30 May 2016

Stop the Rot at Boggo Road

Are you concerned about protecting the heritage and history of the Boggo Road heritage prison?

I am. I've devoted a big chunk of my life to the old place, as a labour of love without financial reward.*

There has been some recent debate about whether people should support or oppose plans for the future of Boggo Road. The best approach to this is to step back and look at the big picture.

Unfortunately, what we see is that the old prison buildings are dying a slow death. Ever since it closed as a working prison 27 years ago, Boggo Road has been in gradual decline.

There are no plans to demolish original red-brick 1903 buildings such as the cellblocks, but they have visibly decayed over the decades. Rust is eating metal, brickwork is weakening, gutters are collapsing, wood is rotting, invasive plants are spreading, and paint is peeling away.

Paint peeling in a Boggo Road cell, 2012. (M Wilson)
Plants growing into brickwork, Boggo Road, 2012 (C Dawson)
Inside an old office room, Boggo Road, 2012 (M Wilson)

New money is needed to fix this

The immediate problem is that, in a time of spending cuts across Australian society, there is insufficient public funding available to preserve Boggo Road into the future. The government can provide some, but only so much.

And although the prison has been used for occasional tours and functions since the 1990s, these activities have never raised anywhere near enough money to look after Boggo Road properly. As they stand now, the buildings are badly underused. Most of the time they are empty and dead.

New money is needed to save Boggo Road. This is the reality of the situation and it needs to be faced up to. If we continue with the same old failed approach, it is only a matter of time before the decay of the heritage prison gets past the point of no return.

As the most recent heritage report on Boggo Road, written by one of Queensland’s leading heritage architects, warned us:
‘Without adaptive re-use of the site there is little prospect of maintaining the cultural heritage significance of the place. The buildings are currently vacant apart from a limited use by a private tour operator. Unless the place is adaptively re-used, at least in part, the site will continue to degrade and ongoing maintenance will be further minimised.’

It is time to bring Boggo Road back to life

To protect the future of Boggo Road, we need a brand new way to attract thousands more people to discover its history, appreciate its unique heritage qualities, and contribute to saving the buildings.

But how can we re-use Boggo Road in a way that has a strong focus on history and generates substantial revenue to help protect it into the future?

The answer is to create a brilliant new heritage, arts and dining hub at the old prison. One that retains the old buildings and is home to new exhibitions, educational tours, drama and music activities and events, community meeting spaces, history research facilities, and top-class dining and coffee venues.

A place that is always alive with a constant stream of visitors, where things are always happening, each day and night. A place that becomes one of Brisbane’s very best cultural destinations.

Some of Brisbane’s leading history, visual arts, drama and music organisations formed the Boggo Arts and Heritage Alliance and have already been developing plans for just such a centre for over two years. Working closely with other stakeholders, the vision of a thriving cultural hub at Boggo is now very achievable.

The official Boggo Road development plans put forward by Calile Malouf Investments Pty. Ltd in October 2015 come close to enabling that vision. Those plans include refurbishment of the decaying parts of the old prison. They also include adapting some internal spaces for re-use.

The main compromise is that some of the 126 cells inside two of the three cellblocks would be modified to create larger rooms and the spaces needed for sustainable community, dining, arts and heritage facilities. The third cellblock would be left as it is and used exclusively for History and education. The clear assessment of heritage professionals is that the cultural significance of Boggo Road would be retained, and that new works would be carried out in a reversible manner.

Evidence suggests that some of the opposition to the plans is disingenuous and based on stakeholders trying to protect their own financial interests. However, I understand how some people can have genuine concerns about these changes. I know where they are coming from. I too wish modifications weren’t necessary. But the big picture cannot be ignored. This is the only viable plan there is to fix and sustainably protect the physical heritage of Boggo Road into the long-term future.

To just carry on under-using the place - as is happening now - is not an option. It has been over ten years since the prison was fully open to the public. Another ten years like that and the place will continue to slowly rot away. And the huge educational potential of this unique heritage site will continue to be wasted.

