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The scene of some of the fiercest struggles over Aboriginal rights, the Block in Redfern is embroiled in a planning battle that could make or break the battered community, reports Lisa Dabscheck in the SMH’s the(Sydney)magazine December 06.

"You want some smoko?" asks a woman with a pram, three metres inside the Block. "No thanks." – “You got two dollars?" demands another. "No, sorry." "Liar", she snarls and stumbles towards someone else. "You got two dollars?"

A few paces towards the heart of the Block, on a grassy knoll with striking views of the city skyline, the picture is quite different. There's a fundraiser on today, to renovate a dance space at the Elouera "Tony Mundine" gym, and a band is playing on a makeshift stage. Kids dance and line up for sausages: locals and community supporters picnic in small huddles, laughing and moving to the music. Directly behind the stage is the back wall of the gym, covered with a painting of the Aboriginal flag: yellow for the sun, red for the earth, black for the skin.

To the right is Eveleigh Street, the most infamous of the four narrow roadways that frame what has become known as "the Block", the badly deteriorated urban hub for Aboriginal people in Sydney. About halfway along Eveleigh Street, the last in a row of terrace houses looks like a casualty of the Blitz. Blackened shingles hang loosely from its soot-coated roof frame.

An old yellow sign shows the crossroad is Holden Street. The name of the iconic Australian car company is the symbol of the Australian dream: the Holden in the driveway of the three-bedroom suburban bungalow. In the heart of Redfern, it adorns a burnt-out building. The irony seems callous.

In 1973, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam provided the initial grant to the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) to allow the first housing purchases on this parcel of land in Redfern and the Block became the birthplace of urban land rights in this country. At that time, there were 102 houses in and immediately around the Block. Now, only 19 inhabited homes remain. While some have fallen victim to arson attacks by disgruntled tenants, others have been razed by the AHC to prevent their use as drug houses. More than anything else, drugs have been the scourge of this place, bringing unemployment, crime, poverty, sickness and death.

The land itself is just under 8000 square metres. But what the Block lacks in size, it makes up for in significance. For the people who populate it - whether residents or visitors - it is the cornerstone of an Aboriginal presence in our biggest capital city, a meeting place for indigenous people from across the country and a landmark that serves as a reminder of our native people to the other 98 per cent of the population.

Shane Phillips lives on Holden Street. He is a long-term resident of the Block, having moved in at the age of five with his father, Dick Blair, one of the founding members of the AHC, his mother and his eight brothers and sisters.

His father went on to become the local pastor, a community role model; his eldest sister died of a heroin overdose. His experience of the Block illustrates its polarity - the way it can give hope and take it away. "It's been tough," he says. "We've learned the hard way, that's for sure."

The 41-year-old skipper of the Tribal Warrior vessels - two historic boats that host cultural tours on Sydney harbour - is desperate to find a way forward. "I'm passionate about change because generations of our people will survive because of it. If we can't have one community in Sydney - the front-line of the colony - that can be a positive place for our people, then they might as well just shoot us all."

The answer, he says, is to give successful Aboriginal people the opportunity to reshape the Block from the inside out. "Now is the time to give us a real chance," he says. "If you were to put working people in here who want to raise their kids and not worry about drugs in the street, who care about neighbourhood watch and cultural values, you'd see a vast change coming about."

That would be a major turnaround to what exists now. To many Sydneysiders, the Block is a no-go zone: a drug-, alcohol- and crime-ridden ghetto across the road from Redfern train station. Some consider it a blight on the landscape and want it bulldozed; others suspect developers have plans to seize it and exploit its obvious commercial potential.

Few seem to know that for the past six years, the AHC, together with some of the city's leading architects, has been working on a $60 million redevelopment plan to regenerate the Block into a thriving urban centre for Aboriginal people and for visitors, including tourists. They want to demolish the Block and replace it with 62 residential dwellings - two-thirds of which would be sold to owner-occupiers. The Pemulwuy Project, named after the first Aboriginal freedom fighter, would include an indigenous business college, student hostel, gym, retail outlets and an art gallery. A communal meeting place called Red Place would incorporate a playground, giant television screen and a park.

In the AHC offices on the top corner of the Block, between Lawson and Caroline streets, the housing company's CEO, Mick Mundine, speaks passionately about the plans. "This is going to give our people a bit of self-esteem and hope for the future," he says. "Our people have lived without hope but I think with this project they will be able to see a bit of hope coming to reality."

Part of the formula, he says, is that the plan would be entirely self-funding, via money raised through home sales and private equity. "We aren't relying on any government funding," he says with pride.

The project has some heavyweight advocates - its taskforce is chaired by Tom Uren, former minister for urban and regional development with the Whitlam Government, and NSW Governor Marie Bashir and Lord Mayor Clover Moore have indicated support.

