One of the most striking characteristics of Adelaide’s CBD in the 1980s was the empty streets outside of the weekday’s 9-5 working hours. During the weekend the streets were more or less empty, and apart from the tumbleweeds in Rundle Street the city was dead with respect to urban street life. The urban life of this provincial, colonial capital city was desolate and depressing. People worked in the CBD and lived and loved in the suburbs.
The CBD had been emptying out from the 1950s, when families with children moving to new housing in the suburbs. Post-war migrants lived in the inner city areas and young professionals joined the migrants in central Adelaide and North Adelaide in the 1960s and 1970s. The CBD was still all about business, commerce and profit, not inner city living, or the protection of the traditional built character of the city.
This emptiness on the streets was in marked contrast to the flux and flow of the image-texts in a corporate consumer culture or the rapidly changing built environment as a result of the Bannon Government’s strategy of using major building projects to kickstart economic growth in a crane-led recovery from economic recession.
The governance of the city was dominated by pro-development business interests in the 1980s, not residents concerned with heritage (historic buildings and streetscape or townscape protection), protection of the parklands, or the quality of urban living. That started to change by the 1990s.
One reason for the empty streets is that university educated people in their 20’s and 30’s were leaving South Australia in search of jobs in the eastern states. Despite the gradual decline of the local manufacturing industry, the increase in unemployment, underemployment and the rise of poverty in South Australia Adelaide was slow in making the transition to a knowledge economy, in which prosperity rests not on growing, digging up or making things, but on knowing things.
The hollowed out city is the truth of the common ‘this place is dying’ or the ‘Adelaide is one of Australia’s most boring cities’ memes. By the end of the decade the city was becoming inward looking, fearful and denials. The collapse of the State Bank in Adelaide in 1991 reinforced this defensiveness.
Unlike a depressed Melbourne, which encouraged the emergence of a small bar scene in the 1990s with a thriving night-time economy and a revitalised CBD followed, Adelaide remained paralysed by the heritage /development conflict and in emulating Sydney or Melbourne rather than modelling its future on cities like Austin or Portland in the United States.
A creative industries revival of the CBD through a raging against the dying of the light was not on the horizon, since the artists were also clearing out.