Text: Living in Bowden

Bowden: history and memory

The 1980s were a turning point in Australian history. This was  the beginning of a more open era characterised by floating the dollar, lower tariffs, strong property rights, privatisation, fiscal austerity and cuts to welfare,  tax cuts, deregulating markets limited government, micro-economic  reform, self-regulating markets and free trade. The role of the state in this mode of governance is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. A deregulated Australia governed by the Hawke-Keating Labor government was continuing with the modern idea of opening Australia to the world in a neo-liberal mode.  

Adelaide in the 1980s still basked in the glow of its glory days of the 1970s, when Don Dunstan’s modernising  Labor Government in South Australia, had led the way in Australia with social reform, debating Aboriginal rights, challenging the White Australia Policy, support for culture, civic virtue and legislating to decriminalise homosexuality in response to the culture of gay bashing, often carried out by the police. This progressive thinking with its sense of fun were the trademarks of the “Dunstan era’s” conception of the darkness and light of the project of Australian modernity in the 20th century, with its nation-building state investment in  suburban and regional development.

This social democratic project of modernity had emerged from the transplanted white settler colonial culture in the 19th century that had been cut adrift in Asian waters by the decline of a distant British empire. The project worked firmly in the European Enlightenment’s understanding of progress that brings prosperity and civilization. This narrative assumed the possibility that the future will be fundamentally better than the past: it held that the new ways of understanding the world create open ended possibilities that are conceived as new in a way that cannot be entirely derived from previous experience.

Dark clouds hard formed over Whyalla in the 1970s and Bowden suggested that there would be great structural changes for South Australia.  By the early 1990s the hopes and optimism of the Dustan era had evaporated. The 1980s property boom in Adelaide ended with Paul Keating’s ‘recession we had to haven the early 1990s, the subsequent collapse of the State Bank of South Australia in 1991, and the resignation of John Bannon, the Premier, in 1992. With the economic and social decline Adelaide became a place to leave permanently for young people, whilst those who remained embraced a culture of denial about South Australia’s economy. 

Nostalgia became entrenched. Nostalgia for childhood and youth remembered. Nostalgia for a time when job security was assured, progressive politics focused on worker’s rights, and social and economic stability was the norm.  Nostalgia for the good times lost and the promise of a better,  more enlightened life.  


During the 1980s I was living in a working class cottage in Bowden, where I had a photography studio and a chemical darkroom. I worked part-time at Conroys Smallgoods factory to finance my photographing Bowden project whilst studying for a BA in philosophy and visual arts at  the Flinders University of South Australia. I was photographing around the area—walking around and documenting the place  that was my home.  

Bowden-Brompton in the 1980s was a mixture of housing, factories, shops and small offices and warehouses. I was surprised by its industrial character, given that the suburb is less than 4 kilometres from Adelaide’s CBD,  and it is adjacent to the Adelaide parklands. The location was similar in location to the inner, middle class  suburbs like Parkside and Kent Town,  and I often wondered why Bowden had become an industrial zone with its contaminated land, given that it was located so close to the Adelaide parklands. 

My understanding of Adelaide’s history is that  suburbs west of the city of Adelaide and the parklands, such as Hindmarsh and Bowden, had been earmarked as industrial areas prior to 1945,  primarily because they  were in the vicinity of the road and rail links between Adelaide’s CBD and Port Adelaide. The industrial origins in the 19th century lay in the small cottage industries supported by both residential and industrial expansion. As the more noxious industries moved into the area in the early 20th century, the wealthier residents began to move out.

 The inner western suburbs of Adelaide had been earmarked for industrial land in the early 20th century by the urban planners, if not before. It was probably in the 19th century that Bowden and Hindmarsh were earmarked as Adelaide’s industrial heartland and manufacturing. In the imagination of ‘civilised’ Adelaide in the eastern suburbs in the 1980s Bowden as an older western industrial areas, represented the grotesque horrors and terrors of urban life, with its shady characters and their irrational, uninhibited desires and passions. It was  seen to be a place that you ventured into at your own risk.  

The earthy and gritty character of the older, industrial Bowden of the 20th century embodied the urban myth of it being a threatening, sinister urbanscape,  and a foreign place. It was the other to the rationalism, social order and scientific approach to knowledge of the civilising Enlightenment. Bowden became the place beyond the pale that was supposedly haunted by savage beasts and evil spirits. What happened in the shadow lands behind the Gasworks at night was crime, not romance.

Though it was still a residential area in the 1970s, with many post-1945 European migrants (Greek, Italian, Yugoslav) being attracted to the area, because of the low cost of housing,  industry expansion quickened  after the 1940s. By the 1980s the official view of Bowden-Brompton was that these suburbs were old industrial areas, and that the desired industry expansion could take place through purchasing the adjoining residential property.

