Expo ’88 – a lot to celebrate?

When I first moved to South Brisbane with my wife in 2009 I had no historic knowledge about the West End and South Bank area. I had however been told that South Bank, when walking through the parklands with some locals, had some remnants from a world expo some decades ago.

I then decided to look up Expo ’88, but I only ended up scratching the surface, that it was an expo to show the world Brisbane could pull this off well. An event that could make West End and South Bank more appealing to the greater public, so I was made to believe.

The same stories started to crop up again this year during its 25th anniversary, how Expo ’88 was such an amazing event – great for the whole of Brisbane and its future. Like the banner in South Bank claimed, “there’s a lot to celebrate.”

That of course depends on whom you ask, which I decided to do. Hear what the locals from the area truly thought about Expo ’88 and its impact on South Brisbane.

What I unearthed, still feeling that I only have scratched the surface of the truth, was rather unpleasant.

Sifting through the book Expo ’88 Revisited by Denise Dillon Bolland took me through a very scary journey. A less positive experience of what happened before, during and after Expo ’88.

It was announced in the Courier-Mail in 1983 that “Expo gets power to take land.” Furthermore, Joh-Bjelke Petersen had said that Musgrave Park should be included in Expo ’88.

I heard stories, again only scratching the surface, such as the one about Rosalita being razed. A boarding house that was home to twelve pensioners, a group of humans already struggling, would be evicted from what they called home.

West End Community House coordinator Joe Hurley said that the general feeling in the community was that they would have preferred to not have the Expo ’88 there.

“Not just because of impacts on housing, but also some of the changes in culture, and disenfranchisement of different groups,” Joe said.

“This worked against diversity and continued residence of indigenous persons and working class of the area.”

“Leading up to the Commonwealth Games and the Expo ’88, there were a lot of indigenous activism for being recognised for their place in the community, and recognised as the custodians of the land.”

Joe said that Musgrave Park became a central point for these protests. Remembering one of the very important slogans during that time, “Expo ’88 – demonstrate, don’t celebrate.”

The Gabba Ward Cr Helen Abrahams came to live in Brisbane four months before the Expo.

“You were aware, even not living in the area, of the community action getting considerably publicity at the time,” Cr Abrahams said.

“There are still people in the West End community who will not go to South Bank, because of what Expo ’88 did to this community.”

“The Brisbane elders still do not have a meeting place,” Cr Abrahams adds, “The aboriginal community is left in the dark.”

“It is still eminently possible for council to give to the aboriginal community the Jaggara Hall on a long-term lease, for them to manage and reap the benefits of the rentals.”

“It is totally inappropriate when Aunty Mullinjarlie, in her seventies, has to ask the local councillor so she can have her birthday party in the Jaggara Hall, which is land that is so important to the aboriginal community.”

When hearing such stories, it does make you wonder if Expo ’88 is something we should be celebrating, considering what impact it had on the community and still has.

Nor should we forget that in the period between ’87 and ’88 between 2000 to 3000 residents of West End were evicted because their landlords decided they wanted to make a quick buck from those visiting Expo ‘8, seeing a sharp 62% increase in rent for some.

If an increase like that happened in West End today, many of us would most likely be packing our belongings reluctantly to find a new place to live – again.

It definitely explains why people of West End are quick to object to change, when they themselves have experienced that change is not always positive, that change often has casualties if not everyone has agreed to it.

Joe Hurley also told me about when Expo ’88 was announced, that in South Brisbane there was a lot of property speculation, which in turn pushed out the working class, the poor and students from the community.

“I had a two-bedroom half-house down in West End in the period leading up to the Expo, and the landlord said when the lease is up for renewal, we have to double the rent,” Joe said.

“It is emotional when you see your neighbours or your friends or your colleagues not being able to live where they want to live anymore.”

Cr Helen Abrahams adds that the community was polarised against property owners who were making a quick buck.

“Some of the social services, such as West End Community House, came out of the huge displacement of people within the community for short period of time.”

“It united people too, because they were fighting for people […] for their urban environment and their heritage buildings.”

It is then tempting to say that Expo ’88 made the West End and South Bank community stronger. However, judging by how strongly the community reacted to the impact of the event, it is obvious the strength was already there within the community. It was just unfortunate such a strong community had to be torn apart this way.

The reaction to the displacement of their own was only natural, like how a parent reacts when their child is taken away from them for no good reason.

We can not always escape change. It is often inevitable. That of course does not mean we can not have our own impact on it, which is what the West End and South Brisbane community fought for, to be able to have a say how the government would utilise their land and their community – their home.

As Joe told me, “the best judges of how a community could develop are its residents.”

Expo ’88 is not something many of the residents of West End and South Bank want to celebrate, nor remember. On the other hand, what is worth celebrating is the community spirit of this area. An area of Brisbane that refuses to accept change other than on its own terms, and is more than willing to fight for it any day.

When The Sky Needle caught fire in 2006, the last iconic structure from Expo ’88, Joe remembers it as a very eerie experience, as if it were a final end to Expo ’88 in the West End area.

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