited me to social gatherings as a matter of course. Not infrequently, workmates included me, the newcomer, in weekend barbies or get-togethers at their homes, sometimes with the offer to put me up for the weekend. While such invitations were not uncommon in Sydney, it is rare indeed in my experience for Perthites to put themselves out like that, especially for a new acquaintance at work. Ask any recent arrival in Perth trying to establish a circle of friends and they’ll confirm that it is not easy.
Perth is about as cliquey as it gets. It is commonplace for people to retain their school friends all their lives, which is ok in itself, but there is a tendency to cling together with molecular tenacity, effectively insulating the group against “intruders” – partners, of course, excepted (more or less).
Outsiders are habitually regarded with suspicion, and ultimately shunned (politely) until they’ve paid some pretty substantial dues – and by substantial, I mean years! Ask any immigrant. Ask any “Eastern-stater” who has made the move West. Shit, there is even a division between those who live North and South of the Swan River that goes way beyond the merely geographical! Not to mention Fremantle and Perth, whose differences and rivalries now find obvious expression in the arena of AFL football, never so fiercely as in the legendary Western Derby clashes between the West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Dockers, and their bitter aftermaths. Of course, this sort of tribalism is not exclusive to Perth, but the Perth-Freo rift runs much deeper than football rivalry. My father spent a lot of his working life in Fremantle, and recounted instances of old-timers at the Fremantle Workers Club proudly declaring that they’d never been to Perth, and intended never to cross the bridge over the Swan to that despised foreign territory!
Insularity and division are hallmarks of Perth society, which comprises micro-communities whose focus is inwards. The greater community seems bound together only by locale – except in sport, where the crowd locks into a fierce parochialism that has always been there, roaring its hostility at invaders from the East and its jubilation at Perth team triumphs – with Victorian AFL teams copping the worst stick, naturally. (Nothing wrong with that. The greatest moment I have witnessed in any sporting context was John Worsfold’s bone-shaking hit on Hawthorn hard-man Dermott Brereton deep in the pocket at Subiaco Oval’s eastern end in the early 90s. That ecstatic moment of perfect poetic justice united the crowd in a delirium of wild applause that was just unforgettable. A rare and profound 5 minutes of community unity.)
Am I generalizing? Sure! And whatever has been true of Perth is a-changin’ fast with the massive inflow from, mostly, the dreaded Eastern States, England and South Africa grabbing for the spoils of the mining boom and a place in the abundant sun of the west. But are the changes for the better? Some yes, some no – these changes will be the focus of coming blogs. One thing I will say now, though, is that the growth has come way too fast, leaving the place in a state of transition in which we now have most of the disadvantages of a big city, but few of the advantages. Perth of yesteryear – which, for all its small-town faults, did have some desirable qualities that set it apart from other Australian cities – is lost to progress, and the place it has become is in a mother of an identity crisis.
I want to return for a moment to differences between Perth and Sydney, specifically to one that hit me between the eyes some months into my first year “over East”. Like all great cities, Sydney has a vibrant inner city life, which contrasts starkly with its suburbs where the bulk of the population lives out their lives as anywhere. The urban and suburban are worlds apart: the distinction between these two worlds is unavoidable and insistent. This distinction, quite honestly, did not exist for me until I left Perth. In fact, until I moved to Sydney, I didn’t even know the meaning of the term “suburban”. Of course, I knew the word itself, but used it without understanding what the hell I was talking about – Perth is all suburb! Let’s play the other side of the record, Sam: there IS no true inner city life in Perth! It is no accident that the city proper is referred to as the CBD – indeed, that’s all it is: a central business district. No apartments, few bars or restaurants other than those catering for the day crowds, no fountains or sculptures worth a photo, and there is no reason to go there after the shops have closed, except maybe to King Street if you’re a café yuppie and on Friday nights to some after-work pubs.
Whatever changes have been wrought in Perth in recent years by the massive influx of national and international arrivals looking to cash in on the mining boom, a happening inner city scene is not one of them. Rather, there has been an unseemly suburban spread LA style; the new housing developments along the northern corridor, especially, are unimaginative and soulless, sandy suburban expanses that the admen stoically insist are communities.
Thus far, dear reader, you might rightly accuse me of crying stinking fish in my own backyard. There must be something good about Perth?! And of course, there is.
The beaches. Oh, the beaches. The glorious sea that laps, washes, pounds against Perth’s rim is my church. A dip in the brine on a still summer morning is a baptism, the ripping winds and scowling oceans of winter a sanctuary from human complication, a comfort and an inspiration. For me, very often, the coast of Perth is the only redeeming quality of this town other than its dulling but assuring familiarity. If it were not blessed with this coast that I am spiritually connected with, I would not live here. It’s the one positive constant I can fall back on. The waters of the Indian Ocean will one day receive my ashes. Need I say more?
