This article was the Cover Story of the Australian Magazine published 14-15 June 1997
The destruction of Sydney's Redfern Aboriginal neighbourhood
A toddler, is a sturdy, dimpled child, is playing inside the house, a tenement on Redfern's notorious Eveleigh Street. "Money," she says, when I first walk in.
There are beds, but no chairs, in the small, dark rooms downstairs. Such furniture as there is – a rickety chest of drawers and a dresser – is gouged and scratched. Except for a little china cat and a child's clock, on the dresser, there is nothing else – no toys, no books, no pictures and no ornaments.
Young men troop up and down the stairs. People hammer on the battered front door from early in the morning until late at night. Not even those who live there produce a key, instead banging on the door if they want to get it. The noise blends into the general pandemonium, as yet another person starts to shout. The sudden outbursts – furies that subside almost as rapidly as they erupt – add to the sense of discordant life inside and out.
This past summer seemed to sound the death knell for the Block, now the nation's most famously wretched ghetto. The niceties are being observed, perhaps a little late in the piece. Following intervention by the NSW government, the latest in a long line of reports on the redevelopment of the Block, suggests the site could again be used for housing for Aborigines. But by then the few hundred people living there now will have been scattered to the four winds. To record something of their lives before the existing community disappears, I come and go for several weeks, wandering around in the day and spending a few nights in the house on Eveleigh Street.
Piled on top of the cupboard, just inside the front door, are several big plastic garbage bags full of used clothes. More used clothing spills out of bags and cartons in the other rooms. At first sight, the heaps of clothing and bedding resembles the frowzy, forgotten rejects thrown in the back of an old secondhand shop. But Margie, the tenant, vainly tries to instill some kind of order, forever starting to tidy up. At 46, Margie has kept her looks and her bright eyed, expectant air (as if waiting to see where the next mischief will come from), but says she feels under pressure all the time. That may be why she agrees to let me lodge at her place without worrying about the consequences. The prospect of having a white woman journalist to stay promises a slight diversion from the afflictions of her life. She shares the place with several of her children and grandchildren and whoever else crashes at night. Margie looks after her two grandchildren – her daughter Janice's kids – because Janice has been a junkie since she was in her teens.
"Don't take any notice of her," Margie says when she first mentions it, but this is difficult: as we walk down Everleigh Street, with her granddaughter, adorable, sturdy two-year-old Charmaine, Janice, a haggard woman with pitted skin and caved-in cheeks, sees her mother, and follows in a frenzy. "Give me some money, Mum...Mum give me thirty dollars," she calls again and again, in a wheedling childish voice, as her own daughter calls out to her, "hallo, Mum, hallo Mum..." anxiously tugging at her mother's tracksuit pants. Janice pays no attention to the little girl.
"Don't take any notice," Margie says again, as we walk along the street, like deaf people, mother and child still calling out.
Janice is as neglectful of her son. A spindly seven-year-old who is anaemic and looks too small for his age, the boy mucks up to get attention but gets money from Margie instead. "Gimme that money back," she yells next morning when he says he won't go to school. Other children in Redfern Primary's red baseball cap are skylarking around outside, waiting for the bus.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" I say to a nine-year-old who spends all day on the street and Margie leaps in to shut me up, almost as if it is asking for trouble to let on that I've noticed anyone else, even a kid who plays truant day in and day out. The same boy is out there again the following week.
The other boy always out on the street is a big 13 or 14-year-old whose mother died of an overdose and whose father hanged himself. I first see him with another boy, on the roof of a derelict building, hurling condom water bombs at a woman picking up the dirty needles left lying around the shooting galleries on Caroline Lane. She screams a few warnings and heaves a half brick up towards them.
A group of men watch from the concrete deck under the Aboriginal Housing Company building on the corner of Eveleigh Street. Most will be there all day and probably the next. One or two make disapproving noises and shake their heads before opening another bottle of beer. They want it understood that in their day they had to go to school. "This is the nineties," says one man, adopting the mournful tone Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones adopts to talk about the youth of today.
There is a constant disjuncture between the real, the symbolic and the imagined worlds of the Block. In the narrow kitchen of Margie's house, Fender, a freckled, middle-aged man with a paunch, is pacing up and down, talking about prehistory in a loud, insistent voice.
"We were the first blood and we sent youse (the whites) out. Now youse are back. You alienated your Aboriginality..."
His fantasy places Aborigines at the apex of human life and himself at the apex of Aboriginal life. A suggestive sort of grandiloquence in an urban fringe-dweller (and small-time drug dealer) who lives among the people at the very bottom of the heap. "I am the last of the first blood'" he says, continuing his monologue though two more visitors have just walked in.
