Down Disconsolate Streets

Our northern capital survived being bombed and blown away only to have its heart torn out by rapacious development. By Nicholas Rothwell

READER, come, and drive with me down the mean, degraded streets of the city I most love. Our journey will be brief, but full of memories, and pain, and sharp surprise. Let’s start at the very end of the road: the grassy, unemphatic little roundabout where the ribbon of the Stuart Highway, which has stretched northwards from the Port Augusta salt flats, through Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, and through tropical Katherine, finally, after 3000 straight kilometres, runs out.

The northern coastline, and the turquoise waters of the Arafura Sea lie glinting ahead, for we are in Darwin, Australia’s most compact capital city, and the scene, in recent months, of transformations, and destructions, without parallel even in a place as routinely buffeted by fate’s hard blows as this.

Away behind us to the left, as we begin our drive, lies the bleak canyon of Smith Street, once a tranquil boulevard filled with a mix of frangipani-shaded houses and disconsolate motels. Over the past few years, no fewer than nine stark blocks of units have risen here, cheek by jowl, almost indistinguishable in their boxy, unappealing architecture.

Before us is the wide, straight Esplanade, for 100 years one of Australia’s loveliest and most measured avenues. Early photographs show the low-slung stone houses that once lined this coastal promenade.

Even a couple of years ago the eccentric variety of buildings proclaimed the different stages of the city’s history: the raffish, palm-surrounded backpacker motel on the corner, the Cherry Blossom complex, much used by the city’s professional elite for lunch-time sexual adventures, the stand-alone family cottages amid the grand tourist hotels. There were even a few open, weed-strewn, seemingly forgotten blocks, before one reached the honey-stone McAlpine houses, perfect replicas of old Darwin.

Still ahead, facing the harbour and the parklands, lay the elevated Old Admiralty House and, until 1999, at the bend in the Esplanade stood the city’s emblem, the down-at-heel Darwin Hotel.

Things, though, have moved on.

The Esplanade Gardens, which are of profound, almost primeval beauty, are being constantly improved and sign-posted and tidied up. The corner block of the Stuart Highway is a building site: twin towers, 23 and 24 storeys high, in an undistinguished post-modern idiom, are rising. They were approved by the well-named Development Consent Authority despite their breaking the long-maintained height restriction that applied down the Esplanade. The temptation, now, is for all developers to seek to build higher still on inland streets so as to secure sea views over the top of the new line of obstructions.

Further on, Lameroo, a twin-fronted luxury unit tower, redolent of the Sunshine Coast’s more rhetorical beachside complexes, is near completion.

Here’s the Knuckey Street corner: Old Admiralty House has been gutted and rebadged as a steak restaurant, complete with tacky advertising pennants, while adjacent to it, a new 15-storey tower, resembling a vast toilet cistern in brownish stone, finished off by unattractive facade detailings, soars heavenwards. This project received planning permission despite bitter protests: and, by one of those little coincidences that lend spice to Darwin life, the Northern Territory’s Department of Justice is now housed there.

Onwards, past the enormous white cube of parliament, a building that has for 12 years divided the political class from reality. Here’s the Northern Territory Administrator’s ramshackle “House of Seven Gables”; it stands on a promontory, overlooking the wharves and reaches of old Darwin port, whence, around the clock, strange grinding noises can be heard. For the jumble of dockside sheds and rusting, romantic structures of corrugated iron has been cleared away: diggers and excavators are completing the headworks for the billion-dollar Waterfront, a project that will in a few years time offer Darwin such essentials of life as a wave pool and a convention centre.

The town’s heart is right behind us now, for the core of Darwin is a tight grid, no more than 2km by 500m. By my count, 20 further large apartment or office towers have been built in the past two years, or are soon to be built in this tiny area. Most are squat concrete boxes, raised in defiance of the climate rather than in sympathy with it. They almost always feature little pastel curlicues and jaunty, angled balconies.

Perhaps the ugliest of these projects is Synergy Square, a twin-set of unit towers, surrounded already by a clutch of three separate high-rises that face the headquarters of the Northern Territory News on McMinn Street and neatly wall off crosswinds from the main avenues of town. And perhaps the most inappropriate is the grotesquely named Evolution (at least they didn’t call it Intelligent Design), a 33-storey “vertical village of international standard” under construction. In mock-ups it looks oddly like a large electronic calculator reaching to the sky.

