25 October 2014

Sunday Will Never Be the Same at Boggo Road


I have longed argued that Boggo Road should become a community and cultural hub. I also suspect this was the intention of the developers from the get-go, and their recently-released vision for the place would certainly make the idea a reality. This notion of a ‘community hub’ is all very well in theory, but what might one actually look like in practice?

As it is now, Boggo Road is not a community space. It is effectively ‘dead’ space; empty, unused and locked away from public view except for tours - a few hours per day at the most. What is being proposed by the developers is the transformation of this physical space into a public thoroughfare that will be alive with people for the majority of the time. And what will those people actually be doing in there? Let’s imagine a day in the not-too-distant future… 

(Scene shimmers away to Boggo Road on a fine Sunday morning in July 2016). 

The winter day begins as earlybirds stroll through the old prison on a morning walk, maybe taking in a coffee shop or breakfast in one of the restaurants inside or near the former prison buildings. As the morning moves on, lots more people arrive on the Busway or rail stations right next door. Foodies swarm the new Eat Street and shoppers wander through the new markets. No same-old same-old franchises here.

The 'Circle', as it might look in future (Leightons).
There are a couple of green spaces inside the prison grounds; one in the central ‘Circle’ - in front of the three cellblocks - and another in the northeast corner, next to the markets, bakery and coffee shops. People stand around the brick-wall perimeter of the Circle, reading the large information boards full of stories and images of the old prison days. They scan the QR codes on the walls, using phones and tablets to bring up websites with yet more history of their surroundings in audio and video.

There’s plenty to see inside the buildings too, with prison museum displays in some rooms, and art or photography exhibitions in others. The museum shop has plenty of local history work for sale.

The six or seven exercise yards are also a hive of activity. There are tours, with visitors hearing the stories of Boggo from those who were actually there when it was open as a prison. There’s nothing like a Primary Source when it comes to history. Sometimes there are reenactments. Each yard has its own attraction or use this morning, and those attached to the dining facilities provide a unique setting for a bite to eat.

Eat Street Markets, Hamilton, Brisbane.

Around lunchtime people settle down in the Circle to watch a live jazz band, or perhaps one of the several brass bands currently playing concerts in public venues around Brisbane. Boggo Road would be a perfect addition to their circuit. There is more live music in the green space by the markets, with each week giving the public the chance to hear local artists.

Elsewhere onsite, someone from the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society or the Brisbane Southside History Network is giving a free public History talk. Other historians are helping members of the public with their enquiries as the tours continue.

As the afternoon moves on a crowd gathers in an exercise yard (or the Circle) to watch a ‘Half-Hour Hamlet’ or another short piece from the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

The tours wind up for the day and the displays are closed when evening sets in and more diners arrive. The wine bar and coffee shops are as busy as always. There is another acoustic set somewhere inside the prison (inside a yard, the Circle, or one of the buildings or open spaces). The professional lighting of the cellblocks and perimeter walls makes this a spectacular and atmospheric setting that draws in late-night people week after week. Off to the side, in the shadows, a night tour winds through the yards. If not a tour, maybe some intimate theatre or a film screening.

(Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
Eventually the long day draws to a close and the lights are turned down as the place empties of people before security sets up for the night. Hundreds of people (maybe thousands) have passed through Boggo Road today. Thousands more will visit through the week, including many schoolchildren.

Visitor numbers are - much like some of the 1980s prisoners - through the roof. More people than ever before engage with the history of the old prison. The increased revenue creates more jobs and allows quality historical interpretative projects. The creative output of a number of dynamic community groups is better than ever before. Local artists, musicians, historians and actors have a new and regular platform with which to reach the public. Nearby residents have new shopping options outside the usual franchised suspects. Dutton Park is on the map and Brisbane has a new cultural attraction that isn’t a bloody casino.

All in all, a pretty good Sunday really. Of course, all the above might not happen, but it could and if it does it would certainly represent a better future for Boggo Road.

(You can provide your feedback on the Boggo Road project here).





23 October 2014

Destroy All Your Books... Or Else: The attack on a Queensland historical society that should ring alarm bells for others


Imagine the volunteers in a respected History group receiving a legal letter from a business owner demanding that they either destroy all their stock of self-published history books, or hand them over to him... or else he would drag the volunteers before the Supreme Court. Their alleged crime? Having a similar domain name to the business, even though they actually had that domain name first. Well, this is exactly what happened to the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society.