It also has some heavyweight opponents. "I'm very sceptical," says NSW Minister for Planning Frank Sartor in his Phillip Street office. Sartor is also the head of the controversial Redfern-Waterloo Authority (RWA), which was set up in 2004 to oversee redevelopment in the area and has the ability to override local councils and heritage laws, to grant concessions to private developers and to compulsorily acquire land. "Extremely sceptical. But you know, the planning considerations will be on the planning merits and if they get approval, good luck to them."

On this, Sartor acknowledges he will have the final say. He has already laid out the planning considerations. Under these rules, the Pemulwuy Project - which the AHC hopes to lodge with the Planning Department in the next couple of months - won't be allowed in its current form. "The challenge for the AHC," Sartor said in August, "is to come to the table and work with us on what we can support and back as a sustainable solution."

But Mundine claims the minister has said the project is "not negotiable'. Nearly two years since talks disintegrated, he has adopted a similar stance. "This is a privately funded project on privately owned land," he says. "I think the Aboriginal community has done enough compromising on this issue."

A battle of attrition has ensued, fuelled by bad blood on both sides. The AHC have developed a belief that Sartor is out to hinder and not help them. "He says, 'It's my way or the highway," says Mundine. "He won't listen to our reasons." Sartor denies this, saying, "They have chosen not to take the conciliatory path; they've chosen the moral highway path."

Despite a history of bickering and trading insults in the press, Mundine and Sartor have more in common than they may care to admit. Both effectively want the same thing: a development that has a strong likelihood of working, based on a mixture of residential, commercial and cultural facilities tied to a robust social services program.

But they remain at loggerheads over one key issue, and it is on this issue that the project threatens to tumble. The AHC wants 62 houses. Having already shifted from his original offer of 19 houses (to replace the ones currently occupied), Sartor says 42 is the maximum number he would allow if the AHC wants commercial development there as well, which they do.

Sixty-two is significant, say the AHC, because it is the number of Aboriginal families in the Gadigal clan who occupied the land - now known as the Block - when white settlers arrived in the 1790s, before that population succumbed to smallpox. And, according to social planners engaged by the AHC, 62 dwellings equates to a population of 400 - the critical mass they say is required to make the project work. This relates to a theory that in order to create a viable community, the residents need to be self-policing - and 400 is the minimum needed to do it.

In a sense, then, the debate might be said to hinge on 20 houses. Phillips, who became a member of the AHC five years ago after a long period of scepticism towards the housing company, sighs. "You know what? In this case I can see the advantages of a compromise. It would be fantastic to see most of those houses and also Aboriginal businesses in there but they need to move quickly because the place is getting worse. Someone's got to humble themselves."

Dennis Weatherall rents his house - just a few terraces down from the burnt-out shell on the corner of Holden Street - from the AHC. "We're ready for a change," says the 59-yearold, who runs the Community Development and Employment Program for the Redfern Aboriginal Corporation. "With better housing, you'd get better tenants and they'd feel like there was a sense of ownership there so they'd look after their houses. That would give us the opportunity to grab the young people and give them the opportunity to move into full-time employment."

Daniel Ariel lives on Holden Street, just near Phillips. A retired commercial fisherman, a committed Christian and the father of 14 children, he has lived here for 17 years. "Like a lot of people, I used to believe that the AHC was brutish and that they were in it just for their own interests," says Ariel, who changed his view when the Tax Department audited the AHC in 2003, revealing it was more than half a million dollars in debt. "I said to them, 'Why don't you just sell a house?' And they said, 'We're not selling one Aboriginal house.' I thought, 'This guy is willing to stand up for what he believes in and get flogged personally for it.'"

"This guy" is Mundine. At 59, he has been around long enough to have collected his quota of critics. But on a late-afternoon walk around the Block, it becomes clear he is something of a legend here. Residents come out of their homes to say hello; others call out to him from their cars. Some ask him to fix broken fences; one wants him to "shoo some kids out of the gym° - where Mundine trains 15 young women twice a week, including his daughter Debra. He smiles and delegates the jobs to other people. He's busy, he says. He's been busy working on the Block for 31 years.

"After the late '70s, everything started going bad," he says. "One of the saddest things for me was seeing the houses on Eveleigh Street being demolished. Aboriginal people don't want to stay here like this. What we're trying to do is bring the population back and make it sustainable."

As we turn the corner from Eveleigh Street into Vine Street, the boxer Anthony "Chock" Mundine emerges from his black Holden and disappears into the gym. His father and trainer, Tony, is close behind, stopping to say hello to his brother Mick, They leave the car's windows open. No one is going to touch Chock's car.

Anthony Mundine plans to contest the seat of Marrickville which is set to take control of Redfern under electoral boundary changes, at the State election in March. "I would consider whatever strategy is needed to fight for the Block," he said earlier this year. "If that means standing for the seat, that's what I'll do."

