'Deliciously seedy and multicultural': What's not to love about Northbridge?
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'Deliciously seedy and multicultural': What's not to love about Northbridge?

In terms of Perth suburbs with bad reputations, are there any that have been more historically maligned than that which sits just over the tracks from the CBD?

Northbridge - I love it.

Northbridge - I love it.Credit:Kate Hedley

Once the home of the city’s elite — including the attorney general — the former swamp has transformed over the past century to become one of the state’s most ethnically diverse centres, and one of the most notorious.

My love affair with Northbridge started in the early 90s.

I lived in a converted hostel across the road from a strip club and the needle exchange on William Street. Next door was an Italian beauty salon. Next to that was a karaoke bar.

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On the other side was Perth’s oldest mosque. And on the corner, a gun shop.

Our favourite noodle place, Tak Chee, was — and still is — down the road.

Alto's - another favourite late-night haunt.

Alto's - another favourite late-night haunt.Credit:Kate Hedley

We played pool and drank cheap beer at the Hyde Park Hotel and The Northbridge.

It was a place where you could go and see your favourite band, get drenched in sweat, then spot Nick Cave or Bob Mould at the burger joint across the road.

For most of us — I lived with a big group of friends, with more mates living nearby — this was our first foray into the big wide world.

We’d mostly come from safe, middle-class, suburban backgrounds.

We were young and free for the first time. Like tightly coiled springs, we were hungry for whatever it was the world would dish up to us.

“It was the antidote to my very white, beachside suburban childhood,” a former housemate, and current very dear friend, said when we were talking about our — largely misspent — youth earlier this week.

“I moved out of home into William Street and it was as if I’d found the place where no one looked sideways at you, as everyone was ‘weird’ in some way.”

It’s true, we weren’t "normal".

And maybe that’s how we found each other.

We were grotty little punks, circus freaks, musos, artists, students and mostly under-employed.

Northbridge embraced us, nurtured us, and offered a million different ways to prove we were here for a good time, not a long time.

It's tired in places, and could do with some TLC, but the potential in Northbridge is boundless.

It's tired in places, and could do with some TLC, but the potential in Northbridge is boundless.Credit:Kate Hedley

What's not to love?

Northbridge is a lot smaller than you think.

But while the map may say one thing, everybody knows it doesn’t end at Newcastle Street to the north, and there’s no way William Street is the "real" eastern boundary.

Without trying to sound like a bit of a goose, Northbridge is a state of mind.

So even though "my" Northbridge extends to Bulwer Street at the top end and over to Stirling Street in the east, the suburb remains small.

It’s also newer than many realise, having only been officially gazetted as a suburb in the early 80s.

Even so, it is steeped in history, and it’s sad to see so many of my old haunts either demolished, or boarded up.

The Romany was a long-time favourite for many locals.

The Romany was a long-time favourite for many locals.Credit:Kate Hedley

Sylvana’s and Cafe Sport are long gone, as is the Plaka, the place for a late-night kebab or bucket of chips drizzled in garlic sauce after a night on the groaning floorboards at The Firm.

Vultures disappeared years ago, as did Cafe l’Alba. More recently, we said goodbye to Romany.

The Northbridge of today is not the Northbridge of my youth.

But I still love it. And why wouldn’t you?

The real deal

The Moon has survived the past couple of decades, as has the sex shop on James Street, Pot Black, and the Re Store.

Here and there, vestiges of Northbridge in the 90s remain, and while it soothes my soul and my tendency towards nostalgia, I love seeing the new bars and restaurants springing up.

While other suburbs welcome the arrival of a new Aldi, or line up around the block for Perth’s first direct factory outlet, Northbridge embraces the truly "new" like nowhere else in the city.

Indian fare on offer at Sauma, on the corner of William and James streets.

Indian fare on offer at Sauma, on the corner of William and James streets.Credit:Kate Hedley

In what other suburb would a bar like Ezra Pound work? Or a pasta joint like Francoforte?

Places like these may survive for a while in Highgate or Maylands, Mt Lawley at a pinch, or possibly Leederville, but they fit perfectly in Northbridge; they’re what this place is all about.

You want Korean BBQ? Dim sum? Japanese nikujaga or South African curry?

How about a noodle bar that attracts lines around the block and stays open until 2am?

You got it. It feels like there are few rules here.

You can grab dinner and a show at the State Theatre, or watch the passing parade on James Street for real theatre.

It’s not always pretty, it’s not always 100 per cent safe, but it’s always authentic.

Northbridge is as real as it gets.

'Deliciously seedy'

Northbridge never seeks to hide its inadequacies. It's all on show here.

Northbridge never seeks to hide its inadequacies. It's all on show here.Credit:Kate Hedley

There’s a line in David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook where Jennifer Lawrence’s character says: “There will always be a part of me that is sloppy and dirty, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself."

If only the streets of Northbridge could talk.

While shuttered shops and long-derelict nightclubs may ring alarm bells in other suburbs, these few blocks just over the rail line wear their scars with pride.

Northbridge is the last place in Perth that doesn’t care what you think of it.

Yes, parts of it are ugly. Some blocks are unsafe at times.

But for every violent incident you read about it the papers, there’s a little girl skipping off to praise God at the Greek Orthodox church on the corner of Francis Street.

There’s a nonna living next door bringing you homemade grappa and canoli.

There are old men playing cards outside a James Street cafe, and there’s a young guy with knee-length dreads skateboarding down the steps of the cultural centre whistling a catchy tune.

“It’s deliciously seedy, multicultural, and home to any entertainment worth your time,” another old friend reckons.

It’s true.

If squeaky clean streets and generic shops are what you’re after, Northbridge isn’t for you.

If you like your neighbours quiet and value ample parking near your supermarket, you’d be better off staying in the outer ‘burbs.

But if you want to feel alive, if you want to feel like you’re part of the biggest buzz Perth has going on, or even if you just want to step out of your comfort zone for an hour or so, this is your place.

The homecoming

When I moved back to Northbridge this year it was after an almost 15-year absence.

Old Shanghai - still going strong after all these years.

Old Shanghai - still going strong after all these years.Credit:Kate Hedley

Ten years of late nights and loud music and so much other "stuff" took its toll, and as my 20s drew to a close I headed back to the town in which I grew up to have a baby and raise my daughter there.

I’d thought I was going home. And, for more than 10 years, I made a life for myself away from the bright lights and big (little) city.

I’ve now been back for 10 months.

At first it was weird. So many things were as I’d remembered, but so much wasn’t.

Locals were still talking about John Kizon, but the cafes and shops had changed, and all of sudden I wasn’t so young and fresh anymore.

Greater than the change in Northbridge, though, had been the change in me.

Against all odds, I had grown up. I wasn’t sure Northbridge and I were still compatible.

But, like it did when I was fresh out of high school, the streets welcomed me back without judgement.

For as much as Northbridge embraces the oddballs, the quirky, and the ‘different’, it also wraps its arms around a mum in her 40s who is nowhere near as cool as she used to think she was and takes her in.

Those who say you can never go home are fooling themselves.

You can. And there’s no place like it.

Kate is the deputy editor of WAtoday.

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