7 March 2024

Dickson residents celebrate 60 years of the local shops with tell-all brochure

| James Coleman
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The Dickson Shops

The Dickson Shops, as seen on 24 July, 1968. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

“Where once emus boldly roamed in native grasslands, a talented community with a dynamic urban centre has risen.”

So reads a new brochure published by the Dickson Residents Group, highlighting the “stories and history” of Dickson.

This inner north suburb was originally pencilled in by Canberra’s architect Walter Burley Griffin as the city’s future industrial area but it’s now home to more than 3200 people, a shopping centre, pool, cafes, playing fields, and what we’re reliably informed is a very good schnitty at The Tradies club.

But the group’s resident historian Jane Goffman says it’s hiding a lot more.

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The ‘Dickson Discovery Walks’ brochure, launched to mark the diamond anniversary (or 60 years) of the Dickson Shops, features three self-guided walks that take in Chinatown, the ‘Sixties Classic Hub’ and the site of Canberra’s first ‘airport’.

The walks range in length from 550 metres to 1.6 kilometres, or 20 to 45 minutes.

Jane has previously approached the ACT Heritage Council with hopes for the suburb to be heritage listed, but was knocked back following an investigation which found it “unlikely … any fragmentary remnants would meet the thresholds for inclusion in the ACT Heritage Register”.

But it didn’t stop there.

A RAAF DH9 aircraft at the Dickson Aerodrome, now part of the Dickson Playing Fields. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

She has applied for a number of heritage grants over the years to have three ‘Canberra Tracks’ signs installed, and the new brochure will be followed by a fourth plaque in Taglietta Square. This is set to be unveiled on 24 April by Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti during the Canberra Region Heritage Festival.

This will “highlight the multicultural roots of our suburb, and the visionary architects and planners who shaped it,” she says.

Fellow group member Peter Stanley has always lived in North Canberra but will have called Dickson home for 20 years this year. Even he admits he doesn’t know the half of it.

The Dickson Library

The Dickson Library is listed on the ‘Register of Significant Twentieth Century Architecture’. Photo: Nick-D, Wikimedia.

“You think Dickson is just an established Canberra suburb, but it’s got layers of history, and Jane has brought all of this out in the brochure,” he says.

“I didn’t know that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dickson was actually a beacon of urban design, and the library was world famous as a piece of modernist architecture. When you walk past it every day, you don’t even notice.”

The library, designed by famous Italian architect Enrico Taglietti, is even listed on the ‘Register of Significant Twentieth Century Architecture’ for its “complex, angular geometry complementing nature, and horizontal roof planes”.

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Likewise, Peter says the Dickson Pool, with its butterfly roof, is “a classic piece of modernist design”.

Then there’s Chinatown, marked by a variety of Asian restaurants and hotels and a limestone statue of Confucius on the corner of Cape and Woolley streets (where a railway line to Yass was meant to lie).

“In some ways, the development can be seen as artificial,” Peter says.

“But when I looked into it, I realised all we’ve done is formalise a character that’s been here for nearly 40 years, and that is that Dickson has always effectively been Canberra’s Chinatown.”

Confucius statue, Dickson. Photo: ArtsACT, ACT Government.

Queensland Premier Steven Miles might judge Canberra an “awful place” to live, but Peter says he “obviously doesn’t live in Dickson”.

“He’d find out Dickon is a community like nothing else. And I think it is important people feel a sense of connection to their community, and the place where they live.”

The free brochure is available online, and physical copies are at the Dickson Library, Dickson Newsagency, and The Tradies.

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I remember when Dickson didn’t have junkies.

This was the area of my first foot patrol when I joined the AFP in 1980. Depending on shift numbers during the day, they would drop one officer at Dickson to just “patrol” on foot. Remember being hot and sweaty, no incidence of note and just spoke with shop keepers and the public. Much easier times.

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