Looking after each other – then and now
3rd Space Activities Coordinator (and Westfield Local Hero!) Jules Ramsay reflects on our recent Valley history project in a special edition of The Fireside.
When I was first given the task of putting together a Fortitude Valley history project, I really had no idea where to start. I had only been stomping around the Valley since the early 1980s and didn’t feel I was old enough to do justice to an area with such a long and colourful history.
Regardless, with my 3rd Space hat on and with the support of my wingman Richard (who had only really experienced the Valley in clubs and pubs!), I started by looking at the services that had been in and around the area during the last 100 years or so taking care of people who were marginalised by homelessness, poverty or both.
However, it didn’t take me long to realise that while there has been a respectable history of services organisations in our community, it was actually the tightknit family businesses and local residents that provided the real sense of community our vulnerable folk were searching for.
Services in summary
There have always been ‘essential services’ in Fortitude Valley that have helped those experiencing difficulties with day-to-day costs such as food and clothing. Our featured photo clearly shows hundreds of people lining up behind McWhirters in Warner Street waiting to receive free lunch in December 1933, during the Great Depression.
These basic services are still very much part of the Valley structure but have expanded over time to adapt to contemporary social challenges. We now see a dedicated service for Brisbane’s youth sector, services designed for those experiencing mental-health issues, specific services for tenancy issues, disabilities services and so on. The reach now touches so many more people, aiming to provide the best and most appropriate service for our vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Two to the Valley
Services aside, we discovered that from the early 1900s to the 1960s, Fortitude Valley was the hub of business and retail. It boasted several large department stores within a small radius of each other that all prospered in a strong economy.
Post WWII, however, saw a sharp decline in Fortitude Valley’s stable population and a shift in the social and economic composition of the area. Working-class families of the first half of the 1900s were replaced by: newly arrived immigrant families trying to find work and a place to settle, people deinstitutionalised during the 1970s, single-parent families and a growing population of ageing singles. There were also many country visitors who came to the city and surrounding areas in search of employment.
During this period of change, public houses (and some businesses if the opportunity arose) rented their top-floor rooms for a modest fee to cope with the demand for affordable inner city accommodation – which was becoming increasingly scarce (sound familiar?).
As the Valley economy starting declining in the 1970s, the area became firmly linked to the poor, disadvantaged and socially excluded. By then it had also become home to those dabbling in alternative music and lifestyles. It was a place that attracted people wanting to avoid ‘the norm’ and local public spaces became increasingly and visibly the domain of those not wanted elsewhere. Eccentric behaviour and bizarre dress were an accepted part of the community and it was during this period that the Valley, with its red light and nightclub areas, started to gain notoriety for its more vibrant and darker side. This very much remained the case until the late 1980s, when the area was closely examined and identified by state and local governments as a prime site for urban renewal.
With progress came a new set of significant changes to the local demographic. From 1990, the Valley’s gentrification meant that affordable housing became a thing of the past. Rising rents – for both residential and commercial buildings – meant that the area was becoming out of reach for many residents, while the essential services that had been involved in assisting those most vulnerable struggled to keep their doors open. After numerous hours of roundtable discussion with concerned stakeholders from every sector, it became apparent that alongside plans for renewal, consideration had to be given to the very real need for essential services and affordable housing in the Valley area.
However, from my personal observations, research and anecdotal information from long-time residents and business owners, it was more of a lose/lose situation for the Valley’s most vulnerable residents.
It takes a village
What remained consistent through the mid to late 1900s, despite all the demographic changes, was the Valley’s ‘small village feel.’ This was mainly due to the many immigrant families that had settled in Fortitude Valley and the neighbouring suburbs of New Farm and Newstead. Understanding only too well how it felt to be considered ‘outsiders,’ they started their own businesses and brought with them a sense of community and diversity that enriched the area through developing a real sense of belonging.
Their resilience and strength as a community meant that they were able to ride out the highs and lows of a fluctuating economy. Despite the decline in commercial enterprises and a decreasing population, these business owners were not only able to survive but continued to provide the support that their customers had come to depend on.
During the urban renewal, there was also increased pressure to ‘clean up’ the Valley and to move on those who were considered homeless. Many business owners at the time were not only aware of the Valley’s homeless population, they were supportive of their right to be there and acknowledged them as part of the community. Local business owners often advocated on behalf of marginalised people who were being questioned or harassed and effectively challenged official ideas about who should use Fortitude Valley’s public spaces.
What became apparent from very early on in our research was that anyone who spent much time in the area before the urban renewal, had the same feeling about it. It was a place where you could be yourself. It didn’t matter what walk of life you were from, you would always fit in. The family restaurants and cafés were not only somewhere you could go and have a great meal, they were ‘home’. For some, this was the only ‘home’ they had.
Many years later, 3rd Space is arguably Fortitude Valley’s last remaining ‘home’ to Brisbane’s homeless and marginalised. We stand as a homage to Valley days gone by and are committed to taking care of our ‘small village’ for many years to come.
3rd Space Activities Coordinator