Abandoned Brisbane: Presence and absence in an in-between city

This is a piece I wrote in 2013 that never found a home in print. I recently uncovered in the jumble of thoughts and images that is my computer hardrive. It is interesting to see how my interest in presence and absence–central themes of current PhD thesis–have preoccupied my thoughts for so many years! As always when looking back on old work, I found parts of this rather cringy (I was going through an experimental writing phase), but I hope it is of interest to some. A huge thankyou to Dr Stuart Glover for his feedback and mentorship on this piece. 

PART I

Bianca Jane Insane’s had her eye on a few places for a while now. She knows what she’s looking for. The long grass. The decay. The public notice for development.

She weaves her BMX through the Fortitude Valley traffic, threads around pedestrians and the midday drunks. You follow at some distance. Your bike clatters with every inch forward, screeches when it should stop.

Bianca shouts a running commentary on the buildings you pass, a tangle of things she’s learned from textbooks and from spending a lot of time stoned in derelict buildings. Her words catch on the wind, fragment, float back to you as part of the city’s synesthesic song. A tapestry of heat ripples, jasmine flowers, requests for ciggies, and the guttural wrench of beat-up Fords.

There’s an awesome…seventies style…used to go there a lot…art deco windows… a squat, man…

You half listen. Your mind meanders along the river, to the bend once called Meanjin. In 1823 Oxley sailed his boat up that river. 1824, and convicts built the first colonial structures—shanties of mud and bark—somewhere along those banks. They renamed the settlement Edenglassi. Later still, Brisbane. Those early buildings were temporary things. The Colonial Secretary in Sydney sent word that it was not necessary to erect permanent buildings. 1839, free settlers came, built their timber houses high, had verandahs to usher in the breeze on humid days. 1859, Brisbane was named the capital of Queensland. The colony prospered then struggled then prospered again. The layers build up.

Now, as Brisbane’s street-scape flickers by you, you see these Queenslander homes surpassed. Apartments shoot up all over the city—like junkies, wrote Jaya Savige. You hear West Enders bemoan inner city gentrification—many stories, not 30 storeys, a protest sign reads. You taste predications of Brisbane’s dazzling future—Australia’s new world city, a Translink bus says. Layers of rubble. Layers of memory. One building goes up, another comes down. Temporary presence becomes permanent absence, here, in this place you live.

Up ahead of you, Bianca’s commentary continues.

…unusual structure…Fuck, see that? Didya see that?

She slows enough for you to catch up, balances her tobacco pouch on the handlebars, rolls herself a smoke.

            The house isn’t far, she says, leans forward on her handlebars, lights up, takes a drag. Grins on either side of the cigarette.

You nod, wipe the sweat from your brows, begin to think maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. Wonder if Bianca really can help you answer the questions you have about Brisbane’s social memory, explain the haunting presence of Brisbane’s in-between places.

Bianca takes off again. Excited. Never been to this place before. Has been watching it, though. Looking for the moment when—almost as if the abandoned house wants to be remembered one last time—there’s an open window, a gaping hole, an unlocked door. Bianca moves fast. Often, it’s only a wink in time before the demolition crews come in.

 

 

 

*

 

An abandoned house taught me about the in-between places.

I was a teenager then, a prefect at a girl’s boarding school. My uniform was starched, bleached white. My time, ordered by the dormitory schedule. But I’d escape all that, run to a small derelict house that sat, overlooked, between where the campus ended and the world outside began.

There, amid the blushing maiden vines, I found props from old school plays, love letters, clothes, shattered Passion Pop bottles. I’d visit in the mornings, when the alarms on the dormitory doors had just turned off and the Central Queensland air was crisp. The house smelled like mildew, and blood, and sherbet. I decorated a paper-maché palm tree with cigarette packets and broken glass. I painted a mural. The stolen art-room supplies slipped across the wall like a planchette on a spirit board as I wrote the story of all those who’d been in the house before me, of the-in-between. I never was sure what I was writing about, whose memory I summoned.

