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Future Fremantle: a Personal View

Kenneth McPherson, Fremantle, Fremantle Society Newsletter, vol. 8 no. 4, 1980.

When I was growing up in Fremantle in the 1950s and 1960s the city has a distinctive ethos which very clearly set it apart from the rest of the sprawling Metropolitan Region. My overwhelming childhood image of the city centres upon the harbour; passenger liners and cargo vessels were part of our lives particularly as so many of us were first generation migrants. The Italian-dominated fishing harbour reinforced our sense of the sea and all the people I knew, from wharfies to shopkeepers, from priests to spivs, were somehow integral parts of a distinctive and localised society which had evolved around the port.

As a teenager in the city my first ventures in life, with a capital L, took place in polyglot pubs and seedy clubs the like of which are found in port cities the world over, and which were regarded with some fears and horror by inhabitants from across the river.

I returned to Fremantle in the late 70's to find much of the old character gone. Many of the migrants had prospered and moved on leaving South and North Fremantle strangely lifeless; the harbour was still; the Oriana and Princess Theatres were gone and the seedy fascinating pubs were being ruthlessly modernised, renovated and otherwise neutralised.

Worse still I found myself a social outsider. A new wave of migrants had settled, refugees from the boredom of Cottesloe, Mount Lawley, Melville and the general sprawl of Perth. They bewailed the concrete mania of the Italians and Slavs, furiously restored and innocently compounded the decimation of the old population by buying up and out so many of the grotty old houses which had sheltered all those funny old men and women of my childhood.

Certainly the new wave have achieved much. Fremantle is now probably one of the best preserved nineteenth century port cities in the world and its working class houses have achieved a fate and style which would have astonished their original inhabitants. But what of the old spirit, the old feeling of the city? The harbour and sea no longer dominate life- Passenger liners and the excitement of their arrival seem as remote as Noddy in Toyland - and increasingly the city has assumed'the character of a quaint suburb of Perth.

Much of this was no doubt inevitable. The decline of the harbour, the eclipse of the small shopowners, the arrival of new inhabitants who work outside Fremantle have all contributed to the passing of a self-generating lifestyle and distinctive character in the city.

I recognise that the old Fremantle cannot be revived, but what of the future? Is the city doomed to be the first suburban museum in the West - a surrogate Paddington? Obviously I hope not and rather optimistically I see a few positive signs. The Markets offer some the opportunity to step outside their routine careers, though I suspect the presence of Perth-based "multinationals''; the Arts Centre and Maritime Museum complex potentially offer us scope to broaden our life style and perceptions, but what else? Very little I'm afraid at the moment.

Perhaps the Fremantle Society is groping towards a recognition that the existing city structure offers a chance for a distiictive and more fulfilling life-style, but how to breathe life back into the city?

My view of the solution is biased by my professional interests as a historian and, I hasten to add, is only part of the answer. But perhaps it could be a start.

During 1979 W.A., read Perth, hosted two major international events : the International Conference on Indian Ocean Studies and the Indian Ocean Arts Festival. The first attracted 100 academics from a variety of disciplines and countries around the Indian Ocean, the second attracted well over 200 artists from the same circle of nations.

Both events were enormously successful and have generated a variety of plans for repeat performances in Perth as the delegates and the international sponsors recognised that W.A. was the ideal site for Indian Ocean regional gatherings.

I was involved in the organisation of both these events and am delighted that we have a future in the area, but why Perth and not Fremantle? Why not restore some of the old international character of the port, why not give it a new purpose and vitality which will keep back the creeping tide of suburbia? The International Conference on Indian Ocean Studies hopes to turn itself into a multi-disciplinary international research and teaching institute - perhaps one of the fine old derelict buildings in Fremantle? The Arts Festival wants to come back to W.A. - Perth already has its Festival, let us have ours.

We have buildings vacant; we have a highly educated, interested and articulate local community; we have a concerned Council - do I hear any offers?


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