Paradise crushed under white shoe heels?

Darwin’s skyline before its latest development surge

Darwin correspondent for The Australian Nicholas Rothwell had a fascinating long article in yesterday’s edition, about what he argues is the crass over-development of our most northerly capital.

As a resident of Australia’s only tropical capital city for just over 24 years now, I can identify with some of Rothwell’s nostalgic sentiments.  On balance though, my own view is that Darwin is a much more congenial and physically attractive place to live than when I arrived on New Years’ Day 1983 to start my first job as a young, newly qualified lawyer. 

Jen and I are currently musing seriously about the possibility of moving to Melbourne in about 12 months so she can tackle a Masters in Theatre Arts at Monash, I can revive an abandoned thesis, and Jessica can have the benefit of a better standard of secondary education than is available in Darwin.  It’s an opportune time to reflect on my time here, on what Darwin has been and what it’s becoming. 

I have very mixed feelings about the idea of leaving.  Darwin has been home for a long time, almost half my life in fact. Most of the events of my adult life, triumph and tragedy and everything in between, have happened here.  

However, my 18 year old daughter Rebecca is also planning to move to Melbourne soon, partly as a result of hearing that Jen and I were contemplating a move.  Bec reckons she’s leaving in the next couple of months, as soon as she has an operation to remove her problematic tonsils, having decided that Darwin is a “shit-hole” and that her future lies elsewhere!  She’s already arranged a share accommodation deal with some other young refugees from Darwin.  They’ll be sharing a 4 bedroom penthouse in Docklands: flatting in style.  I’ll never forget her announcing at the age of 8 that she wasn’t coming camping with us.  “I’m a city girl, dad,” she explained in all seriousness.  She still is.  Bec has even lined up a part-time job with Country Road in Melbourne, that she can maintain while studying at uni.  The only thing she hasn’t yet sorted out is what she wants to study and where she can actually enrol, given a reasonably respectable but not outstanding year 12 result.

Anyway, contemplation of these major changes in our lives feeds into Rothwell’s reminscences about the old Darwin, vanishing beneath a tide of tawdry Gold Coast-style development (at least as he sees it – my perspective is rather different).  I’ve reproduced Rothwell’s article over the fold, interspersed with my own comments (indented) and accompanied by photos of many of the places and buildings he mentions.  As I said, it’s part of a process of reflection to which we subject ourselves when contemplating momentous life changes.  Maybe others might derive some interest from sharing the journey …

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.

I can only recall one motel located in Smith Street: the Asti.  It’s still there although trading under a different name.  A previous proprietor was rumoured to have done very nicely for many years through having his power and water illegally connected to avoid paying bills.  Public servants are said to have turned a blind eye in return for privileged access to the girls who plied their trade there. 

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.

Esplanade parkland looking back towards the old Cherry Blossom and the Travelodge (now Holiday Inn)

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.

Only a decadent toffee-nosed Pommie journalist could lament the passing of an ugly 60s motel like the Cherry Blossom, distinguished only by its record as a convenient lunchtime knocking shop.

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.

The twin towers aren’t actually rising yet, they’re still digging a very large hole in the ground for the foundations.  I can’t get overly indignant about the arrival of true high rise development in Darwin.  Until now the tallest building has been 15 storeys.  High rise is an inevitable consequence of growth in a capital city whose CBD is situated on a peninsula much smaller than the Sydney CBD.  If we didn’t have proliferating high rise we’d have proliferating urban sprawl, which Rothwell and his latte left ilk would languidly bemoan just as loudly.   

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

It was previously a vacant parking lot in the middle of the CBD.  What would Rothwell expect them to build there?  An exotic louvred tin shed? 

Administrator’s Residence, whose current occupant Ted Egan can beat out a mean rhythm on a Darwin Stubbie carton (among many other talents)

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.

The “bitter protests” were only by PLAN, a tiny group of perennial rent-a-crowd protesters who’ve never seen a development they didn’t oppose.  Old Admiralty House has in fact been preserved and restored beautifully by the developers, after years of lying empty, idle and decaying.  The steak restaurant serves fairly ordinary food though, which is a bit disappointing.

