Protestant righteousness in 'weird' Adelaide


Adelaide'Even in the daytime the streets of classy North Adelaide and Unley Park can be tunnels, enclosed by green leaves. And so quiet, so secretive, all the people shut away behind their high walls ... At night, Adelaide turns film noir...' Barbara Hanrahan's 'Weird Adelaide', The Adelaide Review, 1988

I've been away for 20 years from the City of Churches but it seems like 50. Adelaide has almost doubled in size stretching 90 km north to the Barossa Valley and south past Christies Beach. It seems town planners left about the same time I did.

That Adelaide functions at all as a city is due to the hegemony of the car and truck. Just as the original wide streets were designed so that a bullock team could do a u-turn, the city's post-war growth was due to the triumph of the car. One wonders though what the future of the city will be once petrol becomes prohibitively expensive.

There's still a whiff of Protestant righteousness in the air — of every person and thing in its place. It's a beautiful, quiet and healthy place to live where you can still buy a house that won't leave your grandchildren paying it off. At worst it brims with hypocrisy and small town bitchiness.

The bitchiness is no more evident than in the guerrilla war going on between the heritage lobby of environmentalists, social conservatives, urban professionals and NIMBY's who are ranged against business developers, the property lobby and the Rann Government.

Those who favour protecting Adelaide's heritage buildings and parklands take a hardline. They say Adelaide's colonial buildings are Brand Adelaide and are a tourist magnet.

Depending on one's point of view, Adelaide is a progressive, arts-embracing city with a proud record on social justice. These people applaud the Don Dunstan era and look wistfully back to a time when pink shorts equalled progressive politics.

The contra point of view is that Adelaide's riches and charms are plain to see and for all to enjoy. They are a product of a predominantly Liberal history that goes back generations. In short, in a world of change, well, 'we won't be having any of that thank you'.

Unfortunately SA's national share of visitors fell from 7.5 per cent in 1999 to 7 per cent in 2009 and continues to fall. The highlights are the Adelaide Festival of Arts, the Fringe Festival, Womadelaide and the Clipsal 500. Without these events SA's share would fall to about 4 per cent.

Adelaide suffers from mall malaise. The giant suburban shopping plazas and their category killer retail shops have driven a nail into the heart of CBD shopping. The high number of closed or 'for rent' stores is like something out of the movie High Noon — and Gary Cooper is nowhere in sight.

The collapse of the State Bank in 1992 created a $4 billion debt that broke the state's entrepreneurial spirit. People expect the State Government to fund all manner of projects yet they scream when the same Government raises taxes.

Adelaide survives by winning defence contacts and mining. More than 50 per cent of the state's GDP is earned from these sectors. It's a classic case of too many eggs in too few baskets. The economy urgently needs to diversify.

On the upside, SA's universities are powering ahead with strong international enrolments and research grants. The introduction of highly ranked global universities such as Carnegie Mellon and University College London have raised the bar, yet most people haven't heard of them even though they are ranked 32 and four in the world.

Adelaide's media is a story unto itself. When I left in the late 1980s, the metropolitan daily, The Advertiser, was a parochial tabloid fixated with rape and murder stories. It's still a parochial tabloid but the recruitment of young female reporters who are writing hard news, has given the paper some badly needed credence.

Even so, there is a long way to go for some sections of the electronic media who think interviews are a Punch and Judy show. Only Channels Seven and Two are reporting news. The line between PR and journalism has blurred as some reporters work both sides of the fence, working for PR companies and for newspapers.

The combination of an ageing population, falling tourist numbers and the fact that young people are leaving Adelaide for greener pastures in the eastern states, is economic death by a thousand cuts.

Yet for all of this, you can still see private-school girls with just the right degree of wrinkle in their socks, outside Sportsgirl in Rundle Mall. The frog cakes still sit on their paper doilies in Balfours which, like Woodies lemonade and Coopers beer, are Adelaide institutions.

