Brisbane: Once destined to be the eternal third behind Sydney and Melbourne, has come into its own and is now the talk of the town
This "Surprising Scenester" is at a point where it has to make life choices and to define who it wants to be. Long gone are the days of “Brisvegas,” even if President Obama used the moniker on his 2014 visit to Brisbane.
The city flanked by the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast is one of the fastest-growing cities in developed economies and has been dubbed “Australia’s hippest place” by the Lonely Planet and GQ. It’s not that Brisbane changed in an attempt to emulate its more famous siblings, Sydney and Melbourne. The elements that defined the city before haven’t disappeared. There is still an enviable tropical climate — “beautiful one day, perfect the next” — and the laid-back attitude that comes with it. It has a CBD with close proximity to a famous coast as well as to ecologically rich nature. Brisbane still puts quality of life above everything else. It wholeheartedly embraces the outdoors and the freedom to wear flip-flops all year round. To be sure, sunny weather and affordable property prices have attracted many people away from Sydney and Melbourne. What is keeping the hip crowd here, however, is the easy living outdoors. In 1994, then-mayor Jim Soorley opened up the streets for enjoyment by finally allowing outdoor dining in a city blessed with balmy nights. It became more appealing for boutique restaurants and cafés to set up shop, and one of Brisbane’s now thriving traits, alfresco, was born.
Brisbane’s Lanes meandering off the side streets of Fortitude Valley rival with the best of them. An area that had a cult following for its edgy nightclub scene of the 80’s retains its enigmatic feel as you walk in anticipation of discovering vintage and contemporary treasures by day, and a still thriving music scene by night. The artificial beach on the Southbank opened in 1992 to give residents and visitors access to the river, the ability to swim without a drive to the coast, a place to take it easy in the middle of the CBD. And, crucially, the city created spaces for the arts: from the redevelopment of the Howard Smith Wharves riverside precinct to the opening of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. In short, life began to be lived in public spaces. So far, so “standard”.
The Space to Create
That is merely what happened above ground. But, as on a container ship, it is deep below deck that the engine rooms drive the propellers. Brisbane’s underground scene — perhaps surprisingly — has attracted creatives from all over the world. Leonie Rhodes is a trans-disciplinary artist originally from South-East London. “When I moved to Australia,” they tell us, “I expected — and most of my friends thought — I’d end up in Melbourne. But I found Brisbane, surprisingly, really exciting and I’ve been here almost five years.” One of the factors is linked to affordability. “There is more space here to do things, which, as someone who works with life-scale sculptures, has helped my practice.” The scene, Leonie feels, is less saturated than Melbourne’s, where they’ve worked on several occasions: it’s more collaborative, less cynical. Also more hands on, less academic. “There are lots of artists and craftspeople here who have incredible skills.” Brisbane, on the surface, has a reputation as a conservative, right-wing city — epitomised by the Premiership of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and still lingering on today. “It can feel oppressive to a non-conformist, tattooed person like me,” Leonie says. “I sometimes feel sad, and low, and intimidated, and frightened. But in many ways, that is what makes it exciting: there is a radical culture of resistance that exists quite literally underground, meeting under houses.” Subcultures need something to fight against. The dominant culture has brought together a diverse mix of artists and thinkers, from queer to aboriginal. “I’m challenged intellectually here,” Leonie continues, “and the art scene is at least as exciting as in Melbourne or in Sydney.”
“It can feel oppressive to a non-conformist, tattooed person like me, but in many ways, that is what makes it exciting and challenges me intellectually”.
A DIY Spirit
What gives Brisbane’s subculture such an energy, it transpires, is that it is still mainly underground — there is much verve and stimulation associated with that. While it is a city that keeps up with the world, there is not (yet) the same infrastructure as in other places. It is a city that has a DIY spirit: “people do things themselves. Take, for example, the Laundry Artspace, which was literally someone’s laundry in their back garden. We can experiment, do things for the sake of doing them.” It sounds like a playground, with lots of space and a strong dose of Aussie optimism.
Brisbane is at that sweet spot where affordability, quality of lifexand creative energy are at their peak. The underground scene is emerging into the streets and helping the city become more attractive. That can be a dangerous spot, too. Like many of the famous neighbourhoods in New York or London that were once a creatives’ paradise — think Greenwich Village, think Shoreditch. “I hope we’ll cling on to our identity,” Leonie worries. “There is strong resistance against gentrification but there is also a big corporate city side. We’ve already lost a lot of space but the council has also begun hiring artists for street gigs, put money into street art, and created public space.”
“ It doesn’t want to be like another city, but doesn’t actually know what it wants to be like.”
As the city seeks to grow its international appeal more actively, in a more structured manner, it will have to perform a balancing act. The “Brisbane New World City 2022” plan hopes to “preserve the enviable quality of life of its residents,” including the “burgeoning arts and culture scene.” Yet it also sets itself the target to enter the global “Top 100 Most Visited Cities” and the “Top 100 for Commercial Investment.” In adopting a formula that is driven by revenues generated from global markets, it enters a sphere it had previously avoided: competition with other cities (Sydney, Melbourne). It may seek to copy “successful” models, to emulate, rather than to remain true to its own qualities: a laid-back attitude, affordability, an underground scene driven by resistance and intellectual challenges. Sometimes success comes from the confidence not to compete. Think of the cult film “The Breakfast Club” and its high-school archetypes. Brisbane is that kid who tried out a few things, maybe didn’t particularly stand out in any field, hadn’t yet found out who it was, or rather fully accepted it. How often, years later, do we realise that those who seemed less likely to succeed are the ones who do? That it’s the unusual suspects who surprise us, as Brisbane did Leonie Rhodes?
As the urbanist and Brisbanite Kate Meyrick puts it, “when you talk to younger people, they’re actually talking about a completely different Brisbane. It's really struggling to find an identity. It doesn’t want to be like another city, but doesn’t actually know what it wants to be like. And that meant the kind of green shoots have their own story. Its own genius loci. […] We’ve got this past that’s really interesting, but we don’t know how to narrate that story. So we just kind of sit in this space in the middle.”
It was Brisbane’s just being itself that generated its appeal and attracted architects, developers, foodies, and plenty of creatives. One can only hope that it finds the confidence to keep doing that as it makes its way among World Cities … instead of borrowing from them.
Confidence is your catalyst. It comes from daring self- belief which gives off an alluring energy. It doesn’t necessarily mean success, rather being unafraid of failure. So when city metrics measure the number of startups, or speculators look for where the artists took root first, they’re really looking for signs of confidence: those who are blazing their own trail. And it becomes powerful when it starts to join together those unwavering individuals who simply don’t give up. Look at the traits only you can own and take them to the world. Honestly narrate the story of an interesting past – however uncomfortable. Find those with something to say in your city, and open a platform for them to express your city to the world.