Waterfront near Stokes Hill Wharf as it looked until very recently

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 Waterfront development does have a faintly Darling Harbour-ish feel to it, but the port area on which it’s being built was overgrown and unused, filled with rusting infrastructure made redundant by shifting of the main commercial port to East Arm a few years ago.  How can Rothwell be nostalgic about a wasteland like that?   Moreover, as far as I can tell from concept plans and models, the Waterfront project is going to offer great things for Darwin.  I’ll certainly be testing out the wave pool if I’m still here, not to mention dining at one of the waterfront cafes.   

The same area as it will look when the Waterfront development is complete in 2008

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.

It’s certainly true that developers could and probably should have built apartment blocks in accordance with some fairly obvious tropical design principles that seem to have been mostly ignored.  We never need to use the air-conditioning in our old C17 house at Rapid Creek, but you couldn’t live in one of these inner city apartments without the a/c churning away most of the time.  I’d hate to see their power bills.  On the other hand, it costs a bit more to build in accordance with sound tropical design principles.  Presumably developers are building what their customers want: “down south”-style McMansions and apartment blocks.  I’m a libertarian in this respect at least.  Regulate to ensure that prospective homebuyers are given the information about tropical design principles and the consequences of not following them: huge power bills or living in a hotbox.  If many choose to ignore the information, so be it.

Synergy Square

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.

The really ugly thing about Synergy Square is that it’s right next to other similar apartment blocks, creating an unbroken wall effect not unlike the buildings at Circular Quay East in Sydney, but without any of the redeeming charm of adjacent collonades, pavement cafes, harbour or Opera House.

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.

Evolution …

I actually don’t mind the look of the Evolution building, or the nearby Pandanus Outrigger (almost as tall and also currently under construction).  I doubt that there’s any such thing as a tropical design high rise building.  The only thing I regret is that they demolished the old Mississippi Queen restaurant to build it.  The nightly impromptu floor show tantrums thrown by its High Camp proprietor John Spellman were a “must see” for visitors to Darwin.  When I first arrived in Darwin, Spellman was the owner of Dix, the city’s first openly gay nightclub (now superseded by Throb, in which Spellman doesn’t have an equity interest as far as I know).  

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.

Darwin Entertainment Centre, a building I quite like

Pleasant and variegated?  Never exactly vulgar?  Vulgar ‘R ‘Us has always been Darwin’s unregistered trademark.   Most of the demolished CBD structures were ugly and dysfunctional tin sheds that would have fallen down soon anyway if not replaced.  And not all the redevelopments have been insensitive and ugly, although I suppose that’s a matter of personal taste. 

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.”

Old, moribund pisspots have always said those sorts of things the world over.  Rarely do journalists from leading broadsheet newspapers bother to record their sentiments let alone treat them as authoritative.   

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.

Cullen Bay

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?

So what? Does Rothwell yearn for Kahlin Compound to be revived?  Cullen Bay was a shallow mudflat with a few stunted mangroves before it was reclaimed.  It might be a bit Gold Coast-ish, but it’s a big improvement on what was there before, and a very pleasant spot for a leisurely cafe meal.  Mind you, I’d never buy property there.  Engineers whose views I respect tell me the developers built it with the wrong sort of landfill, so that one day in an earthquake it’s all going to slide back into the sea.  Last I heard the local insurer TIO was still declining to insure properties there. 

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.

In fact the Larrakia Nation negotiated a very lucrative land deal with the previous CLP government and is now a major subdivisional land developer in Darwin’s satellite city Palmerston.  I suspect the main reason why they don’t yet have a cultural centre is that the Larrakia mob are hopelessly factionalised and couldn’t agree whether it was day or night if their lives depended on it. 

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.

A Burnett house on Myilly Point

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 are still quite a few surviving examples of Burnett houses around Darwin, especially on Myilly Point above Cullen Bay.  One of them houses the National Trust headquarters, another a group of lefty barristers, and another the venerable arch-conservative Giese family.  Very little of Darwin’s built environment that can genuinely be regarded as having heritage value has actually been demolished for redevelopment.  Most of it was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy or World War II bombing.  Rothwell and his fellow bong smoke nostalgics are mostly constructing a myth of heritage-destroying white shoe developers.

There was a pleasing functionality about the new Darwin buildings that rose on this blueprint in mid-century.

Bullshit.  The typical 60s-constructed public building in Darwin’s CBD was an ugly, dysfunctional concrete box.  Like many others, I worked in them and I know they weren’t “functional”.  Most of them richly deserved the bulldozer.