Individually, these projects might be mere eyesores or self-advertising visual exclamation marks. Collectively, their impact has proved overwhelming. Inner Darwin’s look, feel and character were pleasant, variegated and local: if the tone was low-rent, it was never exactly vulgar. But the centre of gravity is different now and long-time residents have come, with heavy hearts, to realise that there is nothing to be done.

The old city, and what it stood for — its aimlessness and its abrupt energies, its secret charms and half-formed ghosts, its sense, above all, of distance from the norms and pressures of the south — these have gone. A new order is being born.

Or, as one old-timer put it to me in wry, mournful tones, some months ago at the Railway Social Club in Parap, a kind of relict temple of old Darwin: “The people who run the place these days — the politicians, the bureaucrats, the developers, the financiers — they’ve raped the town. What the Japanese Imperial Air Force couldn’t do, and what Cyclone Tracy couldn’t do, they’ve done.”

More than in other places, geography blends, here, into history. Grand plans and fantasies of development form the constant themes of Darwin’s past. The map of the city — what changes, what stays the same — is a telling artefact.

Who would know, from the sleek look of the elite suburb of Cullen Bay, that the Kahlin Compound, a home for “half-caste natives”, once occupied the high bluff above the marina houses? Who could tell that the ramrod-straight Ross Smith Avenue was first built as the main runway of Parap aerodrome?

Before we seek to understand the nature of our new northern capital, and the forces that lie behind Darwin’s fast-paced reconstruction, it would be as well to have some sense of what was once here, what pull the past, reinvented as heritage, still has. And what memory traces are being refashioned before our eyes.

For so small a city, Darwin is exceptionally well served by historians and biographers — even its earliest settlers and administrators seem to have been possessed by an urgent desire to record the bizarrerie unfolding in front of them.

A hundred years ago, the town was largely populated by Chinese labourers and flying insects; the architecture was distinctly colonial in flavour, and the verandas were mostly rotten from the depredations of white ants.

The literary-minded Alfred Searcy, sub-collector of customs for the northern coastline, conjures up a tangy picture of his decaying iron-roofed office near the landing stage at Gulnare jetty in those days: “I shall never forget the impression the place made on me when sitting at work between the open doors of the custom-house on some of the still, steaming mornings before the sea-breeze set in. From the wide-open door I could see the glassy sea fringed by dark mangroves, and backed by forest and jungle.”

It was in this unpromising environment that a town and administrative centre was slowly raised. Darwin’s early development and many reverses are well traced in Kathy de la Rue’s recent survey, The Evolution of Darwin, 1869-1911, and are set in a wider context by the granitic ur-text of territory history, Alan Powell’s Far Country. Here is the full sweep of the city’s story: from gold rush to war, from cyclones to self-government. Powell’s book, which has gone through many incarnations, is full of archival photos that catch the look of old Darwin: a place of shade trees, wide front porches and plain buildings of corrugated iron, a vocabulary that has been taken up afresh by the vanguard of contemporary northern architects.

Of course Darwin also had, and still has, a distinctively Aboriginal component: its population is about 25 per cent indigenous, and this alone sets Darwin apart, in deep and subtle respects, from the rest of metropolitan Australia. Yet the place of the Larrakia people, on whose former territory the city stands, remains uncertain, and only tentatively marked. The Larrakia native title claim over Darwin failed; plans for a cultural centre are still on the drawing board.

Aboriginal Darwin — A Guide to Exploring Important Sites of the Past and Present, compiled by Toni Bauman, goes some way to uncovering the indigenous experience of recent decades. It is a poignant, disturbing book, much concerned with absences and erasures of evidence. Bauman includes a detailed entry on the Aboriginal burial ground along Mindil Beach, where a large casino, in many ways the high temple of contemporary Darwin, stands. On the entrance wall of the mens public toilets nearby, close to where the tourist night markets unfold in the dry season, a detailed information panel entreats visitors not to disturb bones they may dislodge in the sand.

Some way northwards, unnoticed in an open patch of grassland near the new Bunnings megastore, lie the wrecked foundations of the missionary-run Retta Dixon home, established for Aboriginal children of mixed descent who had been removed from their families by welfare authorities. It closed its doors only in 1980, and rapidly became invisible, like many less attractive features of the city’s past.

One of the few noticeable layers of the historical record is wartime Darwin, now, after long neglect, regarded as heritage, lovingly tended, and branded with smart new information signs. The Japanese attack on Darwin, 65 years ago this month, is no longer a source of pain; it has become a point of pride. A comprehensive guidebook to the remains of this era has been prepared under the auspices of the Northern Territory Government: A Wartime Journey traces, in punctilious detail, the supply route from Alice Springs up the Stuart Highway to frontline Darwin.

