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Progress gives with one hand, and takes away with the other

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A couple of weeks in the outback have reminded me of the slow change in the commercial geography of Australia's cities and towns since my boyhood, and of its consequences, for good and ill. I have no proposed solution, and think that what has happened has been almost unavoidable. I wrote in a recent piece that economic change rarely provides the new jobs to the displaced workers, and you can see an analogy in geographic change too.

Let me start with a personal memory. In 1950 my family had moved to Armidale, where I wanted to join the local tennis club. This would cost money far beyond the resources of my pocket money, and my father felt that I needed to know, at 13, just how money arrived in anyone's pocket. So I found myself working during the August school holidays in the grocery department of a local store. I was the lowest of the low, but I learned quickly, and enjoyed the fortnight's experience.

Everything we did involved finding, weighing, wrapping and receipting. Biscuits, for example, came in big tins, and if someone wanted a pound of Arnott's Milk Arrowroot biscuits I would find the tin, take out what seemed to me about a pound, weigh them, place the biscuits in a brown paper bag, and then move on to the next item. Potatoes, flour, sugar, tea - such staples were all dealt with the same way. Tomato sauce did come in bottles, as did vinegar, mint jelly and a few other items familiar to me from my own home. Nothing that I can remember came in plastic containers. At the end of the sale I might place everything in one of the shop's baskets and take it outside to the customer's car. Yes, she could quite possibly have parked outside the shop. Most people didn't have cars then. Her shopping list became a list in our counter book, with the carbon copy left for our accountant. I had decently neat handwriting, so I was entrusted with some of that receipting.


Fast forward to 1965, where I am living and working in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I shop in the A&P Supermarket, and there doesn't seem to be a grocery store in the town. Jump ahead to 1972, and I am living and working in Sydney, and there is now a Safeways supermarket close to my place of work. In the 1970s Coles and Woolworths are shifting toward being super grocery stores, and they need more space because more people have cars and want to park near the stores. Moreover, I am now buying food for a week, and I really do want to park close to the point of sale. I have a deep freeze as well as a car, as was the case with my friends in Ann Arbor, and I shop once a week, and spend a good deal of money doing so.

But there is no room in the shopping centres for these big super grocery stores (soon 'supermarkets'), let alone for their customers arriving by car, so new ones are created where there is abundant land, and other stores are quick to join them - after all, there will be a captive audience there. I had missed the real beginnings in Australia. The Chadstone shopping centre in Melbourne was opened in 1960, and its counterparts appeared quickly in other Australian cities. Chadstone now has 530 stores, and 20 million people spend $1.4 billion there annually.

The capital cities can cope with this change, because they are growing in population. But for country towns, subject to the same pressures, the outcome has been the creation of two quite distinct retail environments: a bustling, familiar and easily accessible 'centre' with 30 to 50 shops and a huge car park, and the old decaying CBD, with empty shops and a desperate air of 'if only'.

Because the towns are not growing at anything like the capital city rate, the shop-owners in the CBD are unable to find new tenants, which means they are also unable to keep their premises attractive. Renmark, Whyalla and Broken Hill all have most attractive settings for their main streets, and some really distinguished buildings, too. But to walk along the once busy shopping streets is a depressing experience. So many empty shops, so much dust and unkempt glass and shabby entrances.

I remember when the old CBDs were lively places to be, where you met everybody, where there was pressure on urban space. What a change it has been. There have been winners and losers. The winners aren't just the supermarket giants: the residents of these country towns and cities now have access to the same sorts of retail outlets and products that their city cousins take for granted.

But there has been a cost, too, in the shabby shape of what were once quite distinguished CBDs. And, though this is another story, the change has been accentuated by the arrival of the licensed club, the poker machines and the cheap food and grog, which has greatly reduced the numbers of restaurants, cafes and hotels, which were themselves part of the old CBD scene. There really isn't much need to go to the CBDs any more, except as tourists, and perhaps as moviemakers in search of a good setting.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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