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Will bulldozers make it better? - 18.02.2004

Blame the people, blame the politicians, blame the buildings. Elizabeth Farrelly wonders if architectural change offers any hope for Redfern.

Redfern hits the headlines again. So in-yer-face and still so secret, Redfern's the Block - in stark contrast with Bondi's The Block - sits at the burnt-out end of the glamour spectrum, regarded by most of us, sight unseen, as scary and squalid. And while the kind of determinism that Band-Aids architectural solutions onto social problems is long discredited, recent events can only exacerbate calls for demolition.

At first glance this might seem like a good and reasonable thing, completing from within what the "natural" forces of lifestyle redevelopment and government sanitisation have begun from without. But, although the Block's traditional terrace-house stock has hindered improvement efforts, outright obliteration of this cultural landscape would be a profound cultural loss for Sydney.

Redfern, in sickness and in health, has been the centre of urban Aboriginal culture in Australia for generations - a crossroads, literal and metaphorical. Like a node in Rover Thomas's Roads Cross, the Block (bounded by Hugo, Young, Eveleigh and Caroline streets) is that to which all paths eventually lead. For white culture too, though, Redfern has been a nodal point, the crossing of mainline rail and two major roads (Regent and Cleveland). It's an inner-city six-ways, albeit one we might rather ignore. And crossing - between cultures as well as thoroughfares - is at the core of Redfern's dilemma, as well as its history.

Aboriginal Redfern exists because of jobs offered by the Eveleigh yards in the 1930s, and the cheap housing nearby. The architect Col James recently received the Institute of Architects' President's Award for 30 years of honorary work with the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) that owns the Block. "Country people," he says, "would arrive looking for roots, gravitate to Redfern, become [say] fettlers, find work in the goods yards."

Since then, there have been waves of creative energy, intercut with waves of dereliction. The bad old '70s days of riot police and street strife were followed by self-help redevelopment euphoria in the '80s - its successes and failures - then full-on heroin culture in the '90s. It is this, the drug stranglehold, that recently impelled the AHC to demolish most of the houses on the Block, resulting in relocation of all but four of the 15 known drug houses.

Nevertheless, now must be one of Redfern's ebb points. It's alive, but hardly vigorous, while upscale land-uses clamour at the gates. Current descriptions dust-off old terminology - slum, eyesore, squalor - guaranteed to nurture the reactive "comprehensive-redevelopment" impulse.

Which is exactly what the so-called RED (Redfern-Eveleigh-Darlington-Waterloo) strategy promises.

RED, a supposedly all-encompassing, all-of-government project, inspires in this consultation-fatigued community as much mistrust as optimism; not least because of the secrecy-cloaked-as-consultation that surrounds it. The Premier's Department won't talk, not on record, and local member Clover Moore has repeatedly queried RED's real agenda, in and out of Parliament. Bob Carr's reply? "The Government's approach is to go to the market with a plan to seek comprehensive redevelopment that takes account of the need for social renewal of the area as well as other matters."

That's planning. Ask the market. They closed the local primary school because RED's population dropped beneath 20,000 (from more than 50,000 in the 1920s), not seeing that the market had taken Redfern into its own hands. All around - along Broadway, on the old Carlton United site, and at Green Square - upscale residential has sprouted in vast quantities, morphing daggy old South Sydney into the designer-res hinterland of a newly global city.

Even in Redfern, the council's shiny new community centre is nearly finished, while virtually everything outside the Block has been invisibly mended into Newtown, Chippendale, Darlington or Strawberry Hills. Council plans to revamp the roller-shuttered high street may or may not survive the merger, but at North Eveleigh's Wilson Street carriageworks site, the Government quietly commissioned from Tonkin Zulaikha Greer a $35 million performance space and approved its masterplan for a residential and cultural redevelopment, up to 12 storeys with 600 units and 8000 square metres of offices.

Even the public housing along Elizabeth-Phillip streets is up for redevelopment. There's talk of rehabilitating Redfern Oval, next to Redfern Park (where Keating made his famous "we committed the murders" speech of 1992) and across from the Rabbitohs to public access, and "serious" consideration to sending a mini-tunnel under the Regent-Gibson street intersection, healing one of Sydney's worst pedestrian-hating crossings.

Transport is the key, and the incentive. RED studies show Redfern could provide 20,000 jobs within 400 metres of the station while the Australian Technology Park (ATP) masterplan allows its floorspace to quadruple, employing 6500 people at Eveleigh and several hundred more at Eveleigh North. Redfern has the infrastructure; trains, buses, parks. Plus the Parramatta-Chatswood line, if and when, makes Redfern an essential bead on the so-called "think-link", joining five universities (Macquarie, UWS, Sydney, UTS - all three campuses - and UNSW) with the Royal North Shore and Westmead teaching hospitals, as well as the bio-med and high-tech facilities at the ATP.

