Coming Home: How One Decade Changed Adelaide

Recently returning to Adelaide after a decade away, writer Koren Helbig is pleasantly surprised by how much the city has changed.

10 years is, admittedly, a heck of a long time. Change must of course be expected over such a timeframe; it would be mightily odd for everything to somehow remain exactly the same. And yet, having just returned to South Australia after a decade living beyond my home state’s borders, I find myself constantly surprised by just how far things have come. Because, really, 10 years is also hardly any time at all.

A little context: I grew up galloping horses along vine rows in the Barossa Valley, pointing my crappy Ford Laser southward to ‘town’ on weekends for hangouts with friends. Those were the days of dancing in the cavernous, often half-empty and thankfully now dead Planet nightclub, possibly popping past Heaven, too, before we’d stumble through the accumulation of ‘interesting’ characters on Hindley Street to chow down awful Macca’s burgers from the only place still open at such an hour. If we could be bothered, we’d finish up at the casino, not so much by choice but because where else was there to go?

Adelaide back then was The Place for going out, the only one we had and far better than the Barossa’s boring collection of staid pubs. Yet it always felt faintly unsatisfying, like we were missing out – especially after a couple trips to Melbourne’s burgeoning small bar scene revealed that we actually were. Then, in 2008, I moved to Queensland and discovered Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, a pumping party precinct that left Adelaide’s nightlife for dead. Coming home always felt a bit monotonous after that. We didn’t have Melbourne’s hole-in-the-wall spots that could have worked so well here, and we didn’t have the people to fill such huge Brissie-style clubs either.

Not that I’d ever admit that to any of the proud non-South Aussies who made ragging on our great state a national sport. I’d fiercely defend all we have here – focusing on the laid-back lifestyle, the lower cost of living, the wide open spaces, the enormous national parks and beautiful walks – all while only half believing it myself.

Then I left the country altogether, heading to Europe and setting up in Spain for four years. In that interim, I watched as several South Aussie friends upped stumps and headed interstate, chasing jobs that simply weren’t on offer at home. We all agreed that SA held our hearts and was the place we’d return to eventually but, right now, fish seemed to be biting better elsewhere.

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All of this gradually melded together in my mind until I unwittingly developed a perception of South Australia that I’m now realising is likely false – and I reckon loads of out of towners harbour this same erroneous image. You know the one. Some version of: “Sure, SA is nice, but it’s a little too slow, a little too left behind. It just doesn’t have the same opportunities as the east coast. Nice to visit, but I couldn’t live there.” Perhaps this was once the case, but now? I’m seeing loads of evidence to the contrary.

The easiest one to spot is the city’s thriving small bar scene. Where once we had only soulless monstrosities to throw our drinking money at, we’re now spoilt for choice with tiny hole-in-the-wall watering holes at every corner and restaurants that give Sydney and Melbourne a run for their money. I’d been so out of the Adelaide loop that I didn’t even know Peel Street had become a thing.

Can you imagine my delight when we rounded the corner one night and came upon that bustling laneway packed with intriguing little bars to explore? And then on to Leigh Street next door, where cops perched watchfully atop tall horses were about the only familiar fixture.

The city is visibly different by day, too. There are renos and new buildings going up everywhere, some of them featuring extremely questionable architectural taste, but who am I to judge? As anyone who’s spent time in Barcelona will know, today’s monstrosity can easily become tomorrow’s attraction. Tramlines crisscross parts of the city previously strictly reserved for cars and even Rundle Mall’s been given a facelift. These developments create an air of a place on the up.

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But it’s the people that truly make a place and our collective spirit feels somehow raised, if you’ll allow such a gross generalisation. The creative community has more of a buzz, less focused on moving east to ‘make it’ and more content to have a crack here. Just look at Fruzsi Kenez’s new Peanut Gallery indie art space within the Adelaide Arcade, or Sharni Honor’s Porch Sessions, tiny one-off travelling gigs held in the front yards of ordinary suburban homes. That’s not to mention street artist Peter Drew, whose Real Australians Say Welcome posters and their spinoffs, made by hand here in Adelaide, are now famously pasted on walls and buildings across the nation.

I’ve even found myself unintentionally stationed just a hop and skip away from another recent success story – the Basket Range area of the Adelaide Hills, suddenly the darling of wine writers countrywide and a poster child for natural winemaking, which is a hell of an achievement even if the term itself carries a few misnomers. SA-produced wines are now a more common wine list addition, and not only the big names that mostly hogged the limelight in years gone by. We have smaller producers to thank for doing things differently and helping push our wines for the extra recognition they so deserve.

‘Who’s the best’ competitions between cities are ultimately pretty silly, because everywhere has its great points and terrible ones. And not everything’s perfectly sunny here, of course – our power network is currently a shambles and the impending closure of Holden’s Elizabeth assembly plant spells trouble for those in the northern suburbs, with the economic fallout likely to spread even further.

Yet still, it seems to me, we’re closer than ever to having it all here. We’ve still got all those things I used to brag about – landscapes to die for, nice-ish homes under $500,000, a relaxed pace of life – and now we have the lively bars and restaurants, vibrant art and culture, and better infrastructure, too. Perhaps I’ve returned wearing rose coloured glasses. Either way, it’s good to be back.

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