Others have made the valid observation, and I’ll make it again, that almost all Perth’s assets are environmental. The Swan River, asphyxiated though it is becoming due to past mismanagement and current community ignorance, lethargy and selfishness (ban front lawns – but that’s another story) is picturesque, its surface a pleasant playground for the well-to-do. King’s Park is a dramatic national park, uniquely positioned in a central vantage point overlooking the CBD and the Swan River’s widest expanses. The hills and surrounds can be nice for those who bother to explore them. And certainly the weather is pretty damned fine. Lots of sun, relatively clean air, some ridiculously beautiful days in the middle of winter that beat summer in full bloom in some geographically underprivileged locales.
The stock response of Perthophiles when asked to identify the reason for their enthusiasm is “the lifestyle”. They wax lyrical over barbecues, as if singeing flesh over flames was somehow precluded elsewhere. Then there is the great outdoors – true, there is plenty of opportunity for playing outside, whatever your game.
“Casual” and “convenient” are other standard Perth descriptors that are tossed around as liberally as Cresco lawn fertiliser, but do they still apply? In truth, I don’t see Perth as any more casual than elsewhere in Australia, and its convenience is diminishing with every new arrival.
The freeways and main roads are now choked at peak times with the vastly increased numbers of commuters that the boom has attracted, and suburbs are metastasising further and further out from the city centre.
My favourite beach of the last 20 years, once the haunt of a few score regulars and random tourists, is now so crowded on weekends that the car parks are full by 10am on plum beach days; if you get there later, forget it. You’re relegated to one of the shitty dog beaches, where the spine-cracker waves dump right on the shore. The good beaches are not quite as cramped as Bondi yet, but getting closer by the summer.
The Perth institution of going to the footy can no longer be taken for granted. Eagles matches are usually booked out and members snap up most of the seating available anyway. Dockers fans are more fortunate, but their tribe is growing and it is only a matter of time before their games sell out more often than not, also. When a decent sporting stadium will be built, or Subiaco Oval re-developed (again), is anyone’s guess.
Queuing outside popular restaurants, once unheard of, is now commonplace. Ditto Rottnest Island. The days of the spontaneous holiday on Rotto are finished. Holidays during school breaks must now be booked a year in advance, and even then, you have to queue to score a place in the ballot system that operates to ensure holidays at the island are not gobbled up by the same people time after time – some actually camp out overnight to guarantee themselves a spot in the ballot! The Southern coastal areas, too, are now booked out in advance during holiday periods.
“Convenient”, then, is looking like an imposter on that wrinkled old list of plusses.
In the past, “affordability” was one of Perth’s big advantages, but no more – and here, finally, I get to the primary concern of this blog: the rocketing real estate prices of the last few years and the impact this is having.
A few weeks back, buried in the middle of Saturday’s West Australian newspaper, was an article about a uni student living out of a backpack at friends’ places as he struggled to find rental accommodation he could afford. He had left Canberra to take up a scholarship studying architecture at UWA three years previously, when rent was a manageable $60 per week. With the rapacious grab for property in all locations that has become a feature of the booming property market of the last 3 years, previously affordable student housing areas have become “hot”, pushing the values into the stratosphere and tripling rents. The architecture student complained that with Perth becoming “so hard to live in” he was considering moving back East, or even to London or Barcelona.
This raises a couple of pertinent points. Quite abruptly, a yawning gulf has appeared between the moneyed and the battlers, or more accurately, between those who own property and those who do not (yet another division in a place already full of them). If you are not on a very good income and do not own a house now, you probably never will – not unless you win lotto or inherit significant money or property, or make a resounding success of yourself. At best, people on ordinary incomes will have to settle for a long-term mortgage on an apartment, not a house, which in itself is a fundamental change in Perth lifestyle. The house and backyard, once a birthright here, the latter mythologised by Tim Winton as an archetypal site of childhood drama and discovery for kids growing up in Perth, are now far beyond the reach of many. Perth was always a place of space, where you had room to breathe. Not now.
I saw a report a few weeks ago that ranked Perth’s median house price with Sydney’s – impossible to conceive only a couple of years ago. So, if living in Perth is now as expensive as Sydney and other great world cities – and more expensive than Melbourne – does it have enough to offer? Does it offer the bang for buck of Sydney and Melbourne? London, Barcelona, Paris, Rome, New York? It has “great city” prices, but is it a “great city”?
Pshaw! It’s a piss-elegant little pretender way too far up its own arse, mean-spirited, lacking soul, lacking buzz, lacking personality. It is fortunate in its natural environmental locale, but does that compensate for its shortcomings? For its self-centred human environment, where personal material gain is the overriding objective, and the driving force behind its astonishing recent growth spurt? For its cultural and geographical isolation, and the defensive parochialism that breeds? For the big-city disadvantages that the boom crowds have brought with them, the exploding cost of living, the strain on the infrastructure that was never anticipated or planned for?
These are the sorts of questions many will be asking in coming years, as they sit back in their dizzily valued homes, contemplating the suburban wilderness that enfolds them, thinking of the lives they left behind and wondering why eating lotus in the desiccating sun of the West never seems to fill their hunger for – what? – something more. Something that the mere material spoils of a mining boom cannot approach. Something with heart.
© Ross Buncle 2007 – All Rights Reserved