There have been several references on this and other websites to legal threats made against the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society by Cameron 'Jack' Sim of Brisbane-based 'Ghost Tours Pty Ltd'. The historical society was recently asked by someone what the threat was about, as it had never been explained anywhere publicly. When we told them the details, they were surprised this had been kept quiet. It was a fair point. So here it is.

The overall situation, put as matter-of-factly as possible, is this:

The pensioner volunteers who ran Boggo Road circa 1999-2004 did so (for legal requirements) as a not-for-profit entity called the Boggo Road Gaol Museum Association. Around 1999/2000 they established a museum website with the domain name ‘boggoroadgaol.com.au’.

Following retirements and deaths, the BRGM Association was wound down circa 2004 and assets were transferred to the not-for-profit Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society, including the domain name (although there was a clerical delay in transferring registration of that domain).

A couple of years later the BRGHS finally updated the old boggoroadgaol.com.au museum website with new information about their group, including not-for-profit publications and proposed tours of Boggo Road (a place which at that time had been closed for a few years years).

This drew the attention of ‘Jack’ Sim who had recently begun using a website with the domain ‘boggoroadgaol.com’ (his previous website was boggoroadjail.com.au) and had registered a trademark logo which - among other things - happened to contain the words 'Boggo Road Gaol' and his new domain address.

What happened next should be a teachable moment for volunteers and community groups around Queensland. Sim sent out two lengthy and expensive legal threats, one to the historical society and one to retired volunteer and Boggo Road legend John Banks, claiming that the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society had infringed his trademark and had adopted the mark ‘BoggoRoadGoal’ [sic] with (and I quote);
‘the deliberate object of causing confusion and deception’. 
A very serious accusation indeed. In his mind, the historical society - which predated his Boggo Road business - was deliberately 'passing itself off' as that business simply because the volunteers were engaged in all the usual historical society activities (research, publishing and tours) and had a domain name that had been used by Boggo Road volunteers since 1999/2000 - years before his business was even established.

Sim then made the following demands:


In a nutshell, he had demanded that the volunteers of the historical society: 
  • Pay for 'damages' (even though the prison was closed and so no tours were even happening).
  • No longer be allowed to use the mark ‘BoggoRoadGaol’ when ‘passing off’ their books, research and proposed tours (remember, this is a community group called the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society).
  • Either destroy all the historical society’s printed stock and other material or hand it all over to him.
  • Pay all his costs.
  • If none of this was done, he would take the volunteers to the Supreme Court.
 
If the volunteers had agreed to these demands, the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society would have closed down. The group had about 40 members at the time (nearly 300 now) and the old prison - the raison d'ĂȘtre for the historical society's existence - had been closed for three years. The group was surviving thanks to the sales of the books they wrote and printed, but printing books is an expensive exercise and costs are only recouped by selling them. The demand that the volunteers destroy all their existing stock and pay what could have been thousands of dollars in costs would have left the historical society with no saleable product and no money for new stock or even paying their annual four-figure overheads (such as insurance). It would have been the end of their organisation.  

Fortunately the volunteers had access to some quality legal advice and the verdict was one of astonishment and amusement at the general absurdity of the threat, which they already knew to be baseless and misinformed anyway. The volunteers ignored the threat and so a follow-up threat arrived in the postbox on Christmas Eve. Not actually seen until a few weeks later, this second letter was also ignored.

Historical society volunteers met with Sim a couple of months later, He let it be known that the threat could be forgotten about if they signed off on his plan for running Boggo Road. A plan he then placed on the table. Not only did the historical society reject the ‘offer’ outright, they made it clear that they would not even discuss working with him until the threat was withdrawn. He refused to do so.

The logic behind the volunteers’ thinking is obvious. They are simply not willing to work for the financial benefit of any commercial entity that was threatening to sue and possibly close their group down. Why should they undertake volunteer work to help fund possible legal action against themselves?

Would you or your group do it?

The subject came up at a more recent meeting between historical society volunteers, government officials and Sim himself. He initially denied having made the threat, but when the actual legal letters were immediately produced he verbally repeated the threat! He was challenged by the volunteers to follow through with his threat, but has refused to do so.