The book bears the obsessive stamp of Bob Alford, military nostalgia king of the Top End and chairman of the Northern Territory Heritage Advisory Council. But what sets it apart is the inclusion of CDs containing the recorded memories of veterans and survivors of the wartime years. Driving the northern highway or visiting Darwin’s coastal defences while listening to these voices brings the still, silent sites to vivid life.

The February 19, 1942, bombing, which damaged much of the centre of town, reset the clock, of course, for post-war Darwin. During the 1950s and early ’60s the town was rebuilt, mostly to the plans of commonwealth architects, who were much under the influence of an unusual master thinker: the Scottish-born, Chinese-trained Beni Burnett.

Burnett’s heyday came just before the war, but many of his period masterpieces still stand. He favoured elevated houses of a kind he knew from the Asian tropics. He embraced the climate, he designed for airflow, fans and louvres were the essence of his art.

There was a pleasing functionality about the new Darwin buildings that rose on this blueprint in mid-century. Then came Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974, and the look of Darwin changed again. Post-cyclone trauma set in. Almost all buildings of the late ’70s reconstruction are concrete boxes, utterly reliant on air conditioning. Only after a generation of this reactive design did a group of younger architects take up Burnett’s legacy once more, and evolve a fresh style.

They were the “troppo school” and their work, with its emphasis on the open-plan, and interpenetration of environment and living space, made a strong appeal to the new class of intellectuals and supporters of the Aboriginal cause who thronged to Darwin in the post-cyclone, post-land rights era. The controversies that surrounded this movement are ably traced in Looking at Darwin’s Past, a succinct overview of the city’s built environment by David Carment, its leading contemporary historian.

These events set the background for today’s development boom. Darwin’s architecture, and even its urban design, has embodied, at least until now, an elaborately conceived and often fiercely argued social experiment: a sketch towards an Australian life on northern shores, amid the geckos and the magpie geese and the wet-season storms.

Why, then, the rush to tear the heart of the city down and recreate the backblocks of the Gold Coast? Why the construction frenzy, when the population trends are stable and many city offices yawn vacant? Why the cowed, grief-struck quality of the few faint protests? Why the silence, or complicity, of the distinctly left-of-centre political class now in uncontested power?

All these anomalies begin to come into focus once one turns one’s eyes to the demographic map of Darwin and to the weird political economy of the north. Of course there are other, more familiar factors in play: the money that opens the door for these vast developments is the new tide of investment finance, the slop from Australia’s decade of property inflation, seeking, in the last untouched market, a final drop of high-speed gain. The Waterfront venture falls squarely in the North’s long tradition of publicly funded, big-ticket projects meant to strengthen the paper-thin economy. And of course the sell-offs of city parkland are an exercise in revenue-raising to help Treasury meet its rapidly expanding obligations.

But the rape of Darwin is not about economics. Nor is it about individual politicians. There’s no point in seeking to blame the Planning Minister, the chill-eyed, Darwin-raised Delia Lawrie, who discourses in interviews about the charm of her home town; nor the affable, Bob Dylan-fancying Chris Burns, planning minister for a couple of soaraway years and an ardent supporter of the new-look, modern city centre.

Nor should we call to account Chief Minister Clare Martin, though her last year in office has been so disastrous it seems clear to all reasonable observers that she was abducted by aliens just after winning a landslide election in 2005 and that a substitute Chief Minister has been going through the motions, turning up in hard hats at every construction site in town, showing no memory of her past as a post-graduate heritage studies researcher or her much-professed love of the city’s environment.

Nor is there any point in arraigning the new head of the Development Consent Authority, Peter McQueen, an art-loving solicitor, on whose watch the twin towers where the highway ends were approved, even if the Planning Act does require him and his team to take into account “natural, social, cultural or heritage values” when giving new buildings the go-ahead.

No, the issue is the state itself, its structure and its ruling ethos. The territory is too small and stratified to operate a conventional democratic government; it functions more as a patronage system.

Like a Portuguese man-of-war or some deep-sea superorganism, a giant coalition being made up of many seamlessly collaborating, once-separate entities, it runs according to its own unswayable logic. The logic of administration and development, implemented by 16,000 public servants, themselves a large slice of the electorate and by far the territory’s most potent interest group.

The economy over which they preside is wholly artificial. Four-fifths of government funding comes straight from Canberra; bureaucrats spend and distribute this money to contractors and vassals of various kinds. The rest of the population churns at an intense rate: perhaps one-fifth of mainstream Territorians leave for good each year, to be replaced by more pass-through citizens. The indigenous population remains and grows.