 

Now, I move through Brisbane knowing I’m always in a place where someone has stood before, an inch of pavement someone remembers. I expected this sense of the in-between when I visited the abandoned house. But now, even when I stand in the newest of Brisbane’s buildings, I feel a certain haunting of what was before. This city I now call home is a stratum of places people have inhabited, left behind, remembered long after the next layers have built up and been abandoned once again. As de Certeau wrote, “Haunted places are the only ones we can live in”.

 

*

I don’t know what I expected the face of Abandoned Brisbane to look like. Often, I’d looked at the photos. Imagined what was absent. I forgot to ponder the photographer’s presence. The webpage’s ‘about’ section merely says the Webmaster rides around on a BMX called Scout, looks for abandoned houses. Then, by virtue of Brisbane’s-three-degrees of separation, I meet Bianca in a laneway café. Fine bones. Shaved undercut. First signs of 30-something laugh lines. An easiness with the world in the way she asked for whatever when ordering a coffee.  Of course, I thought, of course this is what a connoisseur of in-between places looks like.

I ask why she does what she does. She shrugs.

It just seems like there are some places no one goes anymore.

Urban exploration, or UrbEx, is all about exploring in-between places. Overlooked parts of the city. Abandoned houses. Drains. Tunnels. Whatever’s past the “no trespassing” sign. Bianca’s Urban Exploration page hosts photos of over 130 abandoned houses. Each bears a title like a ‘Goosebumps’ paperback: “Hoarder’s House of Television”, “The Doll Morgue”, “The Perch”, “House of Yoda”.

Even if a place is empty, She says, there can still be so much there.

I nod. Like absences, I think.

I ask Bianca if she thinks buildings have anything to do with memory. She doesn’t give me a direct answer.

It is very nostalgicI’m always aware that I’m in someone else’s space. I try not to disturb too much. She scowls. She’s already made clear her distaste for the little graff kids and people who damage shit. Then, she brightens.

I’ve been into a few places where people have died, she says. Cheery grin. Eyes like polished marbles.

As a lover of true crime, that’s my wet dream. The “Through the looking Glass House”, he wasn’t found for ages, and his mattress is still there, leaning against the wall with a human shaped brown stain on it. He had no doors. Moved all his shit outside.

Bianca raises her eyebrows. Mock horror.

I smile, wish she’d voiced something ultimate and profound, attempt to steer the conversation back to memory. But my mind was snagged on questions about the “Through the Looking Glass House”. Questions of questions.

Bianca was fifteen when she chanced upon her first abandoned house. Back then, they were squats, places to escape the cold and drink in. Now, she heads to abandoned houses for a beer at sundown (It’s like a cubby house, only a mansion), or when she needs an adrenaline rush (There are some places I wouldn’t go into sober).  Though sometimes—she frowns, stirs her coffee—it’s out of some sense of obligation. I want to ask her what she means by this. I don’t.

Urban exploration falls under legally hazy grounds. In 2009 officials closed down a Sydney group’s website after two of its affiliates drowned exploring storm water drains. The media chanted evocations of ill-mannered Gen Y’s, punks, clandestine cults. Urban exploration, already secretive and territorial, became more so. And yet, the private, underground experience of marginal places only grows in popularity online. The audience widened from explorers to a sundry following of voyeurs littering cyber space with question marks.

The profile pictures in Abandoned Brisbane’s ‘following’ section—5300 followers just a year after it launched—show a mix of experimental photography, State of Origin jerseys, grey hair, selfies, professional headshots, families. In the comments of every album there are questions, memories, theories, imaginings—though you could say its all the same thing. Bianca’s followers email her info about the houses she’s visited, tips on more abandoned houses, thank-yous for the voyeurism they requested.

There’s a lot of support, Bianca told me, I did an interview on ABC morning radio, flipped out because I thought I’d wake up and fine my page deleted, because well, it’s basically a documentary on breaking and entering, she laughed, But all these old people went ape shit. Loved it. They’re all like, “I remember this”, “I can tell you about that”. They fully support it, man.