So if you are genuinely concerned about protecting the heritage and history of Boggo Road, remember that the current plans have two massive benefits:

  • PROTECT HERITAGE: A sustainable way to raise revenue needed to fix and protect the heritage of the old prison buildings for generations to come.
  • PROMOTE HISTORY: More people than ever before will discover the history of Boggo Road, and in exciting new ways.

While they might not be perfect, the proposals do present a very rare opportunity to create and fund a brilliant new heritage venue for Queensland.

On balance, I think that is an opportunity that we should be brave and forward-thinking enough to take while we can.

Chris Dawson, MPHA (Qld)
May 2016

*  I am a professional historian; former councillor of the National Trust of Qld; founder and committee member of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society (Inc.); author of 14 publications on prison history; the curator of the Boggo Road Gaol Museum; and currently serve on the managing committees of the Boggo Arts and Heritage Alliance, the Brisbane Southside History Network, and the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery. I have also been closely involved in the Boggo Road planning process since it began well over a decade ago, and has met extensively with other stakeholders and decision makers during that time.

23 May 2016

The South Will Rise Again: Rebels of the 4077th

There was a big kerfuffle in the centre of Brisbane last month when a Vietnamese restaurant called 'Uncle Ho' - a nickname for Ho Chi Minh, founder of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam - was the target of over 100 passionate protestors from Brisbane's Vietnamese community. They were angry about the seemingly affectionate reference to a man they see as a mass-murdering dictator, and things got ugly very quickly. The restaurant closed its doors after allegedly receiving death threats, and the (Swedish) owner has said she will be changing its name to something less 'controversial'.

The passion on display might have surprised many Brisbanites, but it came as no shock for those of us living in the heartland of 'Vietnamese Brisbane'. I have written before on the huge influence that Vietnamese refugees have had on the Inala/Darra/Durack/Richlands area south of Brisbane (mostly in the 4077 postcode area), noting the strong political undercurrent in these communities, which were established by people who fled their own war-ravaged country after the victory of Ho Chi Minh's forces in 1975. Communism and Uncle Ho are dirty words here.

While the Vietnamese of Brisbane are firmly settled here - compared to other migrant groups, the returnee rate to Vietnam is very low - and have integrated themselves into Australian society, taking advantage of all that the country has to offer, this is essentially a cultural community that has managed to recreate itself in another land. There is almost a sense of a 'country in exile'. The numerous third-generation families tend to stay in this area, which has become the most concentrated Vietnamese community in Australia, outside of Cabramatta in Sydney. The maps below - based on the 2011 census - shows the top-ranking immigrant birthplace for southern Brisbane suburbs, and the solid pink block from Pallara to Darra reveals the extent of Vietnamese settlement in the local area. Remember that this shows percentages by birthplace, and does not account for second-generation Vietnamese households.


The percentages (SBS).

Living within such a strong cultural base has allowed people to maintain old ways and pass them on to new generations. These include language, religious practices, clothing, food, cultural days in the calender, and a distinct perspective on history. Important organisations within the community include the Vietnamese Seniors Association Queensland, the Vietnamese Community Australia Queensland chapter, and the Vietnamese Veterans Association. There is a weekly Vietnamese-language newspaper, SS Tuan Bao, and Saturday School is a big thing here, when otherwise-empty State schools are hired out on Saturday mornings and children are schooled in Vietnamese culture and history. The days begin with a rousing rendition of the anthem of the old South Vietnam played over the loudspeakers. Then there is the Inala Civic Centre outdoor shopping area, effectively a 'Little Saigon' with around 80 Vietnamese-owned shops. 

This 'cultural enclave' has also enabled the survival of old political allegiances and grievances over the past 40 years. One thing you see a lot of around the local suburbs is the 'Heritage and Freedom Flag', which is the national flag of the former 'Republic of Vietnam', i.e. the old South Vietnam. The flag turns up outside Buddhist temples, local military memorials, primary school halls, on ANZAC Day, and at major cultural festivals such as Tet. It was also very prominent at the political protests outside the 'Uncle Ho' restaurant, The flag has become a symbol of defiance to the communist regime in the old country, in a similar (though less offensive) manner to the retention of Confederate symbology in the southern USA. The message is that 'we are still here and the South will rise again'.

