Essay

Destination: Adelaide

IN THE DAYS when seatbelts were optional and parents smoked in the car without a second thought, Adelaide was a destination. We visited my grandfather. He gave us bags of copper coins and we spent them in department stores. Adelaide had movies and music, trains and a tram. It had traffic lights and Hindley Street and Sportsgirl in the Mall.

I came to university and thought I had arrived. I had black stirrup pants, a paisley shirt, new sunglasses and my own cheque-book. I bought my first carafe of red. On hot days, I went to the Art Gallery. I saw Michael Hutchence, Bono and Annie Lennox. Live at Memorial Drive. Hoodoo Gurus in pubs. But only four years later, degree complete, the department stores weren't that big and Hindley Street wasn't that long. Jobs were too hard to find, too easy to lose.

I left my destination, and I was not alone.

Demographer Graeme Hugo says that "substantial" net migration losses from South Australia "reached record proportions" in the 1990s. We wanted adventure, higher incomes, jobs. We didn't know we were part of a trend which would have a significant impact on the growth and structure of the state. Hugo says "the effect of the net loss interstate has been amplified by the fact that it disproportionately contained the young workforce and economically productive groups" including a high proportion of young women.

Over the last decade, South Australia's population growth has been the slowest of all states except Tasmania. And, in a greying world, South Australia is greyer than most. Don't look at the statistics. Just look around.

What if these trends continue? In Series B of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' most recent Population Projections, the South Australian population is projected to peak at 1.65 million in 2032, then begin to decline and further age, so that by 2051 there will be around 1.58 million people living in South Australia, and around 30 per cent of us will be over sixty-five (compared with 15 per cent over sixty-five in 2004). Population projections are rooted in assumptions and are not intended as predictions or forecasts, but the scenario is not unrealistic. Those are not church bells you can hear – they're alarms.

In its 2003 paper, A Framework for Economic Development in South Australia, the Economic Development Board quotes Tom Peters as saying: "You can't shrink your way to greatness". Noting that "economic development has population consequences and vice versa" the board recommends "that the government formulate a State population policy as a matter of urgency".

Hugo writes: "While zero population growth and slow growth does not necessarily mean lower prosperity, the spectre of a declining workforce and population, and of the evolving age structure in the state are issues of concern. Accordingly, what is needed is a policy which weighs up the economic, social and environmental consequences of a range of population futures and selects a scenario which is most beneficial to all of these areas."

In 2004, the state government released Prosperity Through People: A Population Policy for South Australia. In his foreword, the Premier states that the population trends are considered " key barriers to the State's continued economic and social development". He says: "We must refuse to accept the inevitability of population decline and recognise the need to respond to the ageing of our population. I am confident ... that we can increase our population – and protect our environment – by ensuring development takes place within an overall framework of sustainability." The policy sets a population target of two million by 2050, with strategies focused on migration ("new" migrants and expatriates); fertility and ageing, and striking a better work-life balance to give flexibility and support to parents and mature-aged people; and labour force and skills development. This feeds into the government's strategic plan, Creating Opportunity, designed to create a dynamic, inviting state.

A destination and a place to stay. A place to which people will return.

In June 2006, the Strategic Plan Audit Committee rated progress of the population target as "unclear" (which means no data or no new data are available or measurement is problematic). The overseas migration target was rated as on track to meet the target in the time-frame, but there was little or no movement made on the interstate migration target. The committee reported that "the target will ultimately prove to be unachievable unless urgent and extensive actions are taken".

 

I LEFT ADELAIDE one year after I graduated, one day after I married. We had one-way tickets and an idea that we wouldn't return. We didn't tell my mother-in-law that – there were tears enough – we said "five years, tops". And we left our half-finished boat in my father-in-law's shed. "We'll be back to pick it up," we said.

But my mother died in a car accident, and I found her absence too hard to understand. I tried for a few more years, but in the end I had to come back to the places she should have been, but was not.

I thought the stay was temporary, and that I would leave again. I thought we would buy a Norwood maisonette (an investment – Adelaide real estate was cheap), give it a lick of paint, grab the boat and be back on our way. But we stayed. It wasn't a decision we made – we just stayed. We read the letters then emails from our friends, and caught up with them for lunch when they came back from Melbourne for Christmas or brought fiancés home from London to meet their mums. They continued not living here, and we continued to stay.

Charles Landry, cultural planner, "international authority on city futures" and the state's second Thinker in Residence, estimates that, of Adelaide's one million inhabitants, "perhaps 250,000 are underachieving". In his report Rethinking Adelaide: Capturing Imagination, he says that "in Adelaide people with a high level of ambition find it hard to realise their potential. It feels as though the pool of risk takers and thinking people is too small to stimulate people to achieve more."

And more than the frustrations and thwarted ambitions of the entrepreneurial, professional and middle classes, Landry says that some of Adelaide's inhabitants are underachieving "desperately" and "leading a life that both drains them and Adelaide".