I ask her what she thought the allure is, for all these people. Does it have anything to do with memory?

The real shit. I think people find the real shit a lot more interesting than the fake shit, she says, Some things you never think about, and then you’ll see a photo, and go, “isn’t that amazing”.

I frown, bite my lip, toy with the sugar packets on the café table.

Moments before, she’d told me that she loves it when houses look older in her photographs than they when she encountered the place. I think to point out the contradiction. Then I think perhaps there isn’t one.

Memory, wrote cultural geographer deSilvey’s, is based on chance and imagination as much as evidence and explanation.

I want to ask Bianca what she thinks of this, and if she can tell me more about Brisbane’s in-between places, what they mean for memory.

Instead, I ask if I can tag along.

 

*

 

This is it. Bianca’s bike skids to a halt. You pull up beside her. The street is grimy. Rubbish spills from skips like innards from a piñata.

You’ve been riding for about an hour. This is your fourth stop. The first two houses were locked (I never break into places…er, well…). The third, despite a construction fence on every side, still had tenants (Seriously?).

You chain the bikes to a signpost, clamber through a hole in the chicken wire fence.

This is one of those places, Bianca says, as you step into the cavernous factory, where you consistently find new layers. Usually shit covering really good work.

You look around you. Half the walls are gone. Every stretch of what remain is covered in graffiti. It’s a well-known UrbEx location. More of a public art space than an abandoned building, Bianca tells you.

She flitters around the knolls of rubble, snaps a percussion of photographs.

This one’s new…and this…

Earlier she’d told you that she often doesn’t like returning to abandoned buildings. Hates seeing the sweet old houses get vandalized. Doubts how many purists there are on the scene. But she loves the cycles of decay and inhabitation too.

It’s the decay that makes it interesting, Bianca had said, It adds the what-went-wrong. Really, there’re just questions.

You’d laughed. Wondered if this what-went-wrong applies to all things left behind. Hairs on the back of your neck stood on end. The café stool beneath you suddenly a memorial, an unmarked grave.

Yea, well, you know, what did go wrong? Bianca leaned across the table, You never find all the answers there. It’s not like the eviction or funeral notice is stuck to the wall.

She locked eyes with you.

You don’t find answers, and the more clues a place leaves, the more questions you have.

The clues: Sometimes letters by the doorstep. Use-by dates in the pantry. Height chart in living rooms. Most cases, it’s not the visible stain of death. It’s the absence.

The questions everyone is asking: Why was it abandoned? Who abandoned it? Something happened. No one is really going to work out what. You think, where’s the dude? It’s just the questions.

 

There are certain things—in-between things, abandoned things, decaying things, things beyond classifications—that, according to deSilvey, reveal breaches in the categories we use to order the world and structure our attempts at remembering the past. The factory floor is comprised of those things. You follow the narrative along the walls. Layers like dream-work. Growth. Decay. Questions.

You wander through the rubble, paint cans, slept-on boxes. Stop occasionally to ponder the identity of a moldy stuffed toy, a booze bottle crushed to glitter, amorphous blobs of moldering things. You prod one of the blobs with your boot toe, think about how decay is a fascinating process. It transforms things to a half-discernable state. Not-human-not-Other. Not-here-not-there. Like a copse, a fetus, a memory fluttering ungraspable at your fingertips, decaying things elude society’s neat categories.

Decay is forever in-between. Absence too. If no one manufactures in a factory or resides in a residence, what else does the building become?

There’s the crunch of footsteps behind you. A teenage boy, leading his girlfriend by the hand, emerges from around a corner. They eye you warily. The boy pulls the girl closer. You smile, sheepish. They scurry up the stairs. Abandoned places, you remember, are rarely uninhabited.

 

*

Abandoned places are everywhere, once you start looking, Bianca says when you return to her place. It’s a town house with a leafy garden. Chooks run around the backyard. You stand, dazed, in her kitchen, try to retrieve the part of you still back at the factory. Bianca offers you a glass of water, talks abandoned houses. Says she’s stopped actively looking for them, there are so many. People often contact her with lists of addresses; after they saw her site, they say, they found abandoned houses everywhere.