In my experience, the local Vietnamese-Australian community is rarely involved in political protests, so the 'Uncle Ho' restaurant incident shows how deeply feelings run on that subject. I have also learned that North Vietnamese people are rarely welcome here. My wife once worked with a student from Vietnam who ended up migrating and moving to a house a few streets away from us. She received an unfriendly welcome from the local 'South Vietnamese' community that led to her moving away to another suburb. A friend of mine (who really should have known better) visited the Inala Civic Centre wearing a Ho Chi Minh t-shirt he had bought during a recent trip to Vietnam and found himself subject to a series of withering looks and clearly-hostile comments in Vietnamese from a few elderly people, wagging their fingers or shaking their heads at him.

It is now over 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War. It will be quite a few decades yet before the last of the younger refugees from that conflict have passed away. Until then, the Heritage and Freedom Flag will continue to have deep cultural meaning for Vietnamese-Australia communities. However, it is inevitable that as time passes, those communities will gradually dilute as people move away, memories of the war become less personal, and cultural wounds heal. Who knows, Vietnam itself might no longer have a communist government. As all Buddhists know, nothing lasts forever.

Wreaths laid on the 40th Anniversary of the 'Fall of Saigon' Day of Mourning, Freedom Place, Inala, 2015. (Milton Dick)

Brisbane 40th anniversary commemoration of the Fall of Saigon, 2015. (Newsbytes)

Procession at the annual Vietnamese Martyrs Mass at the Vietnamese Catholic Community Centre in Inala. (Catholic Leader)

Freedom Place, Inala, 2016. (C Dawson)

The Freedom Flag flies outside the Phap Quang Temple, Durack. (www.quangdoc.com)

Procession outside the Phap Quang Temple, Durack. (www.quangdoc.com)

The yellow flag with three red stripes was first used as the national flag of Vietnam during 1890-1920, and of South Vietnam during 1955-75. The stripes represent the three main regions of Vietnam - north, central and south. It is now illegal to fly this flag in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

19 May 2016

15 May 2016

Thoughts on the Boggo Road Redevelopment

The planning process for the Boggo Road redevelopment rolls ever onward, with the Draft Application currently still under bureaucratic consideration, and a formal public consultation process yet to begin.

If you are unaware of what has been proposed, the plans can be viewed here (on page 7). A summary can be read here. Basically, the original cellblocks and associated buildings from 1903 will be staying in place and used for a mix of heritage and hospitality (and hopefully arts events), while the newer 1980s structures in the north-east corner will be removed to make way for a market and green spaces.

A variety of opinions have been expressed about these plans, on a spectrum that ranges from 'knock it all down' to 'leave it as it is'. The final outcome will of course fall somewhere in between. I have made my own opinions on this subject known before (as in 'The Case For a Boggo Road Cultural Hub'), and I think that the proposals come close to striking the right balance between supporting heritage and community interests, while enabling commercial ventures that will generate revenue required to look after the old prison.

That is something that has never been achieved at Boggo Road before.

The long-term financial sustainability of the heritage prison is a key consideration. I've said this before, but it really needs to be emphasised: Right now, no level of government is going to provide the ongoing funding needed to maintain the heritage buildings into the future. I really wish that funding was available, but in the absence of a historian-led armed revolution, it just isn't. I've been very closely involved with this process since it started well over a decade ago, and the battle for full government funding was lost by 2010. That is the Realpolitik of the situation and one we have to work with. And it also means that if things go on like this, Boggo Road will be left to slowly decay until it is so bad that it is just knocked down. The money needed to save it as a viable heritage site has to come from somewhere.

