I’ve been told that the Sydney suburb of Redfern, the long-time home to many Aboriginal people, has changed. I’ve been asked if Redfern is safe. It is a few years since I have been here and I have come to see for myself. As I leave Redfern Station, I silently acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land and pay my respects to Elders past and present.
The Big Issue
In the past, a local indigenous man strummed his guitar for coins outside Redfern Station. Today, a Big Issue vendor offers me a magazine. I pass a couple of little coffee shops and The Big Issue office along Little Eveleigh St.
There’s concrete graffiti by Wil Coles. The balaclava that I’ve seen in many places and a pair of concrete gloves. Guerrilla knitting wraps the bicycle stands. Terrace houses line the street and I recognise a small park previously shown to me by a young aboriginal boy.
Shepherd Lane is a delight. Neighbours have decorated it with plants, sculptures and there’s even a bench for quiet contemplation. On Wilson Street, heritage railway buildings are being restored. Apartment blocks have names like The Foundry and The Tin Shed – a nod to previous uses.
I am heading for Carriageworks, the arts precinct housed in the old Eveleigh Rail Yards. There is always something exciting and innovative happening here. Today people can experience how it would be to be deaf/blind in ‘Imagined Touch’. But I need to move on.
Returning to the place known in Redfern as The Block (bounded by Eveleigh, Caroline, Vine and Louis Streets), I pass a community garden, and stop for brunch in the courtyard of a cafe along Lawson Street. On the corner of Eveleigh Street, I admire the enormous figure of Trooper Alfred Cameron junior, a Black Digger. A verse from the 1933 “Black ANZAC” by Cecil Fisher is nearby. (Update March 2018: This building is no longer there, making way for more development in Redfern).
The name“Pemulwuy” printed on a banner adjacent to the Digger, promotes the Aboriginal Housing Commission’s Project of that name. Pemulwuy, an Aboriginal man, is known for his resistance to European settlement. He pops up again and again in my suburban discoveries.
The Block, Redfern
Opposite, a large grassed area with a huge Aboriginal Flag painted on the building at the far end, is fenced in. Until recently this was where the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy protested against development of the land. The Tony Mundine Boxing Gym at the end of the street seems deserted. (Update- Tony Mundine Gym has closed, giving way to developers). Hand written opening times are for 2015.
Redfern has changed
Hundreds of coin shaped mirrors shimmer on the black high wall opposite the gym. This area has changed. The terraces have been renovated and while there are people about I haven’t been able to identify anyone yet who could be of Aboriginal descent.
Hugo Street Reserve
In Hugo Street Reserve, I admire the mural of brightly coloured human shapes lining the fence. It represents the past, present and future of Aboriginal People. I am reminded that in the 1970s a development company bought several houses in Louis St and began evicting Aboriginal Tenants. The resulting protests and union ban on development eventually led to the formation of the Aboriginal Housing Company and The Block.
A new looking black Jaguar is parked outside the Redfern Community Centre. More evidence of gentrification. I feel sad for the people who have been forced to move out. Apparently, the Indigenous population of Redfern fell from around 35,000 in 1968 to around 300 at the time of the 2011 census.
Inside the community centre I can hear the buzz of children engaged in activity. Upstairs preparations for a wake are taking place. I am told that people have been seen training outside the Tony Mundine gym, so it must be open.
I cross to the other side of the railway lines. Looking up, I see facades of buildings dated from the early 1900s and wonder how long before they too go. Four police officers on bikes are speaking to an Aboriginal woman. They move away from my view behind the Bower sculpture and then back again to wait at the traffic lights. She has been handcuffed.
Walking the Streets
In Redfern Street, I pass the Sydney Story Factory, a not for profit organisation, where young people are supported in creative writing. 107 Projects, another not for profit creative space, is setting up a new exhibition. Nearby, Redfern Jarjum College encourages students to “Be Deadly”. Deadly is an Aboriginal English word meaning fantastic, great, awesome.
I’ve read that I should visit a barber on George Street. Tommy J Barber is easy to miss. Housed in an old terrace, I walk right past. TJ is not there, but AJ is happy for me to look around.
I meander up and down a few streets, past the refurbished Redfern Town Hall in Pitt Street. Four boys walk towards me. One is on a scooter. The younger, not much more than ten years old is smoking, puffing rings into the air.
Back on Redfern Street, an old Hardware Store claims to have been there since 1970. For how much longer, I wonder. A rhyme on the wall of an old shoe repair shop claims “Roger is a man who will seldom refuse, to stitch or repair your boots or your shoes…”
In Redfern Park, people are taking their lunch break. A group of mums and their young babies sit on rugs in the shade. A wiry elderly man has taken his shirt off to enjoy the sun. He greets me and comments on the weather. The Redfern Oval, once home to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, is now used for some training and pre-season and exhibition matches. Very popular with locals, their emblem graces many a house window.
On the way to the Surry Hills Village Shops (actually in Redfern), I pass a pole dance academy and two ambulances, lights flashing. The workers’ cottages here are cute. A man who sees me looking at the gate of the NSW Mounted Police Academy, informs me that the academy is sometimes open to the public. While we chat the gates open and mounted police leave the precinct.
Taking a circuitous route back to Regent Street I pass little parks and a modern corrugated iron clad house. Shabby Chic? The ‘skipping girls’ I saw earlier near Carriageworks are on this side of Redfern too. This time they are using hoola hoops.
Tall public housing blocks tower over little workers’ cottages and terraces. Rich and poor living side by side. I have read that the towers were once dubbed ‘Suicide Towers’. A ‘concierge program’ and increased police presence apparently improved safety and reduced anti-social behaviour. Certainly, the BBQ areas and small gardens at the base of the towers seem clean and inviting, but I read that two of the towers will be demolished to make way for a new metro station.
I walk through a graffiti lined lane to Regent Street where I used to work. I recognise some shops but many are new. The florist has had a face lift, there’s the hip bar called The Bearded Tit, designer stores and retro furniture. A skate shop for your skateboard needs and a gelataria that I don’t recall.
I do remember the Wild Cockatoo Bakery and am pleased that Finishing Touches Restorations is still hanging in there. I occasionally bought lunch at the Saint Germain patisserie on Rosehill Street. It too is still there.
Australian Technology Park
I walk through the heritage buildings of the Australian Technology Park (ATP). In these railway workshops, locomotives were built maintained from the 1880s until 1989. The facility is now used for conferences, training, exhibitions and even training in blacksmithing. It is an interesting place to wander through. Tours are available, but informative signs make it possible to visit independently.
There is a large police presence at Redfern Station. A police dog stops beside a commuter, looking for drugs. Police surround the man and take him into an office. I am left with an unpleasant taste in my mouth. My overall impression is that the Sydney suburb of Redfern has changed. Sadly, gentrification has happened. And while I felt perfectly safe, I have not seen such a large police presence in any of my previous suburban discoveries.