That’s how it is with in-between-places. That’s what the house at the boarding school taught you. The streets you think so ordered open up, simply because you ask the question of their hidden layers.

Bianca hands you a Brisbane refidex. You flick through the pages.  The familiar city looks foreign in map form, a tessellation of straight lines and coloured boxes, strung along the serpentine river. Bianca’s marked all the abandoned houses she knows of with coloured flags. There are 190. With every day, the list grows. You imagine how, as the houses get demolished and new ones take their place, these flags will remain. Memorials to memory, auras in the city’s MRI, symbols in the unconscious.

Were a city to represent the mind, it would have to contain simultaneously all the structures that have ever been built within it, with many sites occupied at once by the successive buildings of the ages, wrote the architectural historian Adrian Forty.

This map is a shifting cartography of the in-between.

I’ve also got an Excel spread sheet. Bianca grins. She indicates it’s time to go. You linger a moment, hold the city in your hands, imagine the layers shifting and changing along the grid of your palm, think of something Bianca said earlier:

All these buildings are going to be knocked down one day. No one will ever see them again.

 

 

 

PART II

 

Now, I’m no longer sure if I believe her.

See that building there?, The old man says, points a crooked finger at something that no longer exists.

I squint. See nothing. All around us, confetti slow waltzes to the King George Square pavement, residue of the Brisbane City Hall’s grand reopening. The sandstone matriarch herself towers over you. Mid-morning light enfolds the patina dome, creases detail in the masonry.

It took three years, $215 million, 61 000 benefactors, and 2 million working hours to restore the hall. It’s the people’s place, the mayor’s speech told us. Aristotle believed that buildings can act as containers for memory, that a building’s demolition is a social mnemonic, its decay a gradual forgetting, its demolition a sudden amnesia. I wonder if maybe that’s what the City Council meant when they said they would restore history, save the soul of Brisbane through the building’s preservation.

But now, this man and I stand with our backs to that sandstone sanctuary of memory. He is teaching me to see what survives amnesia.

I’d first noticed him and his wife because of the way they leaned forward during the ceremony, listened to the speeches with solemn attentiveness. Her bright pink hat contrasting with his white skin. She’d smiled whenever someone praised the hall, like a parent at a preschool ballet recital.

Later, the crowds poured through City Hall’s doors. The old couple remained seated, cut-out figures in a lawn-chair zen-garden. I approached them, said I’m interested in Brisbane’s buildings and social memory.

The man leaned in. He grinned. His teeth shone with gold fillings. His skin was as transparent as sun-worn curtains.

We’re nearly as old as the hall itself, the man, Ronald, said. His wife Margaret nodded with such enthusiasm her pink hat threatened to slide off.

Ronald is, he says, very historically minded. His family name is on buildings all across town. His grandfather, mayor in the 1800s, turns in his grave because the church he got married in is now a nightclub (Probably with parties and strippers and all that). Ronald remembers when the square was much smaller. That there—he points to a high-rise—that’s where the theatre used to be. Do I see that building there? That old timer? In ’48 he got his aunty’s glasses repaired there. Do I see? And that—he points to a modern shop. He tells me its story.

As Ronald talks, my gaze wanders to the hall. Built in 1930. Brisbane’s tallest building ‘til the ‘60s. Still is the grandest, with her portico entrance, clock tower, and patina dome. Before that, King George Square was a wetland. The Indigenous People camped there, collected water lilies. Some, like Sam Watson, say Indigenous Australians “don’t look at City Hall and see City Hall, we look at City Hall and see the swamp”. The tympanum above the hall’s entrance depicts the colonial State conquering their newfound “Terra Nullius”. Animals run. In the corner, an Indigenous man rests or lays dead. It depends who you ask.

