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Ross Fitzgerald: Another time around the Block for urban revival

In this Opinion peice in the Australian of 20 February 2006 Ross Fitzgerald argues: After years of failure, plans to kick-start an inner Sydney wasteland are worth serious consideration

IN 1973 the Whitlam government handed urban Aborigines the Redfern area in inner Sydney that became known as the Block. Since then it has been an emblematic place for indigenous Australians.

This clutch of terrace houses, originally a symbol of land rights, was supposed to be a fresh start for a community beset by poverty, dependency and landlessness.

Tragically, in the ensuing years it became a virtual wasteland, run down by rampant crime and substance abuse. Houses were turned into drug dens, and streets and open spaces were littered with needles and broken beer bottles.

Last year the Aboriginal Housing Company unveiled plans to redevelop the Block and build 62 new homes, to commemorate the 62 indigenous families that traditionally lived in Redfern before they were wiped out by smallpox.

The AHC's Pemulwuy Project, named after the indigenous warrior who led the first significant resistance against British settlers, aimed to create "the best urban Aboriginal community in Australia and, in doing so, set the benchmark for other communities". This vision statement has an eerie echo. In 1974 the Redfern Housing Project proposed renovating 41 terraces for indigenous families as a "model for inner-city communities".

But more than three decades later, many of Redfern's indigenous residents still live in the "slums and pigsties" that were to be eliminated by providing Aboriginal-owned housing on the Block.

In the intervening period, the AHC acquired 100 parcels of land, but most of its houses fell into disrepair and disrepute. Forty-one of the families on the Block eventually chose to relocate to escape the local drug trade, and the AHC was forced to demolish all but 19 of its properties.

It was a failed experiment, according to the NSW Minister for Redfern Waterloo, former Sydney lord mayor Frank Sartor, who argues for a new approach that retains existing homes but incorporates indigenous sporting, cultural, educational and commercial pursuits on the Block.

He maintains that it is time the Block took its rightful place as the symbolic heart of black Sydney. Sartor has repeatedly ruled out compulsory acquisition of the AHC's land and has promised not to cut the level of Aboriginal housing and public housing. Despite that, AHC project director Peter Valilis routinely alludes to a plan to resume the Block.

The AHC initially sought $27 million in taxpayer funding to build 62 homes but now says it is organising private funding. However, concerns remain about its finances. Since 1973 it has received about $30 million from the federal government and over the past eight years almost $8 million has been funnelled to it from federal and state coffers. A 2004 audit found the AHC was $1 million in the red and its council rates in substantial arrears.

Earlier this month Sartor released a land-use strategy for Redfern and Waterloo, targeting eight key sites to kick-start the urban renewal process, including Redfern railway station, the Eveleigh rail yards and the Block. Now on exhibition for public comment, the plan focuses on redevelopment for the sake of employment, not residential gentrification.

It proposes to rezone the Block from residential to mixed-use, limiting the number of dwellings to about 30 and providing greater scope for community, educational and even some commercial uses. The draft plan complements the work being done by the new Redfern-Waterloo Authority, which was set up last year with an annual budget of $7.2 million to try to fix some of the suburb's entrenched problems. It's already working to improve human services in the area, which cost up to $40 million a year, and aims to provide 18,000 new jobs over the next decade.

Local and indigenous jobless will be given targeted assistance to secure these positions, and are already being trained and employed on the NSW Government's $40 million project to turn the old Eveleigh Carriageworks into a performing arts centre.

An $850,000 vocational training centre will be established at North Eveleigh to provide locals with hospitality, construction, transport and information technology skills, including an indigenous cuisine jobs program run by a local elder and a team from Edna's Table, a well-known Sydney eatery. And as part of an overhaul of human services, new youth precincts will be established to provide one-stop shops for services.

To that end, the Redfern-Waterloo Authority has brokered a $25 million deal for the Indigenous Land Corporation to negotiate the purchase of the old Redfern Public School. The new Aboriginal youth facility will offer leadership and mentoring initiatives, food and learning programs run by the Exodus Foundation, and sporting programs on an upgraded oval.

There is considerable goodwill and support for a new approach at state and federal levels of government. Certainly a bipartisan approach is needed to avoid the repetition of past mistakes and to begin the social and economic rejuvenation of one of Australia's most afflicted communities. To this end, and despite discontent among some indigenous residents of Redfern, Sartor's plan deserves a thoughtful and considered response.,5744,18201383%255E7583,00.html