What's Wrong With Elizabeth? Jimmy Barnes Is Right!
I used to be embarrassed to tell people that I grew up in Elizabeth. There was a very valid reason for this. If I told people I grew up in Elizabeth they’d automatically ask me if I was a feral, a drug addict, a criminal or all of the above, such is the reputation of the suburb. They still ask that now. Even worse I grew up in Elizabeth Downs, or merely The Downs to those who know. I spent the first eighteen years of my life there and I’ll freely admit that, although I look back on those years with some fondness, I’d never move back there. In fact if I have my way I’ll never move further north than Gepps Cross, if that. You couldn’t pay me enough to live back in The Downs as it exisits today.
It wasn’t always like that though. Growing up I felt a degree of safety in all of Elizabeth, especially The Downs. There were a lot of rough people there, some real hard men and a lot of crime. It wasn’t unusual to see acts of violence in the streets or on the various ovals, but I always felt safe. I can vividly recall being chased once by some skinheads from Elizabeth Park – the first time I ran to a house, knocked on the door and was taken in and driven home by total strangers. Such was the protection. The second time the skinheads caught me beat me and stole my pushbike. I came home, crying, to find my family angry. They gathered a few neighbours and friends and, without going into savage detail, I got my bike back and from then onwards I was fairly safe going into The Parks. I rarely did though.
In the 1970s there was a lot to do in Elizabeth. There was a cinema, where I saw movies like the Star Wars trilogy, An American Werewolf In London and Greystoke. There were two theatres, the Shedley and the Octagon (the latter so named because it was shaped like an octagon – go figure). During the early 1980s the Shedley was host to a series of movies from the early days of cinema. I’d walk down to the Shedley on a Sunday night (usually winter) and then walk home at about 9 or 10pm. I used to worry more about the sound of the wind in the trees (a sound that’s always spooked me) than anything, or anyone, else.
There was a roller skating rink. I learnt to skate there and I attended more than roller disco. Laugh all you want but such events were big in Elizabeth in 1979 and 1980 (I’d always dance to I Was Made For Lovin’ You, but then so did the rest of Elizabeth – Kiss were huge). We had a billiards hall with some great video games. Pac Man, Galaxian, Defender – we had them all and enjoyed them. The same games were at the local deli as well, which were run by two of the nicest guys I ever met - Tony and Pete. Those two were inviting, never angry at anyone (well, not that I saw) and were more helpful than the bulk of the staff I see these days. There was also a bowling alley, a swimming pool of sizable proportions. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were everywhere. Even I was a Cub Scout and I trod the boards at the Shedley in two Gang Shows. We had bike tracks – people from Elizabeth in the ‘70s will remember Uley Farm and the Olive Grove with fondness. I used to buy comic books from the Elizabeth South second hand shop and then sit under an olive tree at the Olive Grove and read them. Warm, windy days and days to remember. I'd ride my bike or walk from our house to the City Centre to buy ex-library books on a Saturday morning. For some reason I remember those days as being cold and wet, but I didn't care. At 10 cents per books, with extra thrown in because the librarians were always encouraging me to read, it was a bargain. We had mini-fairs that’d visit about twice a year. School fetes were the norm, not the exception. In short there was a lot to do and almost all of it was positive.
In the early 1980s things began to happen. The billiards hall was first to fall when the Elizabeth City Centre was renovated. The cinema was shut down. The skating rink was replaced by a Pizza Hut and a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop. Things closed down and went to ruin. There was nothing to do but to sit and ponder the days and wonder what was next. If you didn’t work at Holdens then you were unemployed – those were the options. The dole or Holdens. I kid you not. In year 12, just as I was finishing school, we were offered 'future guidance counselling'. The advice given to me was to either apply for a job at Holdens or learn to fill out a dole form. When I said that I'd had a vision of becoming a writer and being published before I was 40 the laughter was incredible. I was then told not to bother with useless pipe-dreams. Now I'm a writer with my published book before the age of 40 so those people can go hang. Then something more sinister else came in that changed things dramatically – drugs.