In Extending Opportunity to All: A Blueprint for the Elimination of Poverty in South Australia, the South Australian Council of Social Service notes that "almost a quarter of all South Australians are living in poverty ... South Australians do want prosperity, more and better job opportunities, a better education for their children, and health and wellbeing. More than these, they seek to live in an embracing and genuinely inclusive community where the same opportunities are extended to all. The greatest barrier to this for South Australians is poverty."

Unlike the rest of Australia, where the gap between rich and poor has widened, "South Australians have become more equal in recent years, not because of the rising affluence of the worst off, but because of the declining relative standing of the best-off," says Dr Peter Travers from Flinders University. Landry explores the psychology of a city which allows, might even encourage, its inhabitants to "underachieve". Our culture, he says, is one of "constraint". In Adelaide, there is "a sense of trapped energy. A preference for order and perfectionism for which the Light plan of the city stands as the supreme emblem."

Someone once said to me: "Oh, I lived in Adelaide for a while, it was very repressed, all those lines on the footpath at the bus stops ... and everyone stood in them!"

I didn't remember painted lines at bus stops. "But if the lines were there," I said, "why wouldn't you stand in them?"

She blinked, but didn't laugh.

"Yet it is a place that knows it needs to contrive opportunities out of nothing in order to survive with few natural resources," Landry writes. "So within this settled order creativity is occasionally allowed to burst out, exemplified by the Dunstan era."

At the moment, though, we are stifling our creativity and entrepreneurship. "A major challenge for Adelaide is confidence and the need to feel more relaxed about itself and less defensive. It could start by no longer promoting itself with adjectives such as 'sensational Adelaide' and projecting itself simply as 'Adelaide' – and allowing that to speak for itself."

Oh, yes please. That would be great.

"Cities can import resources and they need to; they can attract outside talent to refresh [their] inner gills and they have to; but most of all they need to achieve endogenous growth," he says.

"Harnessing the creative potential of local people has to be the defining core of Adelaide's reinvigoration." He put that bit in bold.

 

PEOPLE SAY ADELAIDE is a difficult place to break into. Our defensive parochialism is notorious, our establishment infamous, our history littered with people who – depending on your perspective – either left in a huff or were driven out. Peter Sellars in the arts, Gary Ayers in sport.

When I first moved to Adelaide, I was seduced by my potential anonymity. I had been living in a provincial city, defined by my relationship to my parents, both of them teachers and one of them in politics. "Oh. You're Crispy's daughter," people said, not always with a smile.

In the city, I could drink and smoke and kiss whoever I liked and my parents would never know. But a million people isn't as many as you might think, especially not in a city-state. South Australians weave their way in and out of Adelaide. There's a city-versus-country divide, but there are 1.5 million South Australians, and 1.1 million of them live in Adelaide. We come here for appointments with the specialist, for trade school, to find a wedding dress, a job. Sooner or later you will know someone who knows someone standing next to you in the queue.

At the same time, you can know a lot of people in Adelaide, and still not know enough. In my first week at university, I learnt that the girls who carried dark green or navy blue Country Road bags would join the Foreign Affairs Department and had already been to France. I hadn't known that France was somewhere you could go. I was on the edges of the Adelaide Establishment where no one cared that I was the "daughter of Denis".

Whatever their weaknesses, networks do have enormous strengths. Adelaide's first Circle of Friends was established in 2002. Within a year, there were twenty-two, all supporting refugees and asylum seekers living in detention or finding their way into our community. And Adelaide's establishment is not impenetrable. Mike Rann, Jane Lomax-Smith, Robert Champion de Crespigny, Carole Whitelock – none of them are from these parts originally. And if that list sounds elitist, class is not a barrier to success in Adelaide. Robyn Archer, writer, singer, festival director, and Mark Bickley, Crows premiership captain, Chair of SA Great – they aren't establishment names.

Mark Bickley. I grew up around the corner from him.

I was in Sydney on the last day of Juan Davila's exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Breakfast in Glebe, then Crown Street, Hyde Park, a ferry, cicadas, humidity. A Sydney day. Until the MCA.

I had forgotten that Davila had painted Adelaide. "The Institute of Architects Bombs Adelaide" and "The Ruins of Adelaide City Council Real Estate Office at Victoria Square" took me by surprise. His essay, "The Ruins of Adelaide", reproduced in the newly-published book, jolted me.

"Colonel William Light's 1837 plan for the city of Adelaide has been a curse." Like his paintings, Davila's words are harsh. "This virtual city plan is a fortress – copied from Europe – to exclude disorder ... Adelaide's master plan sanitises the city, violently excluding presentations of histories, ideas and behaviour outside the Anglo-Saxon experience."

Davila's Victoria Square is disorderly. Its foreground flooded, the Hilton and Town Hall toppling, the three rivers fountain being filled with urine from atop.

This is the place where – several times a week – my children and I get on and off the tram. It is the place where the Aboriginal flag first flew, and it is now flown here permanently. I have heard, in a welcome to country, that Light knew what this place meant to the Kaurna people when he made it the centre of his Adelaide.

It has two official names -Tarndanyangga and Victoria Square – but most people call it Victoria Square. Here is Davila again: "The declaration of dry zones – no drinking alcohol in the public spaces – as an affirmation of a will for order can be read as a perversion, given the dependence of the economy on the wine industry. It also targets those forced to drink in the city squares, unlike those who drink in grand settings." Can't argue with that.