Central to it all, of course, is Redfern station, or what's left of it. Proposals involve a total revamp: fringing the heritage station with street-friendly retail, flanking it with 12-storey residential towers (so you'd scarcely notice Nati Stoliar's $25 million TNT twins, one lately occupied by South Sydney Council), bridging over the tracks and reorienting the lot towards the street.

All this may be inevitable; certainly it's a trend any new super-council will intensify. But within it all, Redfern-the-Block is pincered. Redfern station, capacity-rich, is barely used; it serves seven of Sydney's 10 lines but is only ninth-busiest in the network. Town Hall Station, meanwhile, is full, grubby and virtually unexpandable. Redfern, next along, is close, breezy and convenient, but no one gets off there because, even with a permanent police presence, that reputation, that fear-factor, outweigh all else.

Ten years hence, if the Premier's Department and the 45 government "partners" in its RED Strategy have their way, Redfern as we know-it will be no more. Question: is this a good thing?

Sure, there's graffiti. There are troubled and un-tame people. There are goomies (the old name for metho drinkers) and gatherings and even bonfires on the street, night and day. It is intimidating; no doubt about it. The sense of territory around the Block is palpable. Nothing is defined, not a word said. And yet the demarcation is clear. Partly, this is genuine threat; part is the invisible membrane with which marginal communities surround themselves. But is erasure the answer? Or are we simply intimidated by difference, and by Redfern's active dissent from our oh-so aspirational culture?

This has to be understood since, if Redfern is to survive, it will need to withstand not just the sanitising urge sweeping our town but also societies' instinct to destroy the object of fear.

So, consider. It is possible to see Redfern differently. To see it as core cultural fabric, enriching the entire city; to see its very difference rendering it not less but more important, the closer we come to glossed-out globalism. It is possible to see that the Block itself, as a made urban landscape, has its own beauty, a beauty which we owe it to ourselves to see. Hang the graffiti and the paint-patched walls in a gallery, they'd be instant art. Valuable, even. So, what can be done?

Quite a lot, probably. No one would suggest that Redfern's problem is primarily architectural, but many agree that getting rid of the London-type terraces would help. Not only are they dark and depressingly internalised, but their yards and lanes are so secluded they seem designed for the drug-deal. Even half-demolished, Eveleigh Lane is known as "million-dollar lane" for its annual turnover; Caroline Lane, where the needle bus (until recently) dropped its daily load, is a shooting alley so deep in needles the fire brigade comes to sluice it out. Occasionally. Plus, says Col James, if the local kids want in to a house they simply scoop a hole in the century-old lime mortar and sandstock, and walk through the wall.

Is there a better model? If so, what? And how, after all the well-meant failures, will we know? Can house-design cross cultural boundaries? How real are such boundaries, anyway? And how can you design for a largely itinerant population without a clear paradigm for urban Aboriginality?

The architect Dillon Kombumerri, now with the Government Architect's Merrima group, is collaborating with the AHC on its Pemulwuy rebuilding project. Kombumerri, with family ties in Redfern, worked with the AHC in the '80s "when Charlie [Perkins] was still around". He believes the first step is to abandon preconceptions about what is "culturally appropriate" and design "as any good designer would", from first principles and an open mind.

There are important differences, of course, from "ordinary" Australian housing. These include, says James, the need for bigger houses (allowing seven or eight per house) with at least half the floor area outside and duplicate facilities to allow cooking, eating, sleeping and even bathing to happen under the stars. "That's the beauty and the wonder of the place that you can interact spontaneously and in a large, social way," Kombumerri says.

And where white culture (with the possible exception of those in the Horizon) stresses privacy, early Pemulwuy sketches show all balconies, gardens and streets subject to communal supervision. Another key concept is to open Red Square, opposite the station and always the ignition-point of Redfern's troubles, to competition, redesigning this gauntlet of intimidation as a large and welcoming public place.

There's also a desire for symbolism. One proposal, drawn from Mandawuy Yunupingu's 1993 Boyer Lecture, is ceremonially to replace the "poisoned waterhole" of the old Railway View Hotel, corner Lawson and Eveleigh, with a billabong, doubling as a functional retention basin to reduce flooding on Vine Street. The mingling of salt and fresh water would symbolise the black-white cultural mix, but also the constant renewal of Redfern's heartland with fresh rural blood.

James recognises that the Block, like an overstressed adolescent, has suffered periods of self-harm. But he remains stubbornly optimistic: "I think we're doing better than we've done in the past. We'll make mistakes, but we'll learn from them. I think we'll get a lot of it right. Aboriginal people like comfort, just like anyone else."

To many, of course, white as well as black, being truly Aboriginal means living bush. Even in Redfern, says Kombumerri, with its deeply urban history, "there is a hard core of traditionalists who would like to have a bush setting. But it's not sustainable - for example with hygiene. You'd need a much bigger paddock."

As to the question of an urban paradigm. "I think it's there," says Kombumerri. "People just need to get it in their heads that just because they're in the city, it doesn't mean they're not black. They just need some pride in themselves and in their culture." That's the ask. It may not work, but it has to be more promising than a kneejerk engagement in Dispossession II.

SMH 18th February 2004