Debra Mundine, Mick's eldest daughter, stands outside her sister Rachel's dilapidated terrace on Vine Street. The 36-year-old left the Block for Waterloo when her two sons, now aged 14 and 15, were young. Living on Eveleigh Street, down the road from Muraweena, the now-derelict pre-school, was dangerous, she says sadly. "They were chucking syringes over the fence while the kids were playing there."

Waterloo is where much of the overflow of welfare-dependent Aboriginal people on the Block seems to run. But for Debra, living there is a temporary salve, not a substitute for being on the Block, "I want to live here so I can be back in my community where I came from."

Social planner Angie Pitts, from the I. B. Fell Housing Research Centre at the University of Sydney, conducted surveys on the AHC's behalf to assess prospective applicants for the proposed 42 owner-occupied homes in the Pemulwuy Project. The results showed the houses would be oversubscribed, she says.

Sartor is unconvinced. "I don't think anyone will buy houses there," he says. Warren Mundine, National President of the Australian Labor Party, RWA board member and cousin to Mick Mundine, is also doubtful. "If I'm the type of clientele [Mick] wants to buy back in that area, then he has to do a lot of work to convince me. I've got seven kids - why haven't I bought into that area? Well, I don't like the drugs, the alcohol and the violence. I'm not exposing my children to that."

This concern, counters Mick Mundine, has been taken into consideration. The project's by-laws force eviction if drugs are found on any premises. "The biggest problem with dobbing in drug users is the malice coming from other family members," says Ariel. "If they had the law as a back-up to say, You'll have to go, otherwise we'll lose our house,' then the onus is on the person with the drugs. That's what's going to clean the place up."

The Government owns close to a third of the land in the area controlled by the RWA but its commercial value is yet to be realised, thanks to the general prevalence of high dependency housing and crime in the Redfern-Waterloo area and, specifically, on the Block. The Planning Minister, so one argument goes, must want to redevelop the area but he has one key obstacle - the Block.

Sartor dismisses the suggestion. "This is a social initiative, not a financial initiative," he says. "We don't need to develop Redfern-Waterloo for the State's economic growth per se. When people accuse us of wanting to get developers into Redfern-Waterloo, that is such a lie. That is a big fat lie. Because, in fact, developers aren't interested."

But in March last year, The Australian Financial Review reported that at a Property Council of Australia meeting the council's NSW executive director, Ken Morrison, said: "There is no way that Redfern is going to be that commercial mini-centre with Aboriginal housing and the Block still in place. We need to sort that out before any private investors will be interested."

"We are trying to attract investors," says Sartor, "but it's never been driven by developers." According to an RWA cabinet document leaked to The Sydney Morning Herald in November 2004, consultants to the Government advised that a failure to redevelop the Block would decrease property values by 30 per cent. "The estimated market value of developments in the area is approximately $5 billion," it says. "In order to maximise social and economic returns, the Government must be able to offer planning certainty to the market within a strategic planning framework."

Mick Mundine says the Government has an in-house word for the Block: "the Blockage". Warren Mundine says he's never heard of it. "The problem is, we have a history here," he says. "We've got 30 years of failure. I'm going to have a cold Christmas dinner, I'm sure, with my family. But I'm not stepping away from this. Everyone needs to sit down and win confidence between each other that they're fair dinkum about what they say they're going to do is going to happen."

If that is to unfold, there is other history to repair. "All they've said is, 'We're going to introduce a component of housing and we've got the money; you've got to give us what we want,'" says Sartor. "They're breaching the planning controls. They just say, 'We're Aboriginal. If you don't do it, you're a raciest.' Now I will never be cowed by what I regard as unconscionable racist slurs or any other form of denigration that isn't based on the facts. Argue with me the facts because I'm not rolling over."

Accusations of racism have played a strong hand in this battle. When Sartor went on Koori radio in September 2005, he infamously said, "Get off your backside, Mick, and bring your black arse in here to talk to me about it." Warren Mundine called the comment "idiotic". Sartor apologised and Mick Mundine accepted. The pair shook hands outside the minister's office but the next day Mundine retracted his apology and called on the minister to resign.

Since then, the insults have flowed unchecked from both sides. Mundine calls Sartor "arrogant" and "racist". Sartor calls the AHC "an unmitigated disaster".

A well-known local character wanders in to the AHC offices. Coming down from drugs, numbed by alcohol, he declines an interview. "Money talks, bullshit walks," he says, hurtling away and then back towards me. "Want a smiley?" he asks, holding a cigarette lighter up to my arm. When I retract, he laughs and burns a small hole in the side of the reception desk.