I bought the Davila book, retreated to the airport, sat in the departure lounge. I smiled at the friend of a friend, at the person who seemed to recognise me although I did not recognise him, then chatted with two people I haven't seen for years. "So you're still living in Adelaide." I nodded, then said it back.

On the plane, I read Davila's essay again.

"The River Torrens area was appropriated and dominated by a free settler's concept of urban space, one which has denied people since the beginning – particularly minorities – the right to decide their own lifestyles ... The River Torrens is an odd refuge for children that are delinquents. It has become a scenario for the splendours of crime and also for its misery. The church and the accommodated classes in Adelaide favour charity: that is to say, to give to someone lesser than you that you never meet, of course."

I look out for the Torrens whenever I fly home, for the Festival Centre peaks and the Convention Centre glass. And on other nights, the Torrens' lights feel soft and warm.

 

FOR A VIEW I love of Adelaide, I go time and again to the intimacy of Barbara Hanrahan's "Weird Adelaide", published in The Adelaide Review in 1988 and "sponsored by the SA Tourism Department".

Hanrahan gives us darkness: "Even in the daytime the streets of classy North Adelaide and Unley Park can be tunnels, enclosed by green leaves. And so quiet, so secretive, all the people shut away behind their high walls ... At night, Adelaide turns film noir, becomes a miniature Cornell Woolrich city, its empty side-streets black and creepy, with a feel of the back lot at Paramount or Universal."

But weird isn't always sinister. "The Spooner girls in their silver-spoon private-school uniforms, just the right degree of wrinkle in their socks, outside Sportsgirl in Rundle Mall. The frog cakes on their paper doilies in Balfours; the naughty R-rated moulds under the counter (ASK ASSISTANT) in the cake shop in Adelaide Arcade." And she rounds the picture out: "weirdness can have a distinctive beauty," she says of the Museum, Botanic Gardens, Beehive Corner, West Terrace Cemetery, hotels "and so much more".

In mourning the continuing loss of the artefacts of the everyday ("generations and generations of working-class people, quite disappeared"), Hanrahan foreshadowed Landry: "What we want now in Adelaide are writers and artists who work from the heart of those commonplace suburban streets, who recognise the weirdness of the ordinary, who record it before the version of it we have now is swept away. We want passion and intensity, an art that comes from places like Port Adelaide and Thebarton and Holden Hill; that stays unofficially weird."

While I am writing this essay, I bump into a friend just returned from a day's work in Melbourne and he says: "Is Adelaide a good place to live?" The question mark is a given. If you live in a place that people leave, you can't help asking yourself: is it me? Every now and then, you're forced to wonder: why do I live here?

Do people in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Perth have these conversations over their Saturday shopping brunch?

I live here because Adelaide is good for families. We can afford a better house than we could elsewhere. We're close to town and it's easy to get to the beach. Spring is awful, but autumn is glorious. The Fringe invigorates. I like living in a place that has been so good for women and has a deposit on soft drink cans. I cherish trips to Kangaroo Island, the drive-in at Gepps Cross. I like fishing from the Brighton jetty with my friend on Saturday nights (what a collection of squid jags she has), the pink pig statue on O'Connell Street, and our tall white-barked trees. It costs $2.50 to take a Port River "dolphin cruise".

And remember that first year of fire sculptures at WOMADelaide? A tinder dry summer, the smell of fuel, men from France speaking French. Constrained. But not.

People will come to Adelaide and people will leave. We'll never be Queensland, but we've got submarines, overseas students and the cusp of a mining boom. We make great chocolates, art and wine. London beckoned for Robert Champion de Crespigny, but J.M. Coetzee moved here asking "what kind of place is this ... is this paradise on earth? What does one have to do to live here? Does one have to die first?"

If it really was death that brought me back, if that wasn't an excuse I made to explain my return to myself and to my friends, it's not death that makes me stay.

Six years ago, my grandfather, my husband and I drove past Gepps Cross and Bolivar, through Port Wakefield, then detoured to Port Augusta for home-made iced coffee with friends. Then back we went, out to the Flinders Ranges. They felt ancient, quiet and still. We stayed in the Blinman shack that my grandfather had stayed in every year for years. It was September and already hot. I was pregnant, so I couldn't have gin or beer or antihistamines. My grandfather showed us the wettest creek beds and the best rocks to climb. He showed us quandong trees and fossil beds. He told us the names of every flower we found, every bird we heard. We drank lemonade at the Parachilna Pub and at the end of the day, when the sky changed colour and the kangaroos grazed, my grandfather sat. And I sat next to him.

Six months later, the baby had been born, an unexpected congenital condition diagnosed, surgery proposed, done. My grandfather, then eighty-five, caught the train to the hospital every day for two weeks to hold my baby's hand.

And mine.

Five years after that, the baby is a boy starting school and my grandfather says: "That's where my Uncle Hal went to school." There is a photo of Hal and his classmates at the front of the school and when my grandfather gives that photo to me, I know that's why I left. And that's what brought me back. And that's what keeps me here.

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