A Troppo house

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.

Some early Troppo designs were really interesting.  But even the good ones are a mixed blessing to live in, with numerous wildly impractical aspects.  Troppos needed a client with a strong mind and clear ideas who could stand up to Phil and Adrian and put the kibosh on their sillier flights of Murcutt-influenced corrugated tin fantasy.  The less said about their successors the better.  Ministers in the former CLP government were wont to refer to Troppo creations scathingly as overpriced chooksheds for trendoid wankers from down south. I disagree, but I can see what they mean.

Another Troppo house

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.

Darwin’s Parliament House, the sort of strange neofascist triumphalist architecture you’d expect to see in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur

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.

There are few things I find more contemptible than this sort of condescending rejection of the evils of capitalism and profit.  You can guarantee that Rothwell grew up with a silver spoon in his pampered mouth, but that doesn’t stop him sneering at those with the guts to work hard and take a risk. 

What Rothwell and others of his ilk refuse to contemplate is the reality faced daily by the local politicians and public servants he so evidently scorns.  The Territory isn’t going to remain funded by the rest of Australia to the tune of 4/5 of its government funding.  Ways have to be found to develop a self-sustaining economy, and that implies a growing population and broader economic base.  Many of the schemes previous governments have devised in an attempt to kickstart this growth have proven to be pipe dreams, but they spring from a consciousness of that indisputable iron reality that Rothwell seems incapable of comprehending.

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.

I wonder whether there is any social group in Darwin to whom Rothwell doesn’t feel arrogantly superior?

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.

It’s more an open drain than a “creek”.  The PLAN rent-a-crowd mob rechristened the whole area “Little Mindil”, which they hoped would convey an impression that they were campaigning to save a beautiful little unspoiled beach instead of the reality of an overgrown, rubbish-strewn vacant lot frequented by drunken vagrants.

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 casino, a slightly glorified RSL club distinguished by the same smell of stale cigarette smoke and glazed-eyed people shovelling money into pokies

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.

Darwin Central

“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.

We can’t possibly allow markets, can we?  Nicholas and his friend Marnie the web designer self-evidently know far better what is good for us all. 

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?

Mustiness and sweet decay?  This man is beyond satire.  Surely this nonsense belongs in The Age, not Murdoch’s flagship.

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.

NT House, home of senior public servants

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.”

Paul Tyrrell is  clearly a far more polite and patient man than me.  I would have given Rothwell approximately 30 seconds before showing him the door.

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.

And then there’s this, at Nightcliff where we live.  Nothing like it in Melbourne …

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.”

My Darwin has never been the built environment, which has always had an air of prefabricated haste and temporary presence.  Darwin’s essence has always been its people not its buildings.  Rothwell is right that the old ramshackle buildings are now rapidly being replaced by structures that are both more solid and more prosaic.  But surely that’s the inevitable trajectory of any frontier town as it grows towards maturity.  It’s that process of development and flux itself that I’ve always found fascinating, and the bizarre, eccentric and often damaged cast of characters attracted to the frontier, including myself, Jen and even Nicholas Rothwell.  It has kept me here for 24 years, although I arrived expecting to spend a couple of years at most while I gained legal experience before returning to the “big smoke”.  Maybe my time here is drawing to an end.  Like most people I know, my relationship with Darwin has always been a love/hate proposition.  But I can’t agree with Nicholas Rothwell that Darwin is becoming just another grey, colourless metropolis.  It’s still full of weird and wonderful characters, behaving in outlandish ways and generating the most bizarre and unexpected situations on a daily basis.  I’d still highly recommend the experience to anyone bored with the safe suburban sameness of Sydney or Melbourne.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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[…] of the most appalling ‘neighbour from Hell’ stories you’re ever likely to hear. Ken Parish joins in with a far lovelier (content-wise) reflection on his 24 years in Darwin, and possible moves to […]

17 years ago

Darwin to Melbourne….Ye Gods, Mr.Parish! Bannerman has just recalled a similar move in his youth from Cairns to Warwick in the depths of a Darling Downs winter. He trusts you aren’t contemplating a similar time of year to relocate.

Scott Wickstein
Scott Wickstein
17 years ago

That’s a nice commentary on the city of Darwin for those of us who will never get there. Cheers Ken.