This fact was also noted by heritage architect Dr Ruth Woods in her Heritage Impact Assessment for Boggo Road (June 2015):
‘Without adaptive re-use of the site there is little prospect of maintaining the cultural heritage significance of the place. The buildings are currently vacant apart from a limited use by a private tour operator. Unless the place is adaptively re-used, at least in part, the site will continue to degrade and ongoing maintenance will be further minimised.’
That is all very well, but what kind of 're-use' is planned? For a start, the eastern side of the heritage prison grounds would be home to a new market, community spaces, and retail and dining venues. This would require the demolition of some of the newer (1980s) parts of the prison, some of which is low-significance and already derelict. Much of the remainder (the high-significance area) is earmarked for heritage, event and community purposes. I have been working with the Boggo Arts & Heritage Alliance for some time now on plans to create an arts and heritage centre at the old prison, incorporating improved (and respectful) historical interpretation, a full programme of cultural and community activities, and attractive hospitality and arts facilities. These activities would value-add to each other and transform Boggo Road from what is now mostly functionally 'dead' space into a thriving, living hub that becomes a drawcard for both local and international cultural tourism and also generates much-needed money to help fund ongoing heritage projects there.

And, for the first time since the closure of the prison in 1989, a significant number of new jobs will be created at the site.

The creation of a successful heritage/arts/hospitality hub would require limited changes to some buildings. This is not ideal, but allowing such works is an acceptable compromise if the plans are right. The only alternative is continued stagnation for years to come. Dr Woods' professional assessment is that the proposed re-use would RETAIN the cultural significance of the place, and that the appearance and character of the existing major heritage fabric would be preserved. She also notes that the new works would be reversible (with removed material being stored onsite).

When it comes to structural changes, it is of course a question of balance. My major concern is that Boggo Road should be perceived primarily as a heritage site with attractive dining facilities, as opposed being seen as a dining venue within a heritage setting. The History needs to remain front and centre. This means actively using a significant proportion of the space there for heritage and community activities. Although the proposals come close to achieving the required balance, I suggest that the following tweaks would help to get it right.

The cellblocks 
There are three original cellblocks at Boggo Road; D, E and F Wings. Planning permission has been sought to internally adapt both D and E Wings for use as restaurants, although I understand that E Wing would not be used as such (yet). F Wing has been set aside as a heritage space.

I believe that E Wing should be adapted for use as a flexible arts, heritage and community space. This would involve the removal of selected cell walls (and storing all removed material) to create a varied range of spaces for use as offices and 'hot desks', individual art studio spaces, storage facilities, possibly some small gallery and exhibition space, information booth, art sales booths, and ‘pop-up’ retail spaces. There are plenty of other areas in and around the prison to be used as food and drink venues, and using two out of three cellblocks for the same purpose would make Boggo Road less of a heritage site than if only one was used that way.

As F Wing will be the only cellblock left ‘as is’ (internally), it should be left as intact as possible, beyond necessary safety and maintenance upgrades. In this context, the proposed new entrance from a side yard via a cell wall seems to be unnecessary and intrusive. The historical integrity of this cellblock would be better preserved if access is provided via a discrete (possibly portable) ramp at the front door.

The issue of cell graffiti has been raised, but I have no problem with the removal of that graffiti because, for a start, most of it has recently been identified as being fake - i.e. produced after the closure of the prison - and it has already been extensively recorded. Perhaps more importantly, the cell-wall paint beneath it has deteriorated badly and is now a health hazard.

I'd also suggest that 2 Yard, adjacent to E Wing, be retained for use as a flexible outdoor arts/heritage area. Under the current proposals, only a minority of the exercise yards will be preserved ‘as is’, with some being used as alfresco dining areas or an events and function venue. 2 Yard would provide valuable extra space for identified heritage and arts activities.

Successful 'urban villages' are not as easy to create as you might think. The old prison is an ideal place to host a thriving level of genuine community activity, with people coming together in recreational and hospitality spaces. Overall, I think the proposals (with the above amendments) are an innovative 21st-century solution to the heritage funding problem. The challenge is to work within the 're-use' parameters and treat this as a very rare opportunity to create a genuinely exciting new venue. The Boggo Arts & Heritage Alliance has highly-qualified and experienced people on board from the fields of history, visual arts, drama and music, who can work together with other stakeholders to finally bring Boggo Road to life, and enhance Brisbane for residents and visitors.

Have your say on the Boggo plans here

(The above opinions are my own and not necessarily those of any organisation that I am associated with).