These residential properties were seen as being on congested sites, which were held to be outworn and obsolete. They had reached the end of their economic and useful life, and  their low property values encouraged the intrusion of factories and businesses. The substandard  housing was considered to be only worthy of demolition. The depressing character of sub-standard dwellings, combined with noise, odours, dirt, smoke pollution and heavy traffic, meant that Bowden was defined as Adelaide’s slum. Slum, for many Adelaidean’s meant an incidence of disease and delinquency, the threat of disorder, crime, mental illness, alcoholism  and death.    

In the 1980s  the concerns of the people who lived in the slum for better living conditions for themselves were ignored by the state government. Even though there was limited room for industrial expansion in Bowden, and industry was moving to Adelaide’s northern and north western suburbs, the former Hindmarsh Council, which had been captured by industry, had little interest in greening the suburb, improving the quality of the environment,  or urban renewal. The state government, in turn, had no conception of urban infill with higher density housing close to the parklands.  This only emerged in the mid-1990s.  

For the then Hindmarsh Council urban redevelopment of the land in Bowden meant redevelopment for economic purposes which, in turn, meant industrial expansion. That meant an opposition to Bowden becoming a more liveable urban area. The market ruled and, consequently, there was little understanding of the social purposes of human cohabitation through supporting a community that saw Bowden-Brompton as a home. For the residents industrial expansion meant displacement and homelessness. 

The conflict arising from citizens in opposition to government and business was a central feature of the rebuilding the Bowden-Brompton area. The initial spark was the US inspired report, the 1968 ‘Metropolitan Adelaide Transport System (MATS)’. This proposed modernist circuit of freeways  required major property acquisition, and it identified Bowden-Brompton as the potential site for the four-level spaghetti central freeway interchange with many flyovers. The inference from MATS  was that the residents were dispensable.

The acceptance of the MATS plan by the state Liberal government had resulted in the compulsory purchase by the Highways Department of over 300 houses. These houses were destroyed or allowed to fall into disrepair as the MATS plan was fought. The MATS plan was shelved by the Dunstan government in the 1970s, which had been elected on a policy that opposed the MATS plan. The proposed urban freeways became ‘transport corridors’, and the land and houses in Bowden was sold around 1980,  with much of the housing in Bowden-Brompton  being annexed by industry.

The events in Bowden in the 1980s were the genesis of a long ongoing process of the decline of manufacturing and concurrent emergence of free market globalisation. The process of de-industrialization in Adelaide is one of the devastation of manufacturing and the working class, and the ending of a way of life. This can currently be seen in the closure of the car industry at Elizabeth in 2017. South Australia becomes part of the left-behind parts of the country, with its closed shops, unemployment,  and a working class future in a deindustrialized zone of casual labour, flexible contracts, and an invasive surveillance regime.  A disquiet in the working class heartlands about where the country was heading after  de-industrialization.  


My experience of Bowden was that it was an industrial suburb like Richmond and Fitzroy in Melbourne where I’d previously lived, but without the bluestone cottages. The residential architecture in Bowden prior to its recent gentrification consisted of cheaply built working class cottages. They were dark inside, full of salt damp during the winter and hothouses in the summer. This housing had no insulation, and there were few street trees to provide some shade from the summer heat. Bowden baked during Adelaide’s long hot summer. The fear of trees meant a massive razing of land to create a paved industrial urban scape.  

In the 1980s these cottages were still situated amongst plastics factory, three foundries,  building companies that specialised in building panels, warehouses, and delis. The suburb was dumpy and dingy,  the foundries were a very dirty, polluting industry.  A lot of the land in Brompton had been contaminated by industry. For instance, a toxic cocktail of chemicals was dumped into the old pug holes under the houses. Pug holes were dug for clay to build bricks, and then filled with rubbish from the various companies in the area. The toxic cocktail then spreads where there is groundwater. 

This was all known in the 1960s,  but nothing was done because  Bowden was not seen as a garden suburb. Adelaide was a garden city and Bowden was a hideous, deformed,  urban space.  A labyrinth. A more liveable urban area for residents was not part of the agenda of the old Hindmarsh Council, which was primarily interested in supporting business and industry, not the residents. The conflict between residents and government over industrial expansion only started to ease with the saving six cottages in Trembath St, and having them renovated for residents; new low income housing, and the emergence of cooperative housing with the Hindmarsh Housing co-operative.  

The convergence of community and government concerns in the late 1980s resulted in a rezoning the Hindmarsh council area as residential, noxious large scale industry being relocated, and the promotion of housing co-operatives. Parts of Bowden continued to be allocated to industry for the long term, whilst existing industry was allowed limited expansion in Brompton.