I consider where the hall, this building that is older than most in Brisbane, but younger than the swamp it overthrew, fits into the city’s social memory. The restorations, I think, did not really bring back the past. It revealed the passage of time: names etched in hidden places, chandeliers in the ceiling, urinals beneath false walls. Memory’s game of hide and seek, revealed the layers of absence, showed that this place—always so controlled, so solid, a constructed memory of civic pride—that it too is an in-between place.

Margaret grabs my arm, pulls me back to the present where she looks for the past. Oh, this was once here, that was once there. Ronald and Margaret’s eyes shine, reflect buildings I cannot see. Their desultory collaboration gains momentum, becomes song -like. They see what I look for in abandoned houses. The in-between-ness. The questions. It’s an invocation of the presence of absence.

 

 

PART III

 

 

I knew about it, this absence, long before I learned to navigate Brisbane’s streets, or tune my radio to 4ZZZ, or love the scent of mangroves, and long, long before I noticed City Hall. It’s not hard to miss. Just ride your bike through the early winter air and the congested streets to Bowen Hills, to the gated apartment complex, where the man keying in his security code glares at you, and where the sign reads “Cloudland”.

There it is, the social memory, see it?

See the city waking up, 7th November 1982, to find that Cloudland—the heritage listed ballroom with its gaudy egg-shaped roof and luminous arch and Best-Dance-Floor-In-Australia—the building that had dominated Brisbane’s skyline since the 1940s, has vanished?

(Cloudland into dreamland turns/The sun comes up and we all learn, sings Midnight Oil).

Cloudland was demolished at 4am. The Deen Brothers demolition crew was told to go for the distinctive arch first. If protesters intervened after that, there’d be nothing worth saving. The ballroom first opened as a Lunar Park. It housed dances, rock Concerts, University Exams.  Was reduced to a mess of twisted metal and plaster in less than two hours.

The next day’s Courier Mail (DAWN BROKE SADLY OVER NEW SKYLINE) reported It was as if someone had given the order that nothing was to remain—that everything was to be broken into little pieces to say to the people of Brisbane, “there, it’s done, there’s nothing to worry about, just forget”.

Of course, Brisbane did not forget.

In its absence, Cloudland became legend. People like myself, born after its death, inherit the duty to mourn it, to cry outrage at the “state approved terrorism” that saw so many buildings like it demolished in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s. We know Cloudland by the trauma of its absence.

 

It’s demolition is almost like murder, isn’t it? Emotionally, it’s a very memorable thing, and a social thing, Dr Diana Young, a cultural anthropologist and former architect tells me. She is a slender woman. Swan-like neck. The kind of Mona-Lisa smile that always suggests a theory in formation.

I’ve come to her office at the UQ Anthropology museum with questions of why, three decades after its demolition, Cloudland still has such a hold on memory.

Dr Young speaks quietly, just above a lilting whisper. Explains that some buildings are symbolic for a city’s social life. Major changes in the built layout can disorientate people’s understanding of the city.

I think that’s a big part of the hauntology, she says. It’s the traumatic and unjust way it was erased… It’s a real psychological violence, to do that to a well-known building, a type of trauma.

Consider iconoclasm, she says. The image of Suddam Husein’s statue falling. But this time, the statue does not represent the dictator. It represents the people, Brisbane’s social life.

I’ve read that iconoclasm, rather than erase the memory of what stood there, often makes the icon more memorable than it was before. The people of Papua New Gunia know it’s the case. That’s why they make Malangan. Malangan are funeral effigies, born in death. There’s one in the museum outside Dr Young’s office, an intricate wood carving, two masked figures holding snakes. I keep returning to it, find myself lingering a little longer, imagining the ceremony of its creation. The artisan spends days in isolation, inscribes the wood with sacred images, reveal the statues for only a glimmer of time. Then, it’s sacrificed: burned, left to rot, sold to outsiders. With the sacrifice, the sacred images become memories. The malangan funeral ceremony is not about death; it’s about the continued memory in the absence of a material thing.

As I thank Dr Young and make to leave. She gives me a beatific smile,

People carry places around with them, she adds, a final note, People are still psychologically in that place: it stands for all kinds of things.