The constant coming and going is part of the fractious sociability of life in this house and this
A year and a half ago, when I first wrote of the plans to redevelop the place, I had the impression that the Aboriginal Housing Company, which owns the land and manages the Block, was susceptible to larger forces in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the business world, manoeuvering to set the scene for commercial redevelopment.
There had been some trouble then, the summer before last. There's always been mayhem in summer on the Block. Last summer, in fact, the neighbourhood went mad. The local work-for-the-dole scheme was temporarily shut down and dozens of young people lost what little work and income they had. In the next few weeks, Redfern police recorded more than 100 muggings and robberies.
The headlines that followed a series of savage attacks on taxidrivers gave impetus to the push to get the place condemned. While influential whites stayed in the shadows, influential blacks argued that the time had come to level the Block.
Composed of a few mean streets and back lanes lined with rundown turn-of-the-century terrace houses, the place gets depicted as our own little sliver of New York's South Bronx.
Now that other parts of Redfern are being gentrified and apartment buildings loom up across the railway tracks, the area bounded by Eveleigh, Vine, Louis and Caroline Streets is like something out of a Third World capital with shantytowns in the shadows of gleaming new office towers.
From the top of Eveleigh Street one does, in fact, look straight at the gleaming towers of the city skyline. There's no better place to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks, says a woman who lives on the Block.
Instead, commuters find themselves staring in fascinated horror at the scene on the street. The buildings that aren't boarded up look trashed. The rotting remnants of upstairs balconies jut out over cracked, unpainted walls covered in graffiti. Children play in the weeds behind the facades of the houses reduced to broken hulks. Knots of Aborigines camp in the ragged little park at the top of Everleigh Street. Others squat under the Aboriginal Housing Company, overlooking a derelict building with a fountain of garbage spilling from a gaping hole in the wall (as if someone on speed crashed through it, arms outstretched.)
The scene provides a cranked-up, lurid apparition of the lives of the urban underclass of blacks and whites. Outside the workforce, they exist on the furthest margins of a society coping with uncertainty by closing the doors.
In many ways the Block seems to be no more a part of that society than some remote community out west. "It's like it has an invisible wall around it," says Dr Diane Smith, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, who investigated the local Community Development Employment Program in 1994. Previously such a success that it won small business awards, this work-for-the-dole scheme was closed down. The fate of the scheme was sealed by ATSIC officials in a position to influence much of what went on behind the invisible walls of the Block.
One result is that local black politics can be construed as a carve-up of ATSIC-funded organisations. With their patrons in ATSIC helping them to maintain their fiefdoms, two families – the Coes, originally from Cowra, NSW, and the Mundines from the NSW north coast - have dominated Redfern politics and controlled its organisations. Paul Coe received more than $1.2 million from the Aboriginal Legal Service over three years for his services as a barrister. The ALS has just been closed, $2 million in debt.
The Aboriginal Housing Company, the Mundine fiefdom, was favoured by particular ATSIC officials despite frequent allegations about nepotism and mounting evidence of mismanagement.
In fact, the housing company was set up 24 years ago to house a bunch of metho drinkers who had been squatting in the slums in Louis Street. With the help of Father Ted Kennedy, a local Catholic priest, and Aboriginal activist Bob Bellear (now a judge in the NSW Supreme Court) and his wife, Kaye, they organised themselves, got about half a million dollars from the Whitlam Government and bought the first properties from Ian Kiernan, the future Clean-Up Australia man.
The early days tend to get reflected through a haze of sentiment. But there is no mistaking the very real sense of loss of those surveying the present-day scene."We had everything here then, everything we needed,"says the health worker Sandra Ceissman. Wistful at the recollection, she mentions that there were four pubs right there, including the Empress, a place recalled with a reminiscent grin - she used to have to scoot over there as a girl to get her aunty so she wouldn't get pinched.
In those days, whites drove past the Empress ( if they drove past at all) half expecting a body to come flying through the window as another brawl broke out or another lot of white cops roughed up another lot of blacks. The disorder at the Empress distilled what most whites felt about Redfern. Nowadays, instead, many wander past the discount designer shops on the same street.
With Redfern changing around it and the smell of real estate money in the air, the housing company has long talked of moving on the residents and redeveloping the site. That requires big money, of course. Last summer, only a few weeks after the Block had hit the headlines again, ATSIC promised $6 million, and called on the NSW Government to match the grant. No dice. State officials like Geoff Scott, the head of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, kept saying that they wouldn't think of handing over the money until they have some assurances about the management of the company.