And there it stands. The question as to whether or not his threat of legal action has been withdrawn or carried out pops up occasionally at historical society meetings. The answer either way remains ‘no’. It seems to be an inconvenient truth for some governmental officials, but for the volunteers of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society it is a matter of principle. They will not reward threats from small businessman and will not associate themselves with the type of person who can behave in such a way. 

Prior to all this happening the historical society had held out an olive branch to Ghost Tours - in writing - recognising that the best route towards a peaceful future for Boggo Road was for us to work together. We received no reply. Unfortunately the legal threats made by Sim proved to be an obstacle to peace at Boggo Road.
 
What needs to be remembered is that when Boggo Road finally moves into a better future, there will be plenty of arts and history organisations lining up to bring the old prison back to life for the public. This is exactly what is needed, because a lot of different people had very different experiences of life inside that prison and so the many stories of Boggo Road should be told in many voices and many ways.  

And they should be allowed to do so in an atmosphere free of the kind of threats such as the one described above.



15 October 2014

Loaves, Fishes, & 'Jobs, Jobs, Jobs': How to really create jobs at Boggo Road



The redevelopment proposals for Boggo Road were recently made public and I have already discussed the radical concept of opening up the prison as public space, but there are of course other aspects to consider. Like job creation. Or, as we say in Queensland, 'jobs, jobs, jobs' (™ Peter Beattie).

This is actually not something not mentioned too much in the marketing material for the proposals, and personally it's not something I'd list as a priority at any heritage site, but it is worth exploring further as 'job creation' is being used to defend the status quo at Boggo Road. So what are the facts?

Let's take the situation as it is now. Imagine it is Wednesday night at Boggo and maybe this week there's a night tour on. That's a 1.5 hour night tour. At an absolute maximum it would provide two hours work each for two people. Or maybe just for one person, as is often the case with these tours. 

That's four work hours created by the tour, tops. And the rest of the site remains closed, empty, and redundant.

Now, imagine a Wednesday night under the new plans. What's taking place inside Boggo Road? There's a restaurant, busy as usual, with wait and kitchen staff. Each one working around six hours that evening. Maybe around six or seven or six staff. That's over 40 working hours right there. Just one restaurant instantly creates ten times more work than tours. Sad but true. Of course there could easily be two restaurants or coffee shops in the prison site, and unlike the tours, these businesses also boost the economy by purchasing ingredients and other supplies. 

On top of that, there's the crucial fact that the restaurant gets repeat business, something the tours don't.

Then perhaps there's the wine bar, doing brisk trade. How many staff there on the long evening/night shift? Now imagine there's some live acoustic music going on, maybe a bit of theatre in one of the yards. More employment happening. Take all the above together and you go way, way beyond the two or four work hours created by the tour on that night, from single up into triple figures.

And the beauty of all this is that you can STILL have the tour taking place anyway

As I said before, job creation should never be the raison d'ĂȘtre of any heritage site, but it is screamingly obvious that mixed use of Boggo would create much more ongoing work there. The place would, for the first time since it was decommissioned in 1989, provide meaningful levels of employment. This is despite Cameron 'Jack' Sim of ghost tours telling the state government that he would have created over 50 jobs at Boggo Road by now. That was a big call and the reality is that - at the very best - only a handful have been created. Two tours are scheduled per day, plus some night ones too, but you would struggle to create too many weekly work hours off the back of that. 

There again, this is a person who once claimed to have 30 employees while he was running three or four ghost tours per week, weather permitting. Sharing a maximum of 16 weekly work hours (but often less) among 30 people makes Jesus' trick of sharing the loaves and fishes among the multitudes pale in comparison. This is not to denigrate anyone's work at Boggo right now, it's just a reminder to beware of rubbery figures.

"Here's the new roster. We're having two tour guides per customer. So many jobs!
But I'm going to have to pay you in fish."

Statistical realities aside, the problem with Boggo Road has always been the sporadic 'open-for-a-tour-and-then-close-again' use of the site. As Public Works minister Tim Mander himself said a couple of weeks back, "this site has basically lain dormant other than for a few tours which take place during the week." Leighton Properties (the developers) described the place as "a neglected and under-utilised public asset." Their new plans are designed to fundamentally change all that, maximising use of a greater area of Boggo Road. Having the place constantly busy while retaining the heritage aspects will 'finally awaken this sleeping giant of Brisbane tourism', as they say. 