 

At the State Library, I search the archives for what Cloudland stood for. I lay each newspaper clipping down on the table before me, read the past, as, were they tarot cards, I might read the future: The anniversaries of Cloudland’s demolition. The outrage. Before that, Premier Bjelke Petersen arguing that heritage is not the state’s responsibility (It’s a bit like land rights, a November 1982 article quotes him, You give them some and they just want more). Before that, the premonitions. Threats of demolition as far back as ’74. The decay (heaven forbid the Queen sees the flaking paint). Before that, days of swinging dresses and bow ties. Buddy Holly on the stage. The days of gold. (AUSTRALIA’S MOST BEAUTIFUL BALLROOM).

Then, a return to the beginning—or the end, it really does depend how you think of it—rubble once again (The Old Cowlishaw home [was] razed to make way for Brisbane’s Lunar Park…[it was] erected in 1849…The home has been a well-known Brisbane landmark for almost 100 years).

I let the newspaper clipping slide from my hands. Gaze out the window. There’s ripples in the Brisbane River, waves in the City Cat’s wake. How could these records differ so much from the second-hand memory I’d received of glamour and opulence? On record, the ballroom held little architectural value, was less than half its predecessor’s age, was, by all accounts, decaying. I consider my conversation with Dr Young, my experiences of in-betweeness in abandoned houses. Maybe it’s that at Cloudland Ballroom, and places like it, multiple generations inhabited, however briefly, the same psychological and physical place.

Maybe the sprung dance-floor and chandeliers still exist, in a way, held in the sinew and bones of all who danced there: people are still psychologically in that place. In its absence, a place can become memorable in ways it never was standing. The real Shit, as Bianca would call it, accumulates, becomes a narrative. The life force of memory, lingering after the murder.

The demolition crew’s slogan was All we leave behind are the memories.

 

PART IV

The Queenslander bows under time’s weight and memory’s distortion. Walls twist. Floors ripple. Ceilings warp. Paint hangs like forgotten words, ragged sentences, thick as cardboard, curled like question marks. You reach for a piece. With your touch, it crumbles.

You’d searched the Queenslander’s layers. Opened doors. Peered in wardrobes. You found a docket for salmon dip in the cupboard. A used syringe in the corner. A shaky crayon drawing beneath the curtain.  Yourself too, contorted by grime in the bathroom mirror. Felt a stronger affinity with the place because you’d existed within its layers.

You find no answers. Just questions.

And that, in itself, is a type of answer to your Questions about Brisbane’s memory: The abandoned house, with its blatant disregard for society’s neat categories, mocks any idea that memory can be singular, simple, or linear.

You scuff at the lino. Generations of footsteps have worn through it, revealed the spongy wood beneath.

How abandoned is this place really?

How many people are psychologically still here?

We carry places around inside us. We reproduce them in stories, until many layers exist together. Sometimes they partially overlap. You feel them, but they are beyond your reach.

The questions.

The-what-went-wrong.

A slow, sad tune drifts through the Queenslander. You follow the sound. Bianca sits at a piano. Un-tuned keys respond erratically to her touch. Every note sends dust particles drifting into the dim light. The thinned curtain beside her billows, obscures her from view.

For a moment, you’re returned to the abandoned house at your boarding school. 15 years old again. School shoes polished black. Decaying floor boards beneath you. It’s morning. You’re painting another layer on the mural, writing the story of how, when we remember a place, the memories might be inherited, might blur between people.

A few months before you graduated, they demolished that house.

A building cannot hold memories. But the layers, hidden and revealed, the ripples of contradictions, the questions: That’s memory itself. The in-between-ness—it’s everywhere if you look for it, if see the place you live as a series of dots on Bianca’s map, if you ask the questions. That’s what the abandoned house taught me.

Bianca slams on the keys. The note resonates long after the sound fades. She throws down her tobacco pouch. Tobacco trembles on the keys.

You know, she says, licking her Rollie paper, As much as I’d like to see them preserve these buildings, there’s something about them when they’re decaying….