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PacificEdge | June 27, 2017

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City in memory

City in memory
Russ Grayson

I’VE WALKED THESE STREETS BEFORE, a long time ago… through Prince’s Square, along Charles Street, turn into The Quadrant then into Brisbane Street and up to City Park.

To walk these streets now seems little different to walking them 30 years ago. So little has changed. Sure, the people look different than they were then, but that’s just a new generation and new styles of clothing and hair… and the cafes have spilled out their doors and onto the footpath, which is something new. But the streets those people walk are not different in any significant sense, nor are the buildings that line them. How little the city has changed.

We inhabit our own geographies in the cities in which we dwell. These are geographies formed by patterns of movement from home to work, from home to our recreational haunts or to the homes of friends. Much of the rest of the city goes unexplored. Then, my geography extended from Waverley, on the eastern edge of the city’s suburbs, to the city centre, from the city to Cataract Gorge and through the city centre all the way to Gravely Beach further up the Tamar valley, a small township where friends lived.

It is when we return to a city after some time away that we might discover some of these unknown geographies. So it was that, in the late summer of 2007 I stood atop the high ridge of West Launceston and looked out over the curved bowl of land that this modest little city occupies… over to the eastern ridges that mark its outer boundary and up to where the broad grey strip of the Tamar separates the business district from the suburbs that follow the river northwards. Look carefully, I recalled from my early years in the city, and you might see over there, down to the south east, the heights of Ben Lomond, the mountainous plateau that hosts ski fields very modest by mainland standard but which are the winter weekend playground for many city residents.

Loking east along the Tamar reveals a low cityscape with distant ridges culminating in Mt Barrow.

Loking east along the Tamar reveals a low cityscape with distant ridges culminating in Mt Barrow.

West Launceston hadn’t been part of my geography when I lived in the city. I ended up here, high above the city, because I was visiting a friend who had moved from Sydney to set up house atop this ridge, once the home of apple orchards. Apple orchards? That I know because the remnants of one occupies the parcel of land where my friend built her house… twisted, gnarled trees that produce a small fruit and that extend downslope into the neighbouring property.

Walking through the city, I find it hard to imagine that I lived here once. Sure, I have memory of that, but the place feels so… so different… familiar for sure, but also alien. It’s as if a section of my life had somehow been extracted and placed to the side where it was still visible but no longer to be experienced. Maybe it’s because my life since leaving had been so different and my leaving so sudden that it produced a sense of separation that had mentally isolated my experience here.

I walked around, experiencing sights both familiar and new, yet it wasn’t so much the sights that were different but my experience of living here. I realised that the city might still look the same, but the times as experienced then was quite different.

City in decline

That was at the end of the city’s industrial past, a time when economic change was starting to sweep the Western world to bring creative destruction to old economies and to kick start the new. It is only the passage of time and the long view of history that allows us to think in these terms today; back then, there was no such perspective.

Then, there was a wool mill that turned Tasmanian wool into those checked shirts once favoured by bushwalkers, loggers and outdoor types. That mill’s long gone now, a victim of the economic forces unleashed by the changes of the times.

When the decline started there was a palpable apprehension about the city’s future. It looked as though the drift of post-secondary school youth to the mainland, what has been a normal feature of this island state, would accelerate. People blamed the federal government for the decline but what the plaintiffs didn’t know was that what they were experiencing was a global phenomenon that would result in both the destruction and the reconstruction of national economies. It was an inflection point in history.

Over the years that followed this has been a small city in search of a new economic heart. It has been a search that has ended, for the present, in the salvation in tourism. Partial salvation, at least, for jobs and livelihoods continue to be a challenge for the island state.

I played tourist on my next visit to the city, driving north along the west bank of the Tamar to Greens Beach. I had driven up here all those years ago to where the river empties into the grey-green waters of Bass Strait. Absent then were the Exeter bakery, seemingly a popular break-of-journey for coffee and cake or pie, and the Exeter markets. Restored, now, are the old gold mine buildings in Beaconsfield, then just brick ruins in the long grass that I had photographed.

Greens Beach, where the Tamar joins Bass Strait.

