Archive for July, 2013

Black Swan Rising

(First Published in The Big Issue, 24 May – 6 June 2013.)

Perth, as a city, is blooming. I hate to use cliqued seasonal metaphors, particularly at a time of year when most things are going to seed, but I can’t really think of a more appropriate term for it. Things are happening here on a wider, more comprehensive scale than I’ve ever seen, at a rate that seems sudden. It’s like I’ve detected slight movement in Perth out of the corner of my eye, and I’ve turned to find some crazy, sparkling parade sprung from the dust.

Not long again, it was habit and hobby for locals to regularly announce things to each other like, “Nothing ever happens here,” or, “Perth is boring, what a crap place,” or, “Stuff it. I’m moving to Melbourne…”

I went to high school in Fremantle. About 30 minutes on the train from the centre of Perth, Freo is technically an outer suburb, but it exists in its own safe little bubble and feels like a lot more like a small town than a part of the larger metropolitan area. When I was in high school, months could pass between trips to the city – a pointless and often harrowing exercise with very little reward, and one which would usually only take place under extenuating circumstances. Northbridge, where the few venues and bars were, was dangerous and dark, while the CBD was soulless and transitory, deserted on the weekends. So, instead of going anywhere, we just experimented with drugs and roamed the nighttime streets of Palmyra or Beaconsfield or Hamilton Hill, while all the bright young things around us finished year 12 and, disillusioned with their hometown, moved to Melbourne. And so, at the end of my gap year, I went ahead and did the same.

A little over seven years later – after four years in Melbourne, a bit of time back in Fremantle, and the other two or so travelling and living overseas – I have returned, most likely for a while. This ‘while’ has grown longer every time I ventured into Perth to see a Fringe show, concert or other arts event. Our prodigal bright young things are returning, full of knowledge and inspiration from cities more culturally developed, and Perth has become a place of arts, music, film festivals, small bars, impressive venues and decent places to eat.

This year was the second year that Perth had held a full Fringe festival, which ran for a month, starting mid-January. There were over 200 shows, with a good portion of those selling out. The Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) last February had a program any city would be proud of.  And our music scene is spilling out nationally and internationally successful musicians. As for bars: in an interview on RTR FM, WA Minister for Sport and Recreation Terry Waldron said: “When I took over there were only 12 [small bars] in operation. Now there are 65.”

There are probably a few causes of this mutant-speed cultural growth spurt, not the least of which would be the money. We’re freaking rolling in it. Thanks to the mining boom, Western Australia is now one of the richest places on earth, let alone the richest state in Australia, with an economic output hovering around $236 billion. Mining accounts for about 35% of that. This, then, means a few things. Mining, oil and gas companies wanting to improve their public profiles from “insatiable rapers of the earth” to “good guys buying people in the capital nice things” have been shoving their wallets towards the arts to forage reputations as cultural supporters. So the PIAF Festival Gardens has become the Chevron Festival Gardens and the Rio Tinto logo pops up on most Black Swan Theatre Company productions.

More than this, though, the mining industry is bringing us an audience. There has been an influx of mining company employees and their families who have suddenly found themselves working and living in this strange, incredibly isolated city at the bottom of the earth (or on the other side of the country, if they’re coming from over east). They make good money and most of them are used to festival-a-minute sort of cities, with strong cultural scenes and plenty to do. They have provided the demand. Perth, cashed up and growing like a teenager, has supplied.

Earlier this year I was wandering around the CBD with a few friends, looking for a place to drink. We had just attended the spectacular PIAF opening, an incredible display of fireworks and industrial French drummers, and had found ourselves in the new Brookfield Place. Staring in at the bars and restaurants – far too swanky for us to drink in, dressed as we were – my friend turned and asked, “Are we in Perth?”

Is it possible to be proud of a city? The concept sounds a little silly and condescending in the face of something so big and complex. But to be from a place that has gone from being a dusty, isolated outpost, to a city with a cultural arsenal ranging from $15 fringe shows to $82 quartet performances – it’s pretty exciting, anyway.

I’m proud to be a part of that. And I’m happy to be home.

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