For those born in Adelaide, there is something endearing about the place. It's like living in a country town where Big Ears, Ratty or Mole could be spotted. But the penchant for nostalgia and for by-gone days is exactly the wrong impulse now for the City of Churches.

Malcolm KingMalcolm King is an Adelaide writer.

Topic tags: malcolm king, adelaide, city of churches, rundle mall, mike rann, don dunstan



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Existing comments

ouch! Gee a bit harsh there but I can see where you are coming from Malcolm. I spent about 6 years in Adelaide and found it difficult to get a toe-hold into the social, business or cultural closed shop elites there. Lovely place to live, and just the mention of the private school girls hanging around the mall brings back the atmosphere, upper middle class and very comfortable thank you!

Rodney Shearing, Hobart | 29 September 2010  

I personally love the colonial buildings in Adelaide city, and I think there's been a lot of development all around Adelaide. As you've noted though, the development has occurred at suburban shopping centres and so Rundle Mall languishes. I agree with you about the lack of planning.

On a side note, I am still astounded that the SA Government sees fit to spend half a billion plus on Adelaide oval while they fail to deliver on basic services.

I don't plan on moving back any time soon.

MBG | 29 September 2010  

The author's 20 years absence would explain his ignorance. (I don't know what would explain his condescension.) A concrete example: though Balfours and their frog cakes endure you would have difficulty in finding a Balfours shop in Rundle Mall in the last six years. Malcolm would probably use that as evidence of his far-fetched High Noon scenario. Other Australian cities are fun to visit but for family quality of life one would have to choose Adelaide.

Perhaps Malcolm has been away so long he has adopted the patronising ignorance of eastern states who use it to console themselves for their cramped, rat-race existence. Perhaps a story on our equally-fanciful murder rate is next. Don't forget to count in any deaths west of the Great Dividing Range.

Eclair | 29 September 2010  

Hi Rod, my wife said the article was like 'kicking puppies' but I wanted to convey my frustration about the parochialism and complacency that pervades the city. The city is beautiful and charming and the people are very friendly. These are great assets but the lack of vision and planning is galling.

Malcolm King | 29 September 2010  

Adelaide may be still the most liveable large City in Australia. Most people in Adelaide live within a few kilometres of the beach and the hills. I am sure that peak traffic in Adelaide would be a dream traffic condition for people from Sydney.
I like just to mention one great imitative by the SA Government to reduce traffic problems in the City centre. During the weekend and between 9AM and 3PM Holders of Seniors Cards can travel for free on public transport. It means that thousands of people will use public transport and leave parking spaces for working people. It also takes hundreds of cars off the road during people during peak traffic.
It is wrong to blame a reduced a fall from 7.5% to 7% of visitors on Adelaide lacking attractions. Adelaide has only a small airport and virtually all the new airlines arriving in Australia fly either to the major aviation hubs of Sydney and Melbourne. If more planes arrive in these major cities, their visitor numbers increase.

I would say that I rather have a bad day in Adelaide than a good day in Sydney.

Beat Odermatt | 29 September 2010  

The article and the attitude towards Adelaide are about as welcome and dated as a return of pink shorts. A low from Eureka Street.

Steve Daughtry | 29 September 2010  

About the merits or charms of Adelaide I will leave it to those who know it to debate. But what aroused my curiosity was the headline: I failed to see anything in the article that would justify Adelaide being described as 'weird' and thought the reference to 'Protestant righteousness' a gratuitous and strained cliche. At any rate, not much relevance to the article. Who's responsible for the headlines on ES?

Stephen Kellett | 29 September 2010  

Not so Protestantism everywhere. It has virtually disappeared. The Anglican establishment has been in strife due to naughty things done to children by its pastors and teachers. The Baptists and Methodists lost when 6pm closing came to an end. Congregationalists just disappeared. Now it's the sacramental churches who rule i.e. the Catholics and Greeks and the Lutherans. The latter Protestant with a small P. Yes the trees are still here in great numbers, the Victorian buildings remain and our local pollies still doozies trying to play big league. Would you want us to be king of the cons like Sin City or Gangsterland like Melbourne?

philip | 29 September 2010  

About time someone said this. It's a clever exposition that gets to the nitty gritty of some major problems in Adders - a total lack of planning! I could also list the incompetence of the Adelaide City Council, sacking 4000 public servants, shocking Aboriginal health issues and gang warfare in the northern suburbs just for starters.