The low, estuarine landscape of Greens Beach, where the Tamar joins Bass Strait.

But Greens Beach? This narrow strip of weekenders and retirement houses was not my recollection. Nor the rocky shoreline with its encroaching vegetation. What had happened to the sandy beach we walked along all that time ago and where we found plovers’ eggs?

The beach was still there, just further down the road. There were no eggs to find now, though there were plovers about, but the beach was here, sloping gently into the cool waters of the Strait. This is where the Tamar mixes its waters with Bass Strait, and across the broad estuary was the red and white spire of the Low Head lighthouse. Once, I had stood over there, too.

It’s natural to reflect on visits to places made long ago and on the people we made those visits with. What of my friend who had accompanied me along this same beach all that time ago, I wondered?  What had become of her? Where was she now? What about my friends who lived in their timber house at Gravelly Beach on the banks of the Tamar? I had learned where one had ended up, but the fate of his then-wife remains unclear.

Memory and the city

It’s strange to return to a city you haven’t visited these past 25 years. You quickly learn that memory does not always represent actuality. On that first of my return visits it took me a full morning to properly orient myself as memory and geographic reality clashed.

Details seldom revisited become vague in memory as if they have started to slowly dissolve into some greater plane of existence, an absorption into some generalised field or remembering as if a mist had stated to descend over them to make them vague of form and content. The Crescent, for example, wasn’t quite where I remembered it to be. Not that that’s important, for this curved pedestrian precinct of turn of the century, two to three level stone buildings offers a respite from the rush of the business district, minor though that might be in this city. Here you find outdoor cafes shaded by big umbrellas and small trees, little shops and freedom from the presence of the motor vehicle. The Crescent is a successful public place and shows what Sydney could have done with some of its narrow side streets, had the vision been there.

The Crescent is not the only successful public place in a city that you might call ‘quaint’ because of the dominance of low, turn of the Twentieth Century architecture. Prince’s Square, which I remember more or less clearly from my time in the city, is a fine example of Nineteenth Century park design. Its focus is a classical fountain at the intersection of wide paths that cross the park diagonally. Large swaths of lawn long ago planted to widely spaced, northern hemisphere cold climate trees, long since mature, provide summer shade and the landscaping effect of a cultivated forest. This is a classic park of the period.

I walk into town and diverge into The Mall. A car-free pedestrian refuge in the city centre, The Mall is something of a disappointment, a mere simularcum of malls elsewhere with the same shops and coffee franchises and the same design. It is something of a carbon copy of town centre malls in any other city and is marked by a sameness and a lack of design stemming from any unique sense of place. The Mall has less to recommend it than other public places in the city.

City Park is a mere seven minutes walk and I set out, past the modest Art Deco splendour of the Holyman House building and the adjacent Princess Theatre and past those vaguely familiar Victorian era buildings to City Park. Surely this city’s is the only Australian council to keep monkeys. You find them not in the council chambers but here in the park. This is another public place in which mature, cold climate trees create a classical ambiance. There’s the old rotunda where once brass bands played. Unlike Prince’s Park, City Park has a children’s playground and it is a place for family recreation, as it has been for more than a century.

Holyman House is a fine example of the commercial Art Deco style and the most significant example of its type in Launceston.

Holyman House is a fine example of the commercial Art Deco style and the most significant example of its type in Launceston.

Public places are what visitors remember about a city, and to make visitors’ stays memorable it is up to the city authorities to seek authenticity in design and to avoid kitchy, period themes that quickly become dated and tacky.

Launceston's Princess Theatre, one of the Art Deco buildings found among older structures.

Launceston’s Princess Theatre, one of the Art Deco buildings found among older structures.

Authenticity is based on the successful interpretation of the geographic, historic and cultural characteristics of a place. You find authenticity in landscape along the Manly Beach to Queenscliff promenade in Sydney, where you walk through an expansive beachscape of distant views. Authenticity is innovative at Federation Square in Melbourne, a bold architectural and public place befitting the modernism of a major city. Authenticity incorporates traditional parkland and natural landscapes and it is this that makes the walkway from Kings Bridge to The Basin authentically Launceston. From the cafes by the city waterfront at Seaport, you set out on the walk of an hour or less that took through the open, riverside parkland of Royal and Kings parks and under Kings Bridge, then onto the foot track that traverses the steep walls of The Gorge. There, I ended end up at early twentieth century building housing the cafe and restaurant at The Basin.