The cooperatives were initially set up to provide housing for people at risk of losing houses to industrial development. They were able to buy land to stop further industry expansion,  to start to green the area, and to develop housing for people who wanted to live co-operatively.

The emphasis on community was strong during the political activism in the early 1980s which saved Bowden-Brompton from becoming solely an industrial park. The fightback  for  the development of the housing co-operatives, and the urban renewal that reduced the industrial traffic,  and allowed people to walk the streets again. This was an urban renewal that involved the rebuilding and strengthening of the local community. 


The above is a reconstruction from my memories of the past based on the archival photographs of the local underbelly of modern Adelaide’s past  with its dread of a cold and broken future with its inequality, the decline of community, the loss of industry, and massive retrenchments in electricity and telecommunications. My interpretation of this reconstruction of my memories of Bowden is that there was a sense that I was living through the dark side of modernity. Adelaide was hit hard and South Australia was a rust bucket state. 

Place and urbanscape are centred on the person(al), and they are articulated differently in each case in a series of connections through our remembered/forgotten place-times. However, what happened in Bowden also happened across Australia: a process of de-industrialization with its stagnant wages, underfunded public services and uncertain futures as the manufacturing industries went to China. The process of de-industrialization was steadily causing the destruction of Australia’s manufacturing base in the oldest inner city-based plants, where little new investment had occurred. Industrial decline was the new order of things as the post war economic economic order unravelled. Victoria also became a rust bucket state.  

This structural change would result in a failing regional economy, rising blue collar unemployment, disappearing full time jobs, closed stores on the high streets,  marginalised young people and a growing realisation that the distant people who rule through globalized markets  simply do not give a dam about the social  costs of globalisation.

The result of the process of de-industrialization, which had started behind the recessions in the 1970s in South Australia, meant that the options for South Australia appeared stark: change or slowly decay into a rust bucket state. In the 1980s the de-industrialization in South Australia looked as if it was going to be a long,  protracted and painful experience and the working class was going to bear the brunt of these changes. The future of South Australia looked to be one of working class job losses, economic stagnation, poor job prospects for the working-class youth, poor educational qualifications, high illiteracy and innumeracy rates, increasing unemployment and poverty, and decreasing population as young people left the state for work in Melbourne and Sydney.

 If the MATS plan and industrial expansion in Bowden had been blocked by citizens, the economic forces of globalisation that were destroying South Australia’s tariff protected industry were too powerful to roll back. The pro-free market shift to an open economy meant that the older manufacturing industry that helped create industrial modernity was decamping to China.   

Adelaide continued to expand in the north and the south after 2000, and South Rd became the de facto North-South Corridor. The old non-stop north-south freeway of the MATS plan would be gradually built through constant upgrades to South Rd (tunnels and overpasses) over a long period of time. Personal mobility was still equated with motor vehicle use, and the car and suburbia, which have underpinned urban and transport planning for the past 40 years, continued to use the car as a central focus of urban planning. 

China emerged as the new superpower, its economy  boomed with low cost manufacturing it became Australia’s largest trading partner, and the mining states of Queensland and Western Australia became quarries.  Australia rolled in cash, Howard promised us that we would be comfortable and relaxed whilst starting the culture wars.  Then the global financial crisis happened in 2007-8.    


This reconstruction or reassembling of my experiences of time’s past from the various materials means that the different pieces of everyday life are now gathered into a single context with its common themes of emotions, memory,  history and place. Representing this everydayness in terms of cultural value is what commercial imagery would ignore, flatten and  dismiss. Cultural value means that the photography has benefit for people  in some way,  or engages them in some way regardless of whether it’s sellable.

These pictures of Bowden,  which are an unfashionable form of documentary photography, were made when South Australia’s industrial decline was underway. The fragments  highlight the industrial nature of Bowden before its urban renewal  and gentrification in the Ist decade of the 21st century. Bowden has been greened up, infilled with higher density housing, and spatially reinscribed as Bowden Village, which has gone hand in hand with modernising Adelaide’s CBD. These black and white pictures are fragments of the working class life in Bowden in the 1980s,  and they connect us to the  forgotten history of one of Adelaide’s  older industrial areas—an early rustbelt if you like.

It is through photography that we can establish a shared, collective memory with ourselves and others.  It places us outside of ourselves and our memory in much the same way that we are outside of, but a part of our another person’s memory. If photographs allow us to glimpse intimacies and situations beyond our recollection, then hopefully, the Bowden photos can be memory aides that help to awaken the stories of the darkly, haunting past of industrial Adelaide that sleep in the streets and lie folded up inside thimble like fragments. 

Hopefully, these photographs will provide a space for people to remember their emotional relationships to the 1980s turning point in Adelaide’s history, and to reconstruct their stories about their experiences of the global forces that are now shaping, ordering and confining Adelaide’s future, as well as that of Australia.