And there could be little doubt that it would always be busy under this proposal. The simple fact is that dining facilities, wine bars and Arts and entertainment events will create much more patronage, revenue and work for Boggo Road than History activities alone could. Having something like a coffee shop or any other hospitality facility inside an actual cellblock or exercise yard would be a consistently massive drawcard, especially when partnered with a dynamic programme of Arts events, not to mention nearby markets and of course the history. 

History will always be a massive aspect of Boggo, but revenue raised by historical activities should become far less critical under the new proposals. To my way of thinking, it would be fair to ask that revenue raised from other on-site activities could subsidise and strengthen the History side of things, allowing much more affordable (or even some free) tours and quality exhibits. There would then be real synergy between the joint attractions of history, arts and dining. 

Anybody who wants to measure the success of Boggo Road by the criterion of job creation should welcome the new plans with open arms. And there’s no escaping from that fact.



06 October 2014

The Revolution in Thinking About Boggo Road


Last week saw the announcement of the Leighton Properties proposal for the future of Boggo Road. The single most important thing to emerge from these plans is the revolutionary transformation of much of the space inside the old prison from ‘private’ to ‘communal’. The internal areas that were once locked away behind brick walls and iron gates will be integrated into the the surrounding community space and made accessible to all. The public will no longer have to pay to get inside Boggo Road, although it appears that a certain area will be set aside for guided tours.

This is a game-changing paradigm shift in how we think about this heritage site. 

I will here look at claims made on the website for the redevelopment in order to try and explain some of what is happening - as I see it.*


1. THE TRANSFORMATION INTO PUBLIC SPACE
"Boggo Road will be unlocked for the first time in a century - opening it up to unprecedented historical interpretation and educational opportunities." (see here)
"The redevelopment will enhance and literally open up the Boggo Road Gaol to the broader community." (see here)
"The redevelopment will enhance and open Boggo Road to the broader community - inviting the public into the site to engage with and experience the site more freely." (see here)

Until now, the inside of the prison has been closed away behind impenetrable walls and doors. The physical space itself had been commodified, and private management effectively turned this public asset into private property. You have to pay high fees for the mere privilege of seeing it.

From next year, this area of Boggo Road will
be accessible for free. (Image here)
As someone involved who has been involved in the behind-the-scenes discussions for a long time now, much of the new proposals came as no surprise to me. The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society had pushed for a community-focussed approach to managing the heritage site and were quietly confident that this was the direction that would be taken. From what had I already heard, I anticipated the adaptive reuse of two cellblocks, the use of the other cellblock for historical interpretation, and the removal of 1980s prison structures. However, I did not expect the extent to which the prison would be opened up to the community.

Under the proposal, the public will be able to simply stroll inside the internal prison space whenever it is open. The grassed area in front of the cellblocks - known as the 'Circle' - will become public park space. Small parts of Boggo Road will still be set aside just for historical tours etc., but generally speaking the old ways of keeping the heritage buildings hidden away will be gone.

2. A CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL HUB
"On completion, Boggo Road is set to become a new destination known as much for its cultural amenities as its historical significance." (see here)
"Within the gaol buildings, a new historical and educational program, together with various cultural uses will be offered for locals and tourists to enjoy. As well as a museum and gaol tours, a rotating events calendar could include a mix of music and theatre performances, outdoor cinema and artisan markets. To provide activation, some original buildings are proposed to be sensitively readapted for the aforementioned uses, food and beverage offerings and function facilities." (see here)

It is important to remember that one aim of this wider redevelopment - which also includes nearly 500 residential units and retail facilities - is to create a successful and sustainable 'community' (always a nebulous concept). It is this thinking that has driven the reconceptualising of the heritage prison as open space, and it has also generated a new approach to how the prison buildings are utilised. Since its closure the place has been used primarily as a historical site, although during the Boggo Road Gaol Museum years we saw numerous functions (including weddings), live music and drama performances, and film shoots take place there. 