Now the State Government says it can't provide the funds, in the next few years, at least. The most logical option in the latest report on the Block proposes that the land is leased from the housing company and that there are additional managers of the housing to be built on the site. But the whole thing is up in the air yet again.
The Government will place the tenants on priority lists for public housing, luckily. Despite the millions ATSIC gave the company over the years to buy houses elsewhere, by last summer less than a third were occupied by former tenants of the Block. But company-hired consultants were always wandering into its broken-down houses telling tenants they could have a lovely new house (even a house with a pool) as long as they moved from the Block.
"There's been so many promises made that a sort of lethargy has set in," says Pat Ormesher. She and her older sister, Dorothy, both nuns, share a small dark cottage on Caroline Street and maintain a perpetual open house for people from the Block. One day as we're going to visit them, Margie, who has let me know she can't read, picks up a local real estate guide, saying that she's got to look for a new place to live. Somehow it makes me think of another delirious moment in the negotiations over the future of the Block, when company officials and consultants talked of turning the real estate in to a "black Darling Harbour." Indeed, as more tenants fell into arrears, and more houses were left to rot, money allocated for maintenance was diverted - with ATSIC 's approval - to pay more consultants. Soon there was sense of inexorability about the decline, as if everyone had agreed there was no point in salvaging any of it. But they hadn't as it turned out.
"I'm not moving," says Joyce Ingram, 74, a small, formidable community elder who has spent much of her life on the Block. Ingram is among the critics of the housing company who formed the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Coalition with the help of Gilbert and Tobin, a firm of city lawyers, working pro bono "...for what is a complex and important issue for the Aboriginal community," says Danny Gilbert.
In fact, the formation of the organisation might be the one sign that the battered community isn't quite beaten yet. Coalition stalwarts Tanya Lawrie and Anne Cummings, never before involved in local politics, suddenly found themselves rushing around the place collecting proxies. Cummings went to meetings with government officials, the sort of thing she had never in her life contemplated doing. But the company still had the numbers. Officials refused to let anyone else join up. Threatened with legal action, they signed up a bunch of coalition supporters, at long last, then boosted the numbers on their own side, maintaining the three-quarters majority required for any meaningful vote on the future of the Block.
The "numbers game" as Mundine himself called it when we spoke, can readily be played around the constraints that family and clan obligations impose on Aboriginal politics.
Unless they're being quoted by an ATSIC official (talking to a white journalist) the rules generally seem to be flexible enough to be changed if the fluid realities of a situation call for it.
It isn't just the arbitrariness of the proceedings that highlights the style of the company's extraordinary general meeting held in March in The Factory - a hanger-like building now used as a local meeting hall and church. I manage to stay in the hall when the other journalists are tossed out. The meeting is shared by Pastor Peter Walker, a thickset man with a grey speckled beard. He seems to be all at sea, at one point accusing an opponent from the housing coalition of knowing the rules. "I haven't had the time to study the rule book as you do," he says. In the heat of the moment he seems to have forgotten that, as chairman, he's expected to know them.
The coalition wants the constitution changed so any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander can join AHC. Unless the sky falls in, the resolution will be defeated – the company still has the numbers – but this fails to assure the pastor. "I think it's a really unfair request," he says, in a plaintive tone of voice, and someone starts yelling at him. In fact, there's a distinct edge of hysteria in the air as the anger that often seems to be simmering very close to the surface of life on the Block boils up into flaming rows over nothing much. The meeting registers as a diversion from the days that are full of incident but somehow leached of meaning. But even if the gatherings replace traditional rituals, it is impossible not to wonder how many such meetings have been held as this community self-destructs.
There are black communities that have come back from the brink, probably after the women and the traditional elders managed to exert some kind of community control over the booze, petrol sniffing or heroin abuse. But on the Block, where some say up to a third of the young people are using heroin, the community gets together because the very activities the mainstream anathematises have been incorporated almost at the centre of community life. People couldn't be more matter-of-fact about the things middle-class society hides. "...e' still loosens 'er up," says an older resident, when I ask about a man whose bashings left his wife brain-damaged. This woman, who wanders around much of the day vacantly asking for cigarettes, is pregnant again.
