Urban Evolution- Our Secret, Swampy Past

  PHOTO:  Perth Railway Station, 1881, surrounded by swampy land.  (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)

PHOTO: Perth Railway Station, 1881, surrounded by swampy land. (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)

Not many people can recall the history of Northbridge. How it originally stood. When it was colonised. Why it has changed. But even though its past may not be as thrilling as say-  uncovering the hidden burial grounds of ancient Egypt- it possesses an ecological secret that impacts the landscape, and holds significance today.

Picture a city so enveloped by wetlands, that each step could dampen your feet. An area populated by canopies of trees and vast numbers of flora. This was what Northbridge used to look like before European settlers developed it. This was a place so valuable, so important, that it was known as ‘the land of plenty’. Dr Noel Nannup, an Indigenous elder and advisor at ECU, describes the area as a series of lakes, fed by the river. For the local Aboriginal community, it served as a centre-point for communication.

“The swamps were places of plenitude- providing food, meeting places, shelter and familiar hunting grounds [ to the people ]” says author and Director of the Northbridge History Project, Felicity Morel-Edniebrown.

You could say it acted as a lifeline; a symbolic and physical home to the traditional landowners. Although this saturated terrain offered an abundance to some, to others it was considered to be dangerous The early colonists thought that the swamps “represented a natural boundary to ‘civilised’ expansion,” (says Morel-Edniebrown in her article “Tethered Antipodes”). The centre was unsanitary and unattractive: threatening to modern growth. In 1833, a drainage scheme was proposed which paved the way for urban development. Most of the natural landscape was abolished by labour convicts, and replaced by railways, roads and buildings. During the 1890s gold rush, the town became heavily populated by miners and men seeking employment. So how did we get from there to where we are now?

The answer is one word: migration.

Without international immigrants from Italy, Greece and other parts of Europe, Northbridge would not be the loud, café dominated place that it is today. Prior to 1981, when Northbridge established its name, it used be called Little Italy- for obvious reasons. The smell of coffee and carbohydrate-loaded food constantly filled the air. Differences in art, cuisine and lifestyles, were celebrated at this time. People were empowered to taste and see the exotic. Northbridge was a plethora of culture.

Today, we see evidence of this diversity in the mosques, churches and heritage buildings that remain standing. And even though the majority of the swamplands have been cleared, remnants can be found… if you look close enough.

On the 12th of June we are hosting The Littoral Zone event, which pays tribute to Northbridge’s swampy history. Join poets, singers and storytellers  Nandi Chinna, S J Finch, and Renee Pettitt-Schipp, and musician and installation artist Mei Saraswati as they delve deep into the area’s natural past.