The gamechangers making 'old Brisbane' Australia's most exciting city

The gamechangers making 'old Brisbane' Australia's most exciting city

On a warm Saturday morning on December 1, 1923, dignitaries and common folk alike gathered in Newstead Park, just north of the Brisbane CBD, to kick off celebrations for the centenary of the city’s founding.

Explorer and NSW Surveyor General for Lands, John Oxley, first nudged up the Brisbane River in 1823, and returned the following year to proclaim a settlement.

Present in Newstead Park on that day of commemoration were Governor Sir Matthew Nathan and Premier Ted Theodore, among others. A band played “Land of Hope and Glory”.

And that was Brisbane. Always in the land of hope, up to 1923 and through much of the 20th Century. The little sister to greater metropolis’. The also-ran. As early as the 1880s the novelist Gilbert Parker said Brisbane was “a town that is but half-dressed”.

The Sydney Morning Herald summed up the Newstead Park event: ““Prickly pear, ticks, bunchy top and cane grubs notwithstanding, the avenues for development (in Queensland, and Brisbane specifically) are long and wide, and the will to conquer will do the rest.”

Now, almost another century on from that polite gathering by the river, the will to conquer has finally arrived.

I’m old enough to admit that my childhood was one that belonged to the Brisbane that was the perennial “big country town”. It was all enormous backyards with Hills Hoists, quite literally neighbours exchanging news over the back fence, Mr Green the fruit and vegetable man cruising into your suburban street in his open-backed Bedford truck, a set of silver measuring scales dangling at the rear, frozen Sunnyboys and summer bitumen too hot to walk on, the Salvation Army band striking up a tune in King George Square on a Saturday, trips into the city on a tram, the eccentric Rock n’ Roll George cruising the CBD in his FJ Holden with a ratty foxtail affixed to the car aerial, small bottles of hot milk at school recess, the “dynamite man”, he with a startling resemblance to Elvis Presley, who crawled into a coffin in the middle of the main arena during Ekka time, and blew himself up night after night, emerging groggy but in one piece to huge applause, and the deep chime of the Brisbane City Hall clocktower.

Today, I remain in awe of how Brisbane is literally transforming before our eyes into what, I already believe, is Australia’s most exciting city.

In a multi-billion dollar spree perhaps unseen in any major capital city in this country, we are bearing witness to: the colossal $3.6 billion Queen’s Wharf development that will redefine Brisbane’s CBD; the $1.3 billion Brisbane Airport second runway; the $5.4 billion Cross River Rail network and the Brisbane Metro project that will revolutionise how we commute in the city; the Brisbane Live entertainment precinct in Roma Street; the new tourism and foodie strip that is the Howard Street Wharves beneath the Story Bridge; the welcome upgrade to the Gabba area. And on and on.

It is staggering to think that many of these extraordinary projects – any one of which would transform the city – will effectively go “live” and align with each other in the next few years. It will make Brisbane Australia’s first genuine 21st Century city.

For those of us who were privileged to grow up in “old Brisbane”, and remember the backyard mango trees and the cool shadows beneath those lovely old Queenslanders, the perfume of the spring jasmine and the whiff of malt on the air from the XXXX brewery in Milton, there is nothing to lament.

The core values that have always made Brisbane city great – a genial, laid-back and outdoor lifestyle, friendly faces, tolerance, an indifference to the fads and trends of the southern cities, a focus on being family-friendly – will endure. It is who we are.

Those well-wishers who gathered in Newstead Park to celebrate John Oxley’s arrival almost a century ago understandably could not have foreseen the modern Brisbane. Nor Oxley, despite his considerable vision for the times.

But walking in the early morning along the river’s edge through Southbank recently, gazing across the stretch of brown water that Oxley plied in rowboat almost two centuries ago, towards the face of the CBD, it’s possible now to glimpse what will be my children’s Brisbane.

There has been a tectonic shift in the city’s trajectory. It, and we, are straddling old and new Brisbane. You can feel it, in the air and in the soil.

I’m excited for my home town, and I’m excited for my kids, and their kids. They will be cogs in the machine of a great metropolis.

They will live and flourish in a town no longer half-dressed.

Matthew Condon (OAM) is a prize-winning Brisbane writer and journalist