The perilousness of life on the Block adds to the sense that it exists in a separate realm. It's intense sociability gets fractured by sudden reminders of the otherness of the place. Outside her house at four in the afternoon, before I first stay the night, Margie is sitting on a milk crate chatting with a neighbour, another grandmother with a baby in tow. I hear later that the baby's father died of an overdose. But for the moment, I'm trying not to look surprised. Janice is there with her friend Venus, a woman with a wild mane of hair and (all considered) remarkably obtrusive hexagonal mirrored shades, who leans on the bonnet of an old car scribbling down orders for running shoes."You c...s will get locked up. Don't come crying to me," Margie says. Janice and Venus have already been out once shoplifting and brought back several boxes of shoes. "Just Do It," says the legend on one box. "When you want 'em, aunty?" says Venus. I see her again on pension day. I'm talking with an upright older woman, who can't resist when Venus, weighed down under a bundle of big shopping bags, asks for $20 for four towels "It's a bargain. They sold for $18 each," she says, unabashed.
Soon one starts to notice the contrast between the large number of people in new T-shirts and running shoes, and the grinding poverty of the Block. The things that aren't brand-new are soiled and cracked with age. The contrast makes me wonder if a legacy of traditional attitudes to ownership is that people grab at material things but have no interest in preserving then.
Every time Margie and I wander around the Block, people rush up each minute to ask her for money or cigarettes. "Gi'ss Gi'ss a cigarette aunty, gi'ss a smoke". There's a clingy compulsiveness about it, a keening insistence on being acknowledged, as if the decline of the community has produced a neurotic version of the sharing that is so valued in Aboriginal life. In this community the descendants of Aborigines who had to distribute what they had in order to survive, share the things that are killing them.
And as it turns out, I have arranged to stay in a house where drugs are sold,(as happens in a number of other houses on the Block). No-one there has said a word about it, in advance. Margie's son, Mick, Fender and a couple of other men appear to live upstairs in the terrace house. But it isn't until I've spent a night that Margie says that they're worried about my presence. The implication that they sell drugs is left hanging in the air. I gathered something of the sort, with all the people tramping up and down the stairs, a metre or two from where I pretend to sleep. Though I've said I'm a journalist and flourish a notebook all the time (looping it over the bumbag that I still have on, when I go to bed, fully clothed) neither she nor the others ask me to change their names. I decide to do so in case the authorities step in and take the children away. They have next to no chance in life with a mother like Janice, who'll shoot up near the little girl, but at least they have a grandmother who for all her limitations does the best she can.
Like so many other members of the stolen generation, Margie was never much mothered herself. The authorities took her away and put her in a girls' home when she was five or six. She didn't see her mother for the next 10 years, but reveals they didn't get on at all when they met up again.
Other, more immediate matters play on her mind. "I'm worrying about that little girl," she says in the middle of the night. Janice, who ignores both her kids much of the time, takes the girl with her when she goes out after 10 at night. The child cries with exhaustion when she returns. Someone tells me Janice uses her for "cover" when she's scoring drugs. I find it a relief that nothing worse has happened to her. In the life of the street, everything is sold and everything is for sale.
"I reckon we love each other in very funny ways," Margie tells me another day, asked what she feels about the place. We are wandering back from the supermarket with shopping for the party she will give for her grandson. "The mother doesn't care, she's in another world," says Margie, who gravitates between anger that it's all up to her and her desire to make up for the parents neglect. In the money, that day at least, she buys a mountain of food, including a Bart Simpson birthday cake the little boy wants. The following afternoon, as the neighbour who's just arrived carrying a big bowl of chocolate crackle mixture is followed in by somebody loudly demanding a bong, Margie suddenly shrieks that we've forgotten ice-cream. The house is full of food. The entire population of Eveleigh Street is about to turn up. Forget the ice cream, I tell you. "No," she yells, preparing to rush out. "The other kids here all have ice-cream on their birthdays."
The birthday party happens to be on a pension day. Further down the street, around 10 that night, another party is in full swing, around a tub filled with bottles of beer.
The sight of eight or nine Aboriginal men, sitting on the street drinking, can be disconcerting at first. Once I linger and start to chat, there're welcoming. The only hostility comes from a man annoyed by my assertion that I don't drink and don't use dope – as if I put myself above him and his friends. "Where the anger comes from - from the person in blue and the Yuppie fellers," says another man, nicknamed "Keen". "They don't look at us. They don't acknowledge us, but when it comes up with the politicians, they judge us."
In reality the politicians still seem to be looking the other way. What does Dr Andrew Refshauge, NSW Deputy Premier, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the local member, believe ought to happen on the Block? "It's a federal responsibility," his press secretary rapidly says.
"It's a little bit difficult for us," the press secretary for Dr John Herron, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, says, "The minister hasn't been to Redfern since he became minister..."