It was supposed to be a utopian paradise. But something went very wrong at Brownlie Towers

Posted

April 07, 2019 08:24:55

It was supposed to be the revolutionary utopian future of public housing within suburban Perth.

Key points:

  • The notorious Brownlie Towers housing complex was built in the 1970s
  • The twin-tower complex soon became notorious as a ghetto of crime
  • Now it is facing demolition, with the site to be redeveloped

With an in-house grocery store, day care centre, chemist, hairdresser — and a school and swimming pool next door — the twin 10-storey complex of Brownlie Towers in the suburb of Bentley stood as the centrepiece of a carefully curated neighbourhood full of gardens and open space.

Then, to the horror of planning officials, it quickly disintegrated into a hotbed of crime, becoming synonymous with murders, suicides, violence and drug abuse.

“It was a slum, it was a ghetto — that’s exactly what it was,” said Rhys Davies, who as a teenager moved into a Brownlie Towers flat with his widowed mother soon after the building opened in the 1970s.

“It was not the place I would have ever wanted to bring a child up.

“It was too violent, there was fights constantly — as a kid you’d be frightened at getting your nose bloodied.

“There were murders, there were suicides, there were cars being set on fire in the car park, police turning up in their vans and breaking up parties, violently.

“It wasn’t the happy suburban lifestyle for anyone I don’t think.”

But it was envisioned to be just that, with more than 450 self-contained units across the towers and townhouses in the neighbouring cul-de-sacs.

A ‘dumping ground for misfits’

There were warning signs from the beginning that chaos was brewing at Brownlie Towers.

In 1972, US social policy professor Shankar Yelaja visited the site with an ABC News crew and predicted it would disintegrate into a slum.

He warned the high-density living environment would create serious social and physiological problems for tenants.

“If we look at some of the parents of children in ghetto living conditions in other parts of the world, people who have grown up in apartments become so adjusted to that type of living condition that the chance of getting out of this environment are literally zero,” he said.

Brownlie Towers was also constantly savaged by politicians, with one WA Liberal MP describing it as “a dumping ground for the society of misfits”.

“It was just the most cold, uninviting place you’d ever seen,” former resident Mr Davies said.

“It was bare brick walls right through the place and hard green lino like in a hospital on the floor.

“It was the kind of place that once one tenant had left you could sort of hose it out and bring the next one in.”

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Mr Davies said he and many other neighbours witnessed residents take their own lives, but they supported each other to deal with the trauma.

“Nobody worried about things like, ‘oh, I’m going to have post-traumatic shock’ or anything like that,” he said.

“You just talked about it — everybody would just discuss their feelings.

“It was quite cathartic — you got all of those feelings out at the time instead of letting them build up.

Good times among the bad

Rosemarie Shord has fond memories of living in a ground floor flat at Brownlie Towers in the 1980s.

“My neighbour and I used to have picnics out the front,” she said.

“It was really good times after a while, I missed it when I moved out.

“At first I thought, ‘oh my goodness’, but I had nowhere else to go because I was single mum and had no other choice.

“After a while everybody got to know each other and it was pretty good times.

“When the Concorde flew over, everybody headed up to the top to watch it, that was the biggest thing.”

Vibrant redevelopment planned

Almost 50 years since the first tenants moved in, demolition contractors have now moved on to the Brownlie Towers site and are working to dismantle the building piece by piece.

The WA Government plans to redevelop the entire precinct into a vibrant residential, cultural and commercial hub as part of the wider Bentley 360 project.

Project Director Felicia Brady said in the later years anti-social behaviour began to decline at the complex and many residents were sad to leave.

“Many of them had been here since the towers had actually been constructed,” she said.

“It was their life, it was their community and their families.”

Ms Brady said she had heard people talk about many positive memories of life at the towers.

“I guess our challenge is that the negativity remains in the community regarding this site, so we’re really working hard to change that perception of the reality verses what people perceive to be the reality,” she said.

“We’ve salvaged a lot of the previous history of Brownlie Towers for re-use in the future project.

“It should be celebrated and captured.”

A harsh reality lingers

Mr Davies moved out of Brownlie Towers in 1984 after his mother passed away.

He said the experience of growing up in such a harsh environment had a negative impact on his life.

“I wouldn’t say I’m stronger but probably a little bit jaded towards violence and deaths and suicides and all that sort of stuff,” he said.

“My wife thinks I’m possibly a little bit immune to a lot of things that I probably shouldn’t be immune to.

“I won’t miss the place. There won’t be any tears shed for it that’s for sure.”

Topics:

community-and-society,

urban-development-and-planning,

suicide,

crime,

human-interest,

perth-6000,

wa,

bentley-6102

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