I'd agree that the people are friendly but it can be clique ridden and snobby in the eastern suburbs.

More articles like this please.

Shelley Hare | 29 September 2010  

OK, this is going to come across as inward-looking Adelaide defensiveness, but ...

You say you've come back after 20 years, but much of what you write seems to be 20 years out of date.

The issue of the 'hegemony of the car and truck' is not a particularly Adelaide phenomenon, if anything, Adelaide is so flat it's very transport friendly.

Again, I'm not sure Adelaide is so unique in terms of 'heritage' and 'development' tensions or 'mall malaise' or even the nature of the press.

You forgot to mention one of the most successful international events we have: The Tour Down Under. Its world wide reach plus the extraordinary local enthusiastic participation is something to behold.

I think your observations about State Bank after-effects are accurate, but about a decade behind the times.

You also talk about having all our economic eggs in one basket. That's true, and it's been a feature of the State almost since day one, but amazingly, you forget agriculture in general and WINE in particular!

Finally, I haven't seen a bottle of Woodies Lemonade (of fond memory), since I don't know when. I need a Pale Ale!

Faz | 29 September 2010  

I totally agree!!!!
As having grown up in adelaide and been one of those private school girls 30 years ago, my niece is having exactly the same adelaide private school life as i had. It is a very nice comfortable place- but has no preparation for real life. Absolutely none!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Caroline Hawkins | 29 September 2010  

I lived in Sydney 20 years, Canberra for 10 then the past 20 in Adelaide. It's a great place for a family to grow up; the lifestyle can be as relaxed as you want it to be. Beaches and hills are close, public transport is reasonable. like all cities it has been seduced by cheap land on urban fringes as a solution to demand for accommodation. It's not the only Australian city to fall for that. More recently there has been a remarkable growth in inner city housing; with that growth in CBD population will come more life and culture to the city centre. Sure SA's economy is restricted, and the drift of young people to the East is an issue, but this reflects the geography of the state; this has been a problem since European settlement here.

This article's data on industry is also erroneous. ABS states that in 2008-9 Mining accounted for 3.8% and total manufacturing 11.8% of state economic activity...not 50% of GSP...straight off the ABS website.

Chris Holmwood | 29 September 2010  

Actually, on re-reading this, I do have a small gripe. The headline doesn't match the story. He's not saying Adelaide is 'weird' and there's only one passing comment about 'protestant righteousness'.

According to the recent state budget, mining and defence contribute 47 percent of income to SA's coffers.

Shelley Hare | 30 September 2010  

I recall John O'Grady describing Adelaide as the only cemetery in Australia lit up at night.

Despite the parochialism of the croweaters, this article introduces some serious issues that Adelaide must face - like its reason for being

If Adelaide disappeared of the face of the country tomorrow, no-one would notice.

To those outside of Adelaide, it is a winery, a place of serial killers, psychotic football followers with a huge inferiority complex, and drivers who drive slow in the fast lane.

But it does have The Archer in O'Connel St.

Trevor | 04 October 2010  

Fun article!

I can see it well and understand as an expat South Australian who fled the dormant state over twenty years ago in the wake of a progressive husband who rightly foresaw more opportunity for his kids in the East. But It is sad that SA has not been able to leap back up economically. There is much nostalgia attached to that historically grounded geography, especially for those of us who left for faster, greener but somewhat cloying productivity and action of the Eastern populous states.

Sue Lambert | 21 October 2010  

I left Adelaide at the beginning of 1997 and took my arts-related business to Melbourne, where, in the first twelve months, my profit increased by 87% and continued to increase year by year. I now live in Europe, but returned to Adelaide for a brief visit in 2018. I felt so glad I'd left when I did.

Robert | 22 May 2021  

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