FUNPARK: Sunday 19th January 2104 Bidwill
Standing in Bidwill’s car park/town centre on a warm January evening, I found myself behind someone in one of those ‘Sydney Festival: Our City in Summer’ shirts. We were sandwiched between the long abandoned mall, the pub, the church and the road, watching Sydney’s premier performance trio Post, present a rock opera tribute to the mythologised ‘Bidwill Riots.’ As the centrepiece of FUNPARK’S three day program of events, Opera seemed a fitting medium.
In 1981, the Daily Telegraph had declared Bidwill overrun by a thousand rampaging youths, turning a minor schoolyard scuffle into something of Wagnerian proportions. Thirty years later, the local constabulary are still haunted by the threat of those teenage Valkeries. With the looming threat of Post’s rock opera, they supposedly advised the local publican to avoid hosting the event. Presumably they were afraid the citizens of Bidwill, exposed simultaneously to alcohol and contemporary art, would renew their penchant for rioting. The opera dutifully relocated to the car park, along with everything else.
Despite a substantial police turn out on the opening night, FUNPARK had the aura of a school fete. The church’s pastor wandered the car park dressed as a Jedi talking about Ray Oldenburg’s theory of Third Place or, more precisely, the lack of it. Bidwill in summer certainly is an interesting place. What do you make of a town whose town centre is a car park, whose pub can host pokies but not opera, and in which a Sydney Festival event is blockaded by the local cops?
Yet, upon arriving in Bidwill, I felt like I’d been there before. Upon reflection, I recalled working in a public library in Elizabeth, the centrepiece of Adelaide’s outer Northern Suburbs, which followed almost exactly the same mash of poor planning, economic decline and cantankerous police. It had the same basic layout and the same standard issue Housing Dept houses, and indeed the town centre is a car park, dominated by a mall. Elizabeth continues to benefit from a fading legacy of heavy manufacturing and a burgeoning drug industry. That seems to have made it larger rather than better.
I remember my first day of work in the Elizabeth library distinctly. Someone had spray painted “The Pope smokes dope!” on the station walls. On my second day, John Paul II died and I arrived at work to see someone had already added the addendum, “And look what happened to him!”
Arriving for work, I’d walk through the car park, past the mall, past the juvenile delinquents who’d bunked off school to aimlessly ride their BMXs, and then I’d spend the day standing behind the library’s Customer Service desk. It was always the same cast: the transgender kid taking shelter in the stacks, senior citizens borrowing large text romance novels, and the children of the local drug dealers, for whom the place was a form of cheap baby-sitting.
The place was different from my home suburb of Underdale, in Adelaide’s Inner West. There too we had social housing, the characteristic bland of post-War suburban planning, a high migrant population, and kids making crude bongs behind the shelter sheds. Yet the culture was different. At the time I couldn’t figure out why.
Several years later I ended up working in Elizabeth again, this time as a research assistant for a project about ‘youth enculturation’ and music in the Northern Suburbs. My bosses, tenured within a second tier university, had hoped to discover disaffected youth with a penchant for Hip Hop and, in turn, analyse linguistic tropes within an urban dystopia. The Hilltop Hoods had just become South Australia’s token musical success story and the thought of Australian youth rapping ran rampant through the academy. Of course, the Hilltop Hoods grew up in Blackwood, nestled in the Adelaide Hills, with a median 2006 household income of $1542, well above the nation’s $1234 average. Elizabeth, by contrast, had a median income of $654, just above Bidwill’s $651. They didn’t find any Hip Hop and left empty handed. The place was a sea of metal bands.
This is an interesting but unsurprising development. Founded thirty years earlier than Bidwill, most of Elizabeth’s early residents were British migrants, who brought their music with them. The town’s most famous former resident is Jimmy Barnes, but the Masters Apprentices reputedly formed there, The Angels came from nearby Modbury and Bon Scott reputedly lived in the area when he was fronting Fraternity, before AC/DC started. The sound and style of the area bears strong comparison to their compatriots back in the UK; Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest; the same riffs, macho postures, homoeroticism and penchant for Gothic fonts.
As a youth in the Western Suburbs of Adelaide a decade earlier, I’d watched one of my classmates present the rhythm part to Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’ as his Year Eleven final recital piece. The piece is ridiculously hard, yet with his Megadeath shirt, long hair and black jeans, he flawlessly picked through its crescendos, accentuatos and fortissimos. Looking back, I couldn’t help wondering if the academics might have missed something; some connotations of a class consciousness transcendent of geographic boundaries, a penchant for virtuoso cultural work responding to the Modern Condition, but also something uniquely suburban. More than two decades after Bon Scott’s death, kids were still carving AC/DC logos into the desks of the Elizabeth library. There’s a cultural legacy to hard rock that emerged from Australian suburbs and continues to thrive there. Maybe it’s easy to pass it off as the niche output of bogans, but when the first AC/DC album was released in the US in 1976 it went triple platinum, with three million sales. The follow-up, Dirty Deeds Don’t Dirt Cheap sold twice as many. It’s hard to think of any other cultural work from Australia with such universal appeal.
