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the block


Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 30-Jul-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 875

Racism helps to ease the whitewash of Redfern


I’m walking the dog. It’s evening rush hour, near Redfern station. A young couple wobbles by like escapees from a three-legged race, giggling because she has new, less-than-sensible shoes and at day’s end can barely walk. “Take them off,” I suggest. He glares, wondering perhaps which “them” I mean. I smile, add “go barefoot”. He focuses momentarily, decides I’m harmless (wrong), answers for her: “Not round here. Not with the Abos everywhere, all the needles in the streets. Be all right when they get rid of the blacks.”

Giggling, they hobble off. I check the blacktop. No needles. Of course, or I wouldn’t have let the dog out unshod. But I’m shocked all the same.

Shocked by the casual, unpremeditated racism, so lighthearted you’d almost call it innocent. Shocked by the presumption these are shared views. Shocked by that “when”. Not if they get rid of the blacks, when. As if the decision to whitewash Redfern were all over bar the shouting.

The couple’s ethnicity is irrelevant. Suffice to note a strong resemblance to the smack-sellers who run my back lane. Second generation, I’d guess – city workers who have snapped up one of Redfern’s smart new apartments. Partakers of the Great Cup of gentrification.

And it’s this that threatens Redfern’s Aboriginal community.

Opinions on the Block vary widely, even on the Block. Some blame Frank Sartor for his two-year inaction on the Aboriginal Housing Company’s proposal to build 62 freehold dwellings. He is expected to reject the application as he publicly opposed it even before lodgment, for which the company had to pay a $60,000 assessment fee.

Some blame the housing company for achieving little in its 30 years beyond steady house-by-house demolition of those dwellings. And some, like the company itself, blame smack. It all went pear-shaped in the 1980s, they say, when heroin arrived. The need to stymie the dealers, says the housing company’s chief executive, Mick Mundine, forced the demolitions.

So far, so murky. But what is clear is that the smack came with the cops. That’s the irony. The blacks had been there since the 1930s, when they were fettlers at Eveleigh Railyards. And in the decade from Gough Whitlam’s deeding of the land until the arrival of heroin, things looked reasonably promising. Movement was, at least, forward.

But during the 1980s, Redfern’s sinister TNT towers – all of 30 seconds’ walk from the Block – were home to the Australian Federal Police drug squad. The unit, including Michael Anthony Wallace (jailed first for filching $20 million of heroin, then for murdering his girlfriend) didn’t muck around. It dealt whitegoods by the kilo. To have the Block over the road, a ready-made market-cum-scapegoat, could hardly have been more convenient.

Fast-forward 20 years. When Sartor’s “no black faces” strategy made headlines in 2005, he said his push was not anti-black but anti “high-dependency housing”. But five minutes away, in Waterloo, this same Government is even now rebuilding its high-dependency housing, albeit in a “self-funding” mix.

The housing company is perhaps the only landholder ever to be underwhelmed by a Part 3A listing – the only developer that might expect greater leniency from council than the minister, despite its charitable status and the much-needed affordability of its proposed housing.

In truth, the push is probably less racist than monetarist. Redfern station is Sydney’s second most highly serviced, but only 10th busiest. Underscored by the petrol crisis and the fact that most of the land is publicly owned, this makes it prime CBD-expansion territory. All except the Black land.

But the racism – the linking of Aboriginality with drugs in the public mind – eases the political way for the scheme’s rejection. Just like it eased the Government’s resurrection of the internationally discredited development corporation model, known for its soulless products from Darling Harbour to the London Docklands. Eased acceptance of its patent conflict of interest, zoning its own land 12 to 16 storeys but the nearby housing company land three to five. Eased the whitewash, generally.

For on its own site, North Eveleigh, the Redfern-Waterloo Authority pretends, fawningly, to ask the minister’s permission to lodge. In fact, Sartor’s approval is pretty much a foregone conclusion, the Minister for Planning being also the authority’s boss. What, like he hasn’t already stamped every word of the proposal?

A proposal that “found it necessary” to exceed its own height limit, demolish most heritage on the site, build on top of the old Paintshop, and add almost 2,000 car spaces 30 seconds from the station. The density is fine – this is the place for it. But the reasons will convince no one.

These include “better urban design”, natch, and that other towers – those TNTs and the equally loathed Waterloo babies, themselves rumoured for the chop – are visible from the site. (By that token, Centrepoint is visible from the Block). Mostly, though, just because they can.

It’s that old vampire in charge of the blood bank trick. And guess what? The police are right back in those evil TNT towers. And – no connection – business in my back lane is booming.


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