Drugs weren’t anything new in Elizabeth. I can always remember there being drugs. Indeed I took more than a few but I only ever dabbled. I’m no saint but I had enough sense to know where that road took me and I saw more than one person who took their hits who laid down to never get up. With increased boredom came more drugs and with drugs came higher crime rates. To be totally honest things came down to this – you’d sit around, take your drugs, think about how you would supplement your income (ie: what house/shop you wanted to break into, what car to steal) and round the night off with unprotected sex. Sounds fun? Trust me, it isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Most people didn’t care enough about the consequences of sex to bother about things like pregnancy or disease. Indeed there's an old expression, 'like father like son', that's very apt for Elizabeth. Kids would grow up seeing their parents in loveless marriages and insisting that they'll never turn out like that. The cars fall off the rails and before they know it they're working at Holdens, married with kids and wondering how the hell they ended up like their parents and wondering where their dreams went, if indeed they ever had any. Things had changed by my sixteenth year. There were two ways to go – either down the road of the druggies or out of the suburb. I began to think of other places that I’d rather be living in. Dreams.
So why the crime and drugs? Because some idiot MP decided that commerce and progress should take the place of leisure activities. That’s it in a nutshell for me. Once I left I never looked back, but in 2004 I started to revisit the place to take some photographs. What I saw made me cry on more than one occasion. The house where I grew up in, a house that was always well kept and proud, was now run down and resembled a hillbilly shack. The Downs shops, once a vital and exciting hub, was all but deserted and so run down that people who’d never seen it thought it was decrepit and run down. The Elizabeth Town Centre, once open and free, is now an industrial shopping centre, all concrete and steel, enclosed and artificial, cold and uninviting - a complex designed by committee. The rich, green, lush open areas are now housing estates. Parks are gone and those that remain are in such a state of disrepair that they might as well be. A lack of long term vision has seen the suburb fall into ruin. If it faces a main road then it’ll be fixed up and polished. The drugs are still there, the crime is worse than ever and the problems, the violence, both domestic and otherwise, is higher than anywhere else. Sadly these are the things that the government has failed to see or recognise over the last few decades. When someone such as Barnes speaks out they're instantly attacked and asked that they put their money where their mouths are. That’s not for the general public to to do. The elected members are there to do that. Instead of attacking people with valid viewpoints they should be encouraging them, having think-tanks and seeing what can be done with the view of growing the area, attempting to eliminate crime and drugs and sustaining housing. I know that there's a Playford think tank now happening. This time it'd be good to see suggestions acted upon instead of just seeing a lot of lip service. And instead of inviting 'experts' from around the world look in your own backyard. If you look beyond gather people who used to live there and invite them in - hey - I'd be part of it in a second. I've got some great ideas in the area of housing and recreation.
Elizabeth was designed to be a self-contained suburb. It was planned, built and then all but abandoned by the state government. Even now it’s a joke. It’s time, time that’s long overdue for the government to stop sitting there with their heads in the sand and start listening to people who might be able to help.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that I come from Elizabeth Downs, but I am embarrassed to visit the place now. I lived there for 18 of my years but I’d not live there now. I’d be more than happy to take any MP out for a drive through my Elizabeth and offer some suggestions on what can be done to improve the place and bring it back to the jewel that it once was. Perhaps if it were improved then more people would not only visit but want to stay there. More people might want to move back in. The trick is not only to design programs that work, but also to stick around and make sure they continue working for long into the future. As it is if the Holdens plant ever closes then there'll be such an economic and socioeconomic blow to the suburb that it may never recover and just slide into the slum that it's rapidly becoming.
Time for the state government to now put up or shut up. Stop passing the buck and hoping that this'll all just blow over, like the last time Barnes opened his mouth. However I fear that the latter will happen faster than the former.