I'm reminded of Warren Mundine's comment after our interview. "I hope no one firebombs your house," he said with a grin. He was clearly joking but the throwaway line says much of the emotion, history and politics that threaten to ignite over this topic.

But if those elements are pulled out of this equation, what's left seems simple: a plan for urban regeneration. So there's really only one question: could this plan work?

There are comparable precedents elsewhere that suggest it could, says Peter Droege, an internationally-acclaimed urban planner, who cites successful redevelopments in London (Brixton), Boston (Commonwealth) and San Francisco (North Beach Place). "Brixton has undergone a locally supported renewal after many years of race riots," he says. "The Commonwealth and North Beach Place developments are two of several US examples promising deep revitalisation of notoriously problem-ridden public housing schemes."

But he stresses the following caveat: "The plan needs to be embedded into a much wider area regeneration, urban design and connectivity strategy that does not rely on a continued 'Block' image, i.e. that would avoid an enclave or fortress connotation."

To this end, the RWA appears to be making contributions. Its "Human Services" arm is developing a National Indigenous Development Centre at the former Redfern Public School, as well as a Community Health Centre on the site of the old Redfern Courthouse.

Catherine Burn, the Redfern Police Commander, says the police have committed to a number of social services under this division of the RWA, including improvements to indigenous literacy and health. One of her key concerns is breaking down bad perceptions of the police. "There's always going to be hostility but we're trying to balance it," says Burn, who has seen the robbery rate in the area drop by 50 per cent in the last 12 months under her command. "We've got a football team now and we play with the Aboriginal people. Their sense of community is fantastic."

Having walked from Caroline Street to Eveleigh Street and around the corner to Vine Street, the final tum around the Block takes you on to Louis Street. Just 12 terraces remain along a lonely stretch. Of those, only seven are inhabited.

Ben Smith lives in one of them. A 45year-old self-employed labourer and father of six, he remembers going to pre-school when it was underneath the Tony Mundine gym. °That's how long I've been around," he laughs. "My auntie Rita was the first dark lady to move in to the area. My great auntie Polly, bless her soul, said to hang around - two weeks before she passed away - to keep the spirit of the clan going."

There's a photograph of a young T. J. Hickey in the front window. When Hickey was fatally impaled on a fence after a police chase in 2004 his death sparked a riot that brought black-white tensions to a head, raising questions of whether anything had been learned from two centuries of indigenous disadvantage. "He was my eldest son's best mate," says Smith quietly. "He would have been about 20, 21 by now."

On February 8, 2005, nearly a year after Hickey's death, Sartor met with the AHC to be briefed on their plan. It was on that day that discussions broke down. “I think it is an injustice what the Government is doing to us at the present moment," says Mundine. "If Frank Sartor gives us the approval, we can do it in about a year and a half."

For his part, State Opposition leader Peter Debnam says, should he come to power at the election in March, "we would sign off the project straight away". The State Government is yet to decide whether it will endorse it. In October, the Department of Planning listed the Pemulwuy Project on its Major Projects Register after the AHC submitted it in March to obtain the director-general's requirements, which will now allow the AHC to lodge their planning application.

In the last month, there has been encouraging news to suggest the impasse may dissolve. Sartor requested a meeting with the AHC on November 1, the first in nearly two years. Afterwards, he said: "Some misunderstandings were clarified. The project still needs to undergo rigorous assessment but the meeting was informative and productive."

"It was pretty positive," adds Mundine. "I won't be happy until the dotted line is signed but it's a big step forward."

"If both sides are willing to compromise, they will come up with an answer," says Phillips, leaning forward with an optimistic smile. "The spirit of it is fantastic; it will be worthwhile giving it a try. One way or another, whoever wins this battle, I just can't wait for it to come about."



Dennis Weatherall, who runs the Community Development and Employment Program. “We’re ready for a change.”

Anthony (left) and Mick Mundine – both fighting for the Block

Mick Mundine’s daughters. Debra (left) and Rachel. “They were chucking syringes over the fence.”

Shane Phillips came to live at the Block when he was five years old.

Ben Smith and his son Benjamin. A relative urged him to stay “to keep the spirit of the clan going”.

Frank Sartor, the NSW Minister for Planning, says he is "sceptical" about the Pemulwuy Project.

A section of the Block as it is today

Plans for Red Place, the posed communal centre of the redevelopment. Drawing by Innovarchi Architects.



“This is going to give our people a bit of self-esteem and hope for the future.” Mick Mundinie

“I’m passionate about change because generations of our people will survive” Shane Phillips

"They're breaching the planning controls. They just say, 'We're Aboriginal. If you don't do it, you're a racist."' Frank Sartor


Source: The Sydney Morning Herald the(Sydney)magazine Issue #44 December 06 pp42-48

[This document is produced by OCR of the print article and may contain recognition errors]