On the whole, though, you don’t think of the Australian suburbs as places that make culture. On the contrary, as they’ve become increasingly associated with petty crime and an overwhelming bland, we perhaps forget they’re capable of producing anything else. Indeed, there’s a perception that when they do so, it’s inherently dangerous and requires the riot squad just to contain a rock opera in a car park. The so-called Bidwill Riots were a media beat up, yet the place still has a reputation for danger. The local police still see any social gathering as a potential catastrophe.
And, from a policing perspective, they have their reasons. There is, for example, Newcastle’s Star Hotel, once the city’s only gay friendly pub, home to a mix of sailors, punk bands and drag queens. When the local council ordered its closure in 1979, on grounds of poor fire compliance, four thousand people turned up, and a riot broke out injuring fourteen policemen and burning two cars.
Naturally, there’s another narrative. The Star had been operating for close to a hundred years. Whilst the local regulators protested the issue was purely one of fire safety, and of protecting the local youths, sailors and drag queens from a flaming death, for its patrons it had been a centrepoint of community life for close to a century, and bastion of local culture. The death of that culture provoked the riots, not a disdain for fire safety.
Regardless, from the late Seventies onwards, such venue closures became increasingly common. Another classic example is the Manly Vale Hotel, seventeen kilometres out of Sydney, which had its thousand person band room shut because it’s doors were three centimetres too narrow. Whilst council and police have always presented such closures as an issue of safety and amenity, for a huge number of people it seemed an attack on something more personal.
Alongside this regulatory shift is an economic movement that had a similar cultural outcome. When places like Bidwill, Elizabeth and, indeed, my own beloved Underdale were planned during the Fifties and Sixties, their aim was to attract skilled workers from overseas so as drive the nation’s burgeoning manufacturing sector. They did this by offering a cheap alternative to the crumbling terrace houses and tenements of the inner city working poor, spread out over such an area of land that people no longer had to feel crowded and cramped. When you consider there were still houses around inner city Sydney without plumbing, the appeal of Bidwill makes more sense. Particularly if you look at aerial maps, you can see how it’s been designed with cul-de-sac streets to slow the traffic, pedestrian links and ample green space.
Of course, the pedestrian links were subsequently blocked up by the police, who felt they allowed juvenile delinquents to escape their car patrols too easily, and the green space is reputedly now lathered in broken glass. But the design was there, it wasn’t meant to be a terrible place to live. The shift came when the Australian economy globalised, the manufacturing sector shifted offshore to pursue cheap labour in the Third World, and entire suburbs effectively became massive holding pens of superfluous labour. Bidwill is a classic example of this in practice. Thus begins the era of the Outer Suburbs as we know them today.
Regardless of your ideological stance, globalisation dragged Australia out of its protectionist economy and inevitably meant huge shifts in the labour market. That meant a descent into poverty for a lot of people. Bidwill, like many outer suburbs, is so far removed from any sort of economic centre that impact has become generational. Urban design has limited capacity to counter that, yet it invariably becomes complicit in the resulting culture of those who live within it; hence Bidwill’s residents now call a car park their town centre, isolated from the centre of government, economy and capital-c-Culture. As the social and cultural malaise kicks in, so too does the rational for further regulation.
The isolation and frustration one experiences in such a place tends to breed the kind of contempt that sparks petty incursions against the law, which tends to legitimise further regulatory control, which, in turn, tends to enhance the sense of isolation and frustration. Thus, the kind of towns that once produced AC/DC are reduced to gathering in a car park. As Bidwill’s local pastor pointed out, there’s no third space and nowhere to do anything. Unless your hobbies are limited to drinking, playing the pokies or parking your car, Bidwill’s structure will inevitably prove frustrating. And certainly, the local police in Bidwill seem to feel that frustration is so ready to burst that even a Sydney Festival sanctioned rock opera could tip it over the edge. The Festival’s Board members include the Premier, the Governor and the Attorney General. If their reputations can’t slake the fear of the local law enforcement, it’s hard to see what assurance the locals can offer them.
In this light, the thing I liked most about FUNPARK was that it showed how little it took to unleash all the latent energy in the place, from the hotel bouncer, Tito, who ventured out to sing along to Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, to the retirees who’d formed not only a choir but a drumming circle, to the kids pulling out elaborate dance routines and George, the twelve year old noise artist. One can’t help but wonder what else could come out of the place under slightly less repressive conditions.