How has Redfern Changed?
Surprisingly, people are still asking “Is Redfern Safe?” When I worked in Redfern many years ago, I never felt unsafe.
About three years ago, I returned to see how Redfern had changed. I discovered gentrification and a bigger police presence than I’d seen in other suburbs. Things have changed even more since then, and I’ve returned to see what’s different.
Getting to Redfern
As I stayed at the Railway Square YHA last night, I start my walk through the Devonshire Street Tunnel where COVID restrictions means the foot traffic is light and the usual buskers nowhere to be seen.
Emerging from the tunnel, I wrap my coat around me a bit more firmly. It’s a crisp winter morning with blue skies. The cloud building in the east looks slightly ominous.
Prince Alfred Park
Autumn leaves are scattered on the walkway through Prince Alfred Park to where Redfern officially begins. Despite the chill people swim laps in the outdoor pool. A staff member ensures the number of swimmers meets the COVID restrictions.
Having crossed Cleveland Street, I’m now in Redfern. The Victorian terraces on my left contrast with the newer (but not new) bright blue unit block opposite.
A white building hoarding decorated with naïve children’s drawings catches my eye. Entitled ‘I want to be a unicorn” the work is by Alphabet Studio and children from Crown Street Public School.
A sound from above attracts my attention. The loud honking comes from a group of Ibises nesting in the fronds of an old palm tree growing in a small backyard.
Outside the post office, a group of people wait for the doors to open. A woman wearing a red checked dressing gown wrapped tightly around her thin waist waits to the side.
Black Lives Matter
Over the road, words printed in red on a black poster state “I can’t breathe”. The Black Lives Matter protest marched through Sydney’s streets only days ago.
Mission Boy Dreams
A large mural, “Mission Boy Dreams”, decorates the wall beside a car park. A soft shower of rain falls as I read words by the artist, Roy O. Kennedy:
From far back as I can remember I’ve always wondered when we would have our own home. And 70 years on I’m still wondering.
One of the prints of the original etching printed in 2005 by Kennedy, a Wiradjuri man, is in the National Gallery of Victoria.
An Aboriginal flag flies proudly on the roof of a shiny black sedan. A ‘Tribal Warrior’ van painted with Aboriginal artwork turns into the street. Tribal Warrior is an organisation that “connects people from all over the world with the ancient culture of Australia and the history of Sydney” through various tour and programs.
Services around here cater to Aboriginal people. A thought flashes through my mind. Gentrification may be moving many of the original residents out of the area, but there’s still a strong Aboriginal presence here in Redfern.
Messages and Murals
People here express their strong feelings. A “Free Assange” banner in black and yellow hangs from the balcony railing of a Victorian terrace. A sticker on a letterbox states that “Kids don’t belong in detention”. In the far corner of an oval, an artwork reads “traditional smoke heals tobacco smoke kills”.
I walk through a graffiti lined lane to Regent Street where I used to work. Some shops are familiar, but many are new. The florist has had a face lift, and The Bearded Tit appears to be closed for now (perhaps because of COVID).
The Redfern Fruit Market is still hanging in there but Finishing Touches Restorations seems to have gone. While people sit at a table at the back of Ciccioni Gelato, a sign indicates it’s closed for the winter break. Wild Cockatoo Bakery is still baking its delicious sourdough.
On the corner of Botany Road and Raglan Street, a whole block has made way for the Sydney Metro.
Public Housing buildings loom above me. What are the lives of those who live here like? Certainly, very different from mine. A billboard encourages people to ask “RUOK?” How many of the folk who live here actually are OK.
Redfern Oval, once home to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, is quiet today. Very popular with locals, the Rabbitohs emblem graces many a house window or letterbox.
An older man wearing a bright orange fleece watches me through the white bars of his security gate. He asks about my camera and we chat for a while about how the area has changed, in his mind for the better. His cats have kept him company while isolating during COVID.
The “Siren Soap” ghost sign on what was once a corner store remains, carefully painted around. “B M Bann” – the rest mostly illegible – in black lettering on the glass window above the door hints at an earlier use for this home.
Mum Shirl was an Aboriginal Activist who helped to establish the Aboriginal Medical and Legal Services in 1971. Her statue in the entrance to Jarjum College draws me in to read the front inscription:
All the years that I had been visiting prisons
really bad things had been happening in them…
I also saw the prisoners’ eyes, the pain, the fear,
the shock and other things that one should
never see in another human`s eyes.
Shirley Colleen Smith ‘Mum Shirl’ 1981
On my way to Redfern Station I pass a woman sitting on her haunches against a wall in the sun. She asks a passing acquaintance for two dollars. The reply is “Naaa, we’re trying to get some ourselves.”
Locals of Redfern
In the newsagent, there are titles of newspapers in a range of languages. La Famiglia, Koori, and Greek titles, reflect the range of nationalities living in the area.
The Other Side of Redfern
Redfern Station has been upgraded since I was last here. Panels in Red, Black and Yellow and bollards decorated with Aboriginal symbols feature strongly. Two murals with strong messages line the railway bridge. The now vibrant 40 000 years mural opposite the station was restored in 2018.
The Block has Gone
The Block is unrecognisable. Gone is the large grassed area with the huge Aboriginal Flag painted on the building at the far end. Gone is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy protesting development of the land and gone is the Tony Mundine Boxing Gym.
Instead scaffolding encloses three large building projects which tower over the area. Called Pemulwuy Precinct 1,2 and 3, this huge development project by The Aboriginal Housing Company has caused much division in the community.
In Hugo Street Reserve, things are pretty much as they were three years ago. The mural ‘United we stand divided we fail the future” by Bronwen Bancroft is as eye-catching as ever. The brightly coloured human shapes lining the fence represent the past, present and future of Aboriginal People.
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.
Over the fence I can hear someone practicing piano scales.
The community centre is quiet, and I am content to reacquaint myself with the “Welcome to Redfern” mural by Reko Rennie, and look more closely at the murals on the other side of the building.
The Shortlist in Abercrombie Street looks welcoming and I drop in for a quick coffee and bite to eat. A young labourer asks for a buttered roll. He is 50c short of the $1.50, and makes do with an unbuttered roll for his dollar. I wish I’d been quicker off the mark and shouted him lunch.
Next door, at a take away shop, the man behind the counter asks a woman “Hello are you hungry?” She’s a short plump woman wearing a vest decorated with Aboriginal artwork. Her reply “Yes I am starving.”
Shepherd Lane has hardly changed. There are a few more artworks and a colourful mural now decorates the wall beneath a row of cactus pots.
Back in Abercrombie Street, I look through the window of a Legal office to an open birdcage. The bird is perched on the head of the person hunched over their computer. It’s pecking at the fibre of the striped beanie warming her head.
Carriageworks is next. Affected by COVID, it will be interesting to see how this once vibrant and exciting art space changes in the post-pandemic era. On ground level, reflections from Rebecca Baumann’s “Radiant Flux” colour rain puddles from the earlier shower.
Walking back to Redfern Station, I pass Skipping Girls and some of Will Coles’ concrete graffiti. The balaclava that I’ve seen in many places and a pair of concrete gloves
Redfern has subtly changed since I last wrote about the suburb. Gentrification marches on with new hip cafés and unit blocks around the station. However, this time, and it could have been the different route I took, I observed a strong Aboriginal presence.
Next Stop: Parramatta
- Redfern is 3km south of Sydney’s CBD
- Plan your trip at transportnsw.info