On my first return to the city, back in 2001, I encountered a Cataract Gorge that differed significantly from memory. Although this place had been part of my urban geography when I lived here, the reality I was faced with was disconcerting. My memory had been well out of kilter with reality.

I recalled Kings Bridge as an industrial-looking structure of ironwork and in this recollection, at least, my memory was true. I also recalled the choice of tracks from Kings Bridge to The Basin and followed the steeper track along the southern shore of the South Esk where it flows through Cataract Gorge, but the landscape was different. Nature hadn’t changed, just my mind, yet here was the familiar too… there, that high, smooth face of rough rock… that’s where we went rock climbing.

A rustic shelter on the footpath along Cataract gorge.

A rustic shelter on the footpath along Cataract gorge.

The Basin was as I recalled – a wide body of water held back by a weir over which the water cascades, with the high suspension footbridge at the far end that takes you from one bank to the other. How many times had I crossed that?

And there, still, was the cafe building which houses both an informal outdoor café and a more upmarket restaurant. Located amid the cold climate trees and lawns high above the waters of Cataract Gorge, this time I found the coffee to be quite ordinary and the edibles of limited selection. Still here were those stately peacocks patrolling the grounds. They can be as aggressive as Sydney seagulls in coming up and taking your food, but are they long lived enough to be the same birds I knew when I lived her or are they descendents?

Looking across First Basin to the suspension bridge.

Looking across First Basin to the suspension bridge.

Back in town, and I note the sign in the window of the coffee shop advising hippies to use the side entrance, a relic seemingly souvenired long ago and far away.

My friend up on the ridge in West Launceston told me that this part of Charles Street, a ten minute walk from the city centre, is mockingly referred to as the ‘Paris end of Charles Street’. The reality is a minor cluster of cafes, two or three perhaps, with streetside tables. Nearby is a corner pub of Nineteenth Century architectural vintage. All this is new… for me at least.

The old toll collectors' house at Cataract Gorge. Here, the South Esk flows into the Tamar.

The old toll collectors’ house at Cataract Gorge. Here, the South Esk flows beneath Kings Bridge into the Tamar.

Then, unexpectedly, I stumble into a living link with my past. It’s a small, second hand bookshop across from Prince’s Square and is owned by a one-time journalist with the Launceston Examiner. He told me that his initial stock came from his private book collection and that his wife was pleased to see it leave home, but then I discover who his wife is — the ex-partner of a person I knew during my time here. He had made off with some other female but, I know, such events were a not uncommon thing in this small city. The town might not have changed all that much, but partnership arrangements certainly did.

Now this city is faced with the prospect of an industry that is purely Twentieth Century, if not in technology then certainly in mindset. The pulp mill is the current controversy that vexes this fair town.

Let’s realise something: a pulp mill is not a tourist attraction. Vineyards and wineries are. So are townscapes. To build a pulp mill adjacent to vineyards is to put the state’s industrial past before its industrial future. And they are — or should be — two very different things.

Crossing the weir at First Basin in Cataract gorge.

Crossing the weir at First Basin in Cataract gorge.

Given the Nineteenth/early Twentieth century architectural heritage of the city, I wonder whether the city government could do what Napier, on New Zealand’s North Island, has done with its Art Deco architectural heritage? There, the council and Art Deco Society have made the city’s architecture a real tourist attraction.

This small city’s would be a far more modest initiative of the type because its buildings do not have the cultural baggage that Art Deco carries. Yet, there are streets of Victorian era and later buildings that may possibly be interpreted to visitors through guided tours and printed information. Legislation to preserve those old streetscapes would be needed and a clear economic and cultural rationale articulated to the public to gain their support. The city’s architecture could become a greater part of the city’s culture and economy and the past would start to serve the needs of the present as an alternative to out-of-date industrial thinking that suffers from such a colossal collapse of imagination as to see a polluting pulp mill as the city’s future.

Launceston deserves better.

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