Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times.


View of downtown Brisbane from West End

Downtown Brisbane viewed from the river

A decade ago, Brisbane’s grooviest urban hub was a sleepy backwater. A lot has changed, writes John Corbett.

As any inner-city denizen knows, usually to their chagrin, it is the inevitable fate of sleepy urban backwaters to become noticed, especially when they are a stone’s throw from a booming CBD. Such is the case of West End, a once-quiet corner of the city which occupies a lazy loop of the Brisbane River just south of the skyscrapers of downtown.

Little more than a decade ago, West End was a dormitory for workers in the factories and warehouses that still line parts of its river frontage. It was also a culturally diverse place with significant Greek, Italian and Chinese communities and the favoured haunt of students and artistic types who liked the area’s century-old Queenslander-style bungalows and low rents.

West End from the air

West End from the air

Now though, following a period of transformation that hasn’t been welcomed on all sides, you can zip right into the area on the Airtrain from Brisbane Airport, emerging at South Brisbane Station among the imposing museums, galleries and exhibition centres of the city’s Southbank cultural precinct. A short walk south from the station along Melbourne Street takes you past hip cafés that vie to be written up in glossy magazines.

Some of the biggest changes are a little further on in the main retail strip of Boundary Street. Ten years ago it was an inexpensive place to buy a lunchtime sandwich, pick up a paper at the newsagent or visit an ATM. There was, and still is, a Coles supermarket tucked away in a mock-Spanish complex at its northern end.

Flash forward to a recent Sunday evening and you would have found Boundary Street thronged, end to end, with handsome, well-dressed Millennials out socialising, flirting and spending their money as Millenials do. A number of the modest shops of a decade ago are gone, replaced by bars and taverns that do gangbuster pre-dinner business.

Boundary Street

Boundary Street

A stroll past some of the food offerings revealed Little Greek, a lively taverna poised on the Y-shaped corner of Browning Street; a classic Aussie brick corner pub repurposed as an Italian-style licensed cafe; Tukka, a chic fine-dining restaurant that celebrates the flavours of Australia’s native ingredients, and Indian Kitchen, a thriving takeaway whose queue trailed down the street. There’s also a bevy of smart little bars and bistros of various persuasions. Near the intersection with the splendidly-named Vulture Street, the Avid Reader bookshop was hosting a wine-glass-clutching capacity crowd for an author reading.

It’s the same on formerly quiet side streets like Mollison, where low-rise apartment blocks have sprung up among the old worker’s cottages to house the Millennials. The Coles supermarket now stocks all the comestibles you need for a groovy urban lifestyle and, at the corner of Jane Street and Montague Road, a smart-looking chapter of the Alliance Française looked, through its big picture windows, to be an excellent place for young Australian men to meet attractive jeunes filles (young ladies) under the guise of learning French.

The weekly market in Davies Park

The weekly market in Davies Park

Some of the most impressive transformations have taken place on the river’s edge. Admittedly, Montague Road still has a Pauls milk plant, an O-I glass refinery, an electrical substation and lots of decrepit old warehouses doubtless awaiting cool new futures, but it now also hosts a weekly farmers market, held under a canopy of giant fig trees in Davies Park, that has become internationally famous. From the park, an attractive green belt, jogging track and boardwalk runs all the way past Southbank almost to the iconic Story Bridge at Kangaroo Point. Crowning everything is a pedestrian bridge over the river at the north end of Montague Road which allows the Millennials to walk to work in the CBD. The bridge is architecturally beautiful but depressing because you realise that civic projects like it could never happen in Auckland.

The changes in West End, which have seen Boundary Street win the title of “Queensland’s Best Street”, are a microcosm of Brisbane’s emergence from being a big country town to a sophisticated urban centre. The city’s restaurant scene is particularly vibrant, with places as accomplished (and some as overdesigned) as any in Sydney and Melbourne. Locals also say that Brisbane’s long-delayed embrace of its river – complete with venues by big-name Australian chefs dotted along it – is a sure sign that the city has grown up. And you don’t need to leave Boundary Street for excellent food because along with Tukka there is The Gunshop Café, a much-awarded eatery in a heritage building in Mollison Street. A friend and I dined there on a Tuesday night and the place was packed. A tip: Queenslanders tend to eat out early because night falls quickly in the subtropics.

Despite the progress it’s not all peace in the valley (or riverside) of West End because many locals feel that that the forces of urban renewal that have brought about its transformation are threatening to damage it. Vigorous public meetings and poster campaigns have only partially deterred developers from peppering the area with high-rise residential blocks: as you read this, a 20-storey apartment building has sprouted near the intersection of Boundary and Melbourne Streets. Locals say such developments may be in keeping with the skyscrapers in the neighbouring CBD but they are out of scale with and alien to the suburb’s traditional character.

Tirra-Lirra by the river

Tirra Lirra by the river: Orleigh Park on the river bend

Strolling the side streets on a balmy Queensland evening, it was hard to disagree, because one of the charms of West End is that despite all of the changes that have taken place it is still far from gentrified. Many of the original residents remain in their old worker’s cottages and splendidly rambling old Queenslanders, and the streetscapes often have a whimsical charm that yuppiefied neighbourhoods can never hope to achieve. Near the end of our stroll, a friend and I had to step repeatedly off the footpath to skirt someone’s rampant bougainvillea hedge. And then we stopped and laughed in delight: for several metres around us the road was carpeted with thick drifts of bougainvillea flowers, and under the light of a nearby streetlight the world suddenly turned a magical and delirious pink.

John Corbett travelled to Brisbane with the assistance of Tourism Australia.

Photos: Wikipedia; Visit Brisbane; Courier-Mail.