In the suburban Darwin seat of Karama, more than 60 per cent of the electoral roll was new between the 2001 and 2005 elections. This rules out any serious political memory. As a result, more than in other jurisdictions, politics becomes trivial and dominated by short-term vote-pulling.

These constraints all but ensure the Northern Territory will function as a one-party state: there’s just no point aligning yourself with the wrong side.

Martin’s Labor Government, which has 19 of 25 Legislative Assembly seats, barely even bothers with the niceties of political debate. Like all unchallenged governments, it hates and fears dissent; it distrusts the media and, despite the provenance of its best-known stars from the world of journalism, treats reporters with manipulative contempt.

The core ideology of this self-perpetuating system is development. It has been development ever since the Country Liberal Party took power after the grant of self-government in 1978. Government departments are set up to pursue this elusive goal: vast bureaucratic divisions worship at its altar, and dream of the coming of free enterprise to their patch.

No wonder the surge of new property investors appeals to the Territory’s guardians. They offer the hope of activity, population increase and sustainable society in the north. And there has in fact been some degree of development, aside from large resource projects, in recent years, though it has been confined to three domains: the growing defence presence, the tourism sector and the continuing expansion of welfare, surveillance and medical services to remote Aboriginal north Australia.

One key feature of development is that its momentum needs to be maintained. And if your society is geared towards it, lives for it and depends on outside financial flows, the choices are few. Darwin’s little business establishment is largely made up of property developers, project managers, construction magnates, lawyers and conveyancers, men and women who live in tropical palazzos and view with some pride, from a scenic distance, the changing inner-city skyline that has enriched them.

Then there are the more marginal figures in the electorate: the army of plumbers, plasterers and labourers building the new, high-rise Darwin, who must be kept in work. Against this social backdrop of captured interests, it’s almost surprising to come across an anti-development lobby of any kind.

PLAN, the Planning Action Network, is a fledgling, all-volunteer venture run by two brave, resourceful figures, information technology guru Nick Kirlew and retired archivist Margaret Clinch. The group, which was once leftist and green-tinged, is rather more despairingly bourgeois these days. It used to enjoy warm relations with Darwin’s Labor activists, who now speak of it in private with snide hostility. That hostility has a distinct bite: public servants whose partners dare to turn up at PLAN rallies are quietly warned to pull them into line.

Kirlew’s standard refrain was that PLAN had achieved nothing except the creation of a lightning conductor for the easy discharge of popular discontent. Then, in mid-2006, came the Government’s announcement of its plan to sell the southern part of Mindil Beach, a charming, sweetly haphazard block of wasteland complete with swamp, creek and power-lines, for development as an eco-resort.

PLAN mobilised. Anti-resort rallies, grunge concerts and 24-hour-long fishing protests on Mindil followed. Placards went up all through the neighbourhood. Demonstrations, small and low-key, were held right outside parliament. Without delay, startled by this sign of people power, the Government backed down, or gave the appearance of backing down: it ruled out the eco-resort option, and went ahead with a sale of the land to the next-door casino, on condition that its owners rehabilitate the terrain as public park.

The kicker? A new resort, of course, closer to the casino, on the far side of the creek, where the Arnhem Landers once used to camp. How easy it is, when you hold all the cards, to control the outcome.

Faced with this bleak landscape, many of Darwin’s idealists have simply resigned themselves to silent dissatisfaction. There are Labor loyalists who abhor the Government’s actions, but will never speak against it, for what other political home do they have? There are prominent professionals who make a private protest by refusing to drive down the Esplanade, though if one extended this kind of protest logically, to avoid all streets with nasty new buildings, there would be nowhere left to drive at all.

Then there are the dismayed younger generation of Darwinians, such as my friend Marnie Jay Sharp, a web designer, who formed the idea of making a photographic record of old Darwin buildings before they vanish. “I used to be so proud of my unique home town,” she told me, one steamy Saturday morning at the Cool Spot in Fannie Bay.

“Now it’s fast becoming just another city. I can’t believe we’re demolishing our beautiful old sensible tropical houses and replacing them with the Legoland of high-rise apartments, with their tiny verandas and artificial air. That’s why I started photographing old Darwin, but I couldn’t keep up. I’ve got to the stage now where I just go along, and you never know what’s going to go next.”

The developers have their explanations, and some make perfect sense. A boom in Darwin’s population may yet come and there may be a need for inner city “lifestyle” units, at least if the pleasure of the newest, most transient residents is the chief priority in crafting the way forward for a regional capital.

