Perth CBD trades sterile for exciting

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Beachgoers board a canoe at a Perth beach

King St in Perth’s CBD is no grand boulevard. It’s short, narrow and inconspicuous. But it’s got what folk flock to the exclusive Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich or Bond Street in London for, but without the bustle.

King St has Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany plus many more of the usual luxury retailers, all housed in modest two-storey buildings with immaculately restored facades.

Yet directly opposite the Chanel store, Wolf Lane leads away from the glitz and I enter a different world: bare bricks and concrete walls; graffiti and murals; rows of garbage bins; grit and grime. This lane has become an attraction, with cafes and trendy bars such as Wolf LaneBar de Halcyon and Cheeky Sparrow luring people into Perth’s underbelly.

Meanwhile, off James St, the main drag of neighbouring Northbridge, people face a similar sight: urban neglect, unattractive commercial purpose. Yet they venture there because among the ugliness is an anonymous grey steel door with a tiny window, like a prison cell. With the password – available on Facebook and changed every day – through this door you’ll enter Sneaky Tony’s. It is a rum bar where a dark saloon-like interior and bluesy music create a cosy habitat.

Back outside, in a narrow lane that branches off William St, two musicians perform for a handful of spectators. It is alternative for sure, scruffy yet creative, an antithesis to the dominance of Perth’s sterile commercial architecture.

These are just some examples of how, among Perth’s monuments of corporate wealth and power, beats the heart of a real city. It gives Western Australia’s capital its urban depth, one it didn’t always have. Until recently, the CBD of Perth was sterile, boring, dead at night. Then it morphed from provincial to exciting. What happened?

According to Ryan Mosley, a Canadian who has brought his entrepreneurial streak to Australia’s most isolated city, it’s the result of people power. “There are many like myself,” he says, “who moved here from other places and they realised this is a wonderful place to live but it was sort of missing some certain things. These people essentially voted with their feet and demanded that there be unique small venues, quality restaurants and great places to stay in the city.”

Ryan, who’s been in Perth for seven years, has made Perth’s narrow laneways, hidden secrets and especially its watering holes his business. His company Two Feet & A Heartbeat takes visitors on walks through the CBD. He, as with many people in Perth, is wallowing in the benefits of the mining boom. “The vast majority of economic activity happens in the state’s north-west, and royalties from mining have gone into the government pockets. But Perth, where the big chunk of the population lives, is getting the benefits in terms of infrastructure development and improvements to the local area. The other side of it is that people in the mining industry have money to spend in bars, in restaurants, on bringing their missus to a hotel in the city.”

From the Rooftop Cinema in Northbridge, a temporary summer installation on top of a multi-storey car park, movie lovers can not only watch films in an alfresco setting but also get a stunning view towards the city. At the moment, however, the view is dominated by one of Perth’s biggest construction sites, the City Link Project. Once the urban renewal project is finished it will reconnect Perth with Northbridge, currently separated by a wide corridor of railway tracks. This, and the massive Elizabeth Quay development on the other side of the city, on the shores of the Swan River, are representing the big, ambitious and obvious changes that are happening in Perth. It is usually in times of prosperity that cities get shaped in a lasting way, with bold designs and architectural statements such as the new Perth Arena or the planned opera house. The other major change, the revitalisation of the Perth CBD, was more subtle and only really kicked off when law-makers got involved.

“The major chance that took place”, explains Ryan Mosley, “was the deregulation of liquor licensing. A new classification was a small bar licence and there’s been a huge uptake of them, and the dynamic inside them is much different. In the city centre we’ve gone from two or three small bars to close to 30 now.”

A few years ago, office workers would spill onto the streets after work and disappear to suburbia. Now they stay and play, even during the week. So a Thursday night is as good as any for Ryan’s tour, which starts at Helvetica, a bar known for its excellent single malt whisky collection. Helvetica hides in narrow Howard St, where graffiti artist Stormie Mills has left his mark here – commissioned, of course. A scooter is parked on the cobblestoned lane, like a piece of urban art installation. The bar is pumping. Not far from Howard St, at the Brookfield Place development off St Georges Tce, several bars compete for attention. All bars are packed and the noise is incredible. Conversations are shouting matches. You get the impression Perth parties as if there is no tomorrow. And it is not even the weekend yet!

In the Cultural Precinct of Perth, just on the other side of the railway station, I stumble across the Urban Orchard, with garden beds and fruit trees. You can pick a peach off the tree or grab some herbs. And every now and then the orchard is transformed into a beer garden or a pop-up bar. The human element has been re-introduced into the concrete jungle.

Perth’s suburbs seriously feel the new competition. So they have had to start clawing back customers. Cottesloe, with its iconic beach, will always be trendy. A beer at the Cottesloe Hotel or a meal at the Cotts & Co Fish Bar is almost a must.

Further down, in North Fremantle, where Perth’s beachside suburbs peter out into a container port landscape, I have breakfast at Bib & Tucker, gazing out to distant Rottnest Island, floating like a mirage in the Indian Ocean.

Fremantle had its construction boom in the wake of its America’s Cup heyday in the 1980s, so for a fresher take on inner Perth, I try a Sunday excursion into the inner-north suburbs of Mt Lawley and Highgate. The Beaufort Street Merchant and Solomon’s are doing a roaring breakfast trade.

Mt Hawthorn and Subiaco are my afternoon delights as I loop back towards town. Northbridge, once the city’s only nightspot, has lost some of its sparkle, so for the after-dark scene it is again the CBD. I end up on the top floor of Varnish on King. Conversation is again shouted. The music is pumping and again there seems to be no tomorrow. Which is Monday. First day of the working week. Does anyone care? It seems not.

Story and photos: Don Fuchs.



Don Fuchs was a guest of Tourism WA.



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And also

Perth is the world’s most isolated capital, but other cities are isolated too. 

Pemberton is only four hours south of Perth and has exceptional forests and wonderful wineries.

Phoenix, Arizona is a swish city surrounded by desert and national parks.

Canberra’s groove is hard to find but it’s there. Try Dickson for a rich cultural melting pot.

Written by Don Fuchs
July 22, 2015