The new plans would allow organisations like the
Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble to
perform at Boggo Road. (QSE)
It looks like this cultural aspect will become much more prominent, which is precisely what my friends in the Boggo Road Arts, History & Education Committee wanted. A foundation of our approach is the need to attract repeat visitors in a way that guided tours or a museum never can. The combination of a dynamic programme of music and drama, art exhibitions, a museum and historical activities, along with quality dining and bar facilities (also a nearby permanent market and an ‘Eat Street’ strip) as well as easy public transport access minutes from the city, should see Boggo Road becoming a major drawcard. 

No longer the kind of place you only need to see just the one time.

3. OUT WITH THE OLD
"Rejuvenation of a neglected and under-utilised public asset in the Gaol." (see here)

"this site has basically lain dormant other than for a few tours which take place during the week." (Public Works minister Tim Mander, 1 October 2014) 
"Through the urban renewal process, Boggo Road will be unlocked for the first time in a century – opening it up to unprecedented historical interpretation and educational opportunities." (see here)
"Within the gaol buildings, a new historical and educational program, together with various cultural uses will be offered for locals and tourists to enjoy" (see here)

It is a bit of a stretch to say that Boggo Road has lain dormant for 20 years, but it can't be denied that the potential of this sleeping giant has never been realised. This is why the new plan  - while being very positive  - also carries an inherent rejection of the way Boggo Road has been managed until now. I have my own criticisms of much of what is happening there - including the teenage booze-ups and offensive 'ghost hunts', both of which had previously been prohibited by the state government as being too disrespectful - but there are other deep-rooted problems. One is the anti-community attitude of the interim private management that has seen the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society denied fair access to the place. The other is that the current historical interpretation is way too limited. This needs to change and the historical society is hopeful that it will. As is spelled out on the redevelopment's website, "a new historical and educational program... will be offered for locals and tourists to enjoy" (my emphasis).

I have always argued that this change needs to include allowing different voices to tell different stories about Boggo. As I see it, the major issue is in the significance of the place. What does it mean to people? The simple (but also not-so-simple) answer is that Boggo Road means a lot of different things to a lot of different people who were directly affected by it. The old prison has a history full of conflict and reconciliation, despair and hope, tragedy and survival, loss and rehabilitation. I know that some former inmates would like to see the place demolished and wiped from the collective memory. Others want it to stand as a reminder and testament to their suffering. Many former officers have a great sense of pride about their service and want that aspect of their lives to be shared. Then there are all the families and friends of all these people.

Right now, while the days of the working prison are well within living memory, these are the people we need to consider first and foremost when it comes to remembering Boggo Road. In my personal opinion Boggo needs to stand as a touchstone to its varied histories as told by all those different voices. 

The good news is that it will stand, and there will still be the opportunity to tell all those stories, hopefully in an interesting and innovative variety of ways. Not just scripted tours. The public will be visiting in increased numbers and the history of Boggo Road will be shared more widely, and certainly in a much more engaged way than having it locked away for expensive private tours.

4. ALL THOSE IN FAVOUR SAY 'AYE'

The new plans are of great interest to groups like 'A Better Future for Boggo Road' and the 'Boggo Road Arts, Education & History Committee', who have argued for creating a multi-arts community-focussed venue at the old prison. In many ways, this plan would deliver on that.
 
Of course there will be opposition to this, as already seen in this Brisbane Times article. Cameron 'Jack' Sim (the ghost tour businessman who holds the interim license at Boggo Road) is opposed to opening the place up for the community, an attitude that perhaps demonstrates greater concern about what is good for himself rather than what is good for Boggo Road, the local community, and the taxpayers who own and pay for it. A case of "the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many"?

Others will have legitimate concerns about structural changes to the old prison. The place is heritage listed and any changes will have to meet strict heritage guidelines. We don't know the precise nature of any changes yet so that is something to be watched carefully. 

A decade ago I would probably have opposed this proposal myself, and sought to retain as much of the existing prison fabric as possible. However, after years of delay, political interference and disrespectful treatment of the place, the strong community focus of the new plans come as a breath of fresh air. They are not perfect (I will explore issues of 'privatisation' in another article here) and there is still much to be done, but they are a great leap forward and have renewed hope that the right thing will finally be done at Boggo Road.

In the meantime...

 
Email info@boggoroadgaol.com.au for membership details.

Like the BRGHS Facebook page to keep up to date with what is happening at Boggo Road.

You can give feedback about the proposals on this page here.

* The opinions expressed here my own and not necessarily indicative of the position of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society.