You are here: Home / Media / History - Built on dreams and flimsy foundations - 7 October 2005

History - Built on dreams and flimsy foundations - 7 October 2005

Aborigines want The Block in Redfern to be a tourist attraction. Its past is traced by BOB CHISHOLM in the The Daily Telegraph.
Redfern and the surrounding inner-Sydney suburbs such as Alexandria are home to a lot of Aborigines. A great number work and live un-noticed. But The Block, next to Redfern railway station, has long been the dramatic centre of battles between their Dreaming and harsh realities.

For just as Central and Redfern stations have been the points of departure between city and country life for white travellers, so the suburb has traditionally been a crossing point between black rural, suburban and city life.

Before white settlement, clans such as the Wangal (of which Bennelong claimed membership) lived on the south of the Harbour near Sydney Cove. After the First Fleet arrived, the Aborigines, ravaged by diseases caught from settlers, were gradually driven further and further from Sydney Cove.

By 1900, La Perouse, which was declared an Aboriginal reserve, was the closest black community to the CBD. But by the time the Great Depression hit Australia in 1930, Aborigines and those of part-Aboriginal descent had begun a big move from the state's rural extremities to inner-suburban life.

They settled in working-class suburbs such as Balmain, Glebe and Surry Hills. But their centre was the closest residential area to Central station, which had opened in 1906, The railway, besides carrying blacks from the country, gave them jobs as fettlers, based at the vast Eveleigh rail yards.

From Central, Redfern was in the direction of La Perouse, and the Depression strengthened the link between the two Aboriginal strongholds. In the 1930s the homeless, both black and white, formed makeshift camps around La Perouse which, like many other such sad places, had the misnomer Happy Valley. After World War II, more affluent whites who had bought land freehold nearby, pressed Randwick Council to move the squatters on. Many moved to Redfern.

By 1965 Redfern housed 12,000 Aborigines, many employed by the myriad local factories. Others, however, turned to crime and the bottle and it was the drinkers who, in 1972, gave The Block its recognised status as an Aboriginal focal point.

In November that year, police arrested 15 "goomies" - alcoholic Aborigines - for living in empty houses. They were discharged in the care of the local Catholic priest at St Vincents Church, Redfern, Father Ted Kennedy. The radical Kennedy (who died in May this year) housed them in the church hall.

On December 2, the federal Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam was elected to government. Whitlam's team had been toying with the concept of Aboriginal land rights, particularly since January 26, 1972, when Aboriginal activists opened their "tent embassy" outside Canberra's old parliament building. Whitlam's Aboriginal Affairs minister, the Victorian left-winger Gordon Bryant, was keen to help the Redfern Aborigines.

Much more cautious, however, was the ALP right-wing machine which controlled South Sydney Council, the local authority for Redfern. The aldermen, as they were then called, while not anti-Aborigine, were wary of anything that would create ghetto conditions or degrade the suburb, which local Labor stalwarts boasted had been lifted from slum status to respectability by the hard work of those who were residing there - most of whom happened to be white folk. When the number of displaced people in the church ha" grew to 50, the council ordered Kennedy to evict them. The priest teamed up with Aboriginal leaders including Bob Bellear (who became the nation's first black judge, and died in March, this year) and his brother Sol. They leased vacant houses in Louis St, Redfern, inside the 2ha area now known as The Block. Some squatters had also moved in nearby.

Police, who in those Jays took no nonsense from drunk Aborigines in Redfern pubs, raided the houses repeatedly. More threatening to many, who were suffering dire health problems, was the fact that Kennedy was running out of money.

In July 1973, Bryant dramatically entered the arena by granting $500,000 for a housing project for all of the Block, bounded by Louis, Vine and Caroline streets. It would be run by a communal entity called the Aboriginal Housing Company.

The tiny yards were to be combined into large lawns akin to village commons - ideal for children. The terraces would be renovated and rented cheaply. For the social adventurers of the Whitlam government, it would be an exciting advance in urban living.

The reality proved something else. The company was a big spender but building suffered delays - some blamed on South Sydney Council. When the Fraser Coalition government was elected in 1975, it gave the company more than a year to get its house in order. and then told it the times of easy money were over.

The Block descended into disrepair and disorder; it was hard to help the needy without criminals helping themselves. The Block gradually became, far from an Utopian village, so violent it was a virtual no-go zone for the law-abiding. Police rarely ventured there except in large numbers, with armour to protect them from flying bricks and petrol bombs during periodic riots.

In 1997, authorities decided to demolish some of the houses, which had become derelict and were frequented by heroin dealers. A new shopfront police station and more Aboriginal officers were promised.

But these steps, like all the others, failed. The Block burst into violence once again in February 2004, over the death of Thomas "T.J." Hickey, 17. He was impaled on a fence while riding his bicycle at high speed, perhaps believing police chasing another criminal wanted him.

Of course, amid all this mayhem, acts of decency and sanity are over-looked. The Block has housed many kind, honest, hard-working Aborigines and helped them find a new life in Sydney. Its establishment came months after the Aboriginal Medical Service and Aboriginal Legal Service were set up in Redfern.

Now Aboriginal Housing Company CEO Mick Mundine hopes the Block will become a tourist destination. That may require a leap of faith so great that only Father Ted Kennedy could have made it.

Hope then strife ... children (above) play on Eveleigh St, Redfern, Below left: Ted Kennedy. Below: Mick Mundine   Friday, October 7, 2005—page 34