There are developers who claim that Darwin, with its population of just over 100,000, requires 4000 new residences a year to cope with defence needs, with the natural breakdown of families and with the movement of grown children away from home. And it is clear suburban house prices, fueled by the national boom, are prohibitive for young buyers. Real estate observers report high demand for new units and new rental properties, though occupancy rates in the latest high buildings are said to be less favourable, and oversupply may loom. Such are the joys of the market.

A city’s look, though, and character, are about more than market demand. The architectural revamp under way in Darwin’s heart, which is so thorough the whole of the city promontory resembles from the air a single building site, suggests the determined pursuit of a vision, or a plan.

What development plan, though, would deliberately destroy all that was specific and unique to Darwin: its mustiness and sweet decay, its frontier feel, its dreamy sense of fate’s approach and journey’s end? What, indeed, would be an appropriate way to build an individuated future here and can it be done, when the city is fast turning into a budget copy of Southport or Sanctuary Cove?

Murmurings of this kind must have reached the isolated higher echelons of the Government, for one day in the recent build-up season the Chief Minister announced a cosmetic plan to beautify Darwin, with more shade trees and outdoor restaurants, on the model of Singapore, a genuine tropical city.

That project was in my thoughts the next day as I rode the elevator to the top of Northern Territory House, Darwin’s power building, for a talk with the master of the public service bureaucracy.

Paul Tyrrell, an engineer and public-private deal specialist, oversaw the building of the Alice Springs to Darwin railway; he is also the brains behind the Waterfront development, which is still in early construction, but seems to have much more of Darling Harbour about it than Bali Hai. Tyrrell, chief executive of the Department of the Chief Minister, is a slight man, of reserve and elegance. He wields great power in the Territory and if you tell his underlings you plan to see him they instinctively turn pale.

But he is affability itself this afternoon, despite the legislative arm of government’s vibrant dislike of The Australian and all its works. Tyrrell and I speak for hours: the dream of development, the drivers of growth, the gas plants of the future, the tropical city waiting to be born.

If there is a human emblem of the Territory’s development belief system, it is him. Yet while we are talking, it becomes obvious to me that there is no clear picture in the planning bureaucracy of what the future demand for accommodation might be like or who will live in the long term, in the heart of town. I decide the Government’s approach to new buildings in the city could well be called the Costner doctrine: “If you build them, they will come.”

Tyrrell goes on to tell me the source of the Singapore vision: the Chief Minister had a talk some while back with the chief executive of Singapore-based Tiger Airlines, who stressed the need for Darwin to have more appeal to his customers if there was to be a profitable long-term relationship.

And so the dream took wing and Singapore, despite being vastly richer than Darwin, and more industrious, is in one respect an exact precursor. For, as old hands know, the moralistic Singapore leadership cleared the raffish strip round Bugis Street, where the lovely transwomen once plied their trade, only to then redevelop the area as the ghastly, constantly mushrooming Bugis Junction heritage shopping precinct.

The past, in this new world, is not the past unless it has been rebadged appropriately, and Tyrrell himself hears this siren call: he would like to build a World War II museum, all steel and glass, just outside his office on the lawns above the harbour, where interactive displays could point to the watery graves of ships sunk in 1942.

Men of his kind, who have been waiting for concerted development this past quarter-century, and now at last see the funds flowing in, believe they are on the brink of revolutionising their city.

“Listen,” Tyrrell says, as I say goodbye to him, “the thing is that nothing stays still. It can’t be that way. Darwin will develop. It’s our responsibility to ensure it does so as well as possible.”

I leave the town centre, and end up in Stuart Park, a jungly inner suburb, much enlivened by the presence of the St Vincent de Paul depot, and its attendant cluster of Aboriginal long-grassers, in from the remote communities of the Top End. I make my way down Westralia Street to the house long occupied by Andrew McMillan, the Xavier Herbert of his time, the unending chronicler of the steamy north.

He is packing up; he has just been given notice: the developers are drawing near. Like some precious marsupial driven from its relict habitat, he is searching for another ramshackle shelter underneath another elevated home. I sit with him for a while and we speak of tall buildings.

Then he turns to me: “There’s something you’re forgetting,” he says. “It’s all temporary. Every dream is temporary in Darwin. Only one thing is certain: another cyclone will come, in time, and empty out the place, and tear everybody’s hopes right down.”

Down disconsolate streets
Our northern capital survived being bombed and blown away only to have its heart torn out by rapacious development.
By Nicholas Rothwell

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