HOW THE ABORIGINAL HOUSING PROJECT WAS BORN21>
3 April 2002
COL JAMES (1936 - 2013)
Col James AM was an architect who had been involved in the development on the Block since its inception. He was a member of the Pemulwuy Vision Taskforce which endorses the housing project development plan of the Aboriginal Housing Company.
Anael: I am here to ask you and talk to you, Col about The Block. Out of interest I was wondering how that term originated. Do you know anything about where ‘The Block’ came from?
Col James: No I don’t. It certainly is in common usage. I think it was a newspaper term. But it was actually described, the very first push of the site that was occupied by the Goomies who were squatting and they were largely supported by Ted Kennedy and Shirley Smith from St Vincent’s Church. I got involved through Dick Blair. I was on the board of South Sydney Community Aid and I had been variously providing some sort of support from an architectural point of view for most of the Aboriginal organisations around Redfern, with the blessing of Mum Shirl. She actually was the one who decided what white fellas could do for black fellas. So with Dick, he was a field officer from South Sydney Community Aid and he was working with the Goomies, he wasn’t a member of the Catholic church but he was a member of his own church, that’s how I got involved. Dick asked me to go up and see Shirley and Father Ted Kennedy and they said that they really needed someone to draw some plans which could be given to government to help further the case for having an Aboriginal presence in that part of Redfern, which is what we ultimately did. A student called Richard Jermyon and I measured the drawings up and we also negotiated with Dick Blair and then later on with Robert and Kay Bellear and with a sort of a steering committee which was saying pretty much a brief of what they wanted to do there. What they were thinking of doing was setting up a special Aboriginal housing organisation. They wanted to acquire the whole of The Block, and that’s probably where it came from. The Block was then described as Eveleigh Street. Louis Street was where the action really started, Louis Street was the main source of contact, Louis, Vine, Eveleigh and Caroline streets.
What actually happened then there was a developer called Ian Kiernan, now known as the ‘Clean Up Australia’, he was a developer who actually had acquired about almost half The Block. Where the Goomies were squatting and making their presence felt on his property. He was systematically trying to kick them out and there was a big police presence there and it was very confrontational especially in Louis Street. I can recall being down there when Channel 7, I think it was, came down to film this sort of conflict between the coppers and the Goomies. Channel 7 asked us to set up a barricade because they wanted good footage and we said, “No way. We’re not into that, thank you very much.” It wasn’t long after that that a disgruntled resident on the other side of Louis Street fired a few shots into Lewis Street and that got bells ringing.
But in actual fact all of that confrontation and all of the publicity it achieved, including Channel 7, alerted the new Whitlam government into listening to what was going on. Largely through Ted Kennedy and Bob and Kay Bellear, who had very good connections to the Labor Party through the union movement, specifically in Victoria, they were able to put a case for an Aboriginal presence in Redfern, which was Gadigal country and a traditional place for a small Aboriginal mob. Plus there were a lot of Aboriginal workers at Eveleigh Goods Yards, they used to be called ‘boys’ and they were paid appalling rates of pay, half of what everyone else got paid. But there was a connection between Aboriginal people who wanted to live in Redfern who had jobs, or wanted jobs, on the railways but who also had this association with the high ground of that part of South Sydney. It is not actually Redfern, although it is opposite Redfern Station, it is actually Darlington, but Redfern sticks like The Block sticks, even though the property that was acquired over that period of time also included property around The Block.
Anyway, Kiernan was persuaded to sell his property to the federal government, who in turn gave it to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, or the Aboriginal Development Commission, I forget which one. They and the minister, Gordon Bryant, set up this notion of establishing an Aboriginal housing organisation to manage the first urban land rights in Australia. Waddy Creek was the first rural land rights and that preceded Redfern, but Redfern was the first urban land rights, that’s why it is a really important site in historical terms and one which I hope never gets extinguished by government or anybody else. So Kiernan was bought out. His firm was called Tierra del Fuego.
Anael:Do you think it was a happy release for him to give it up?
Col James: No not entirely. I can recall walking around with him and he was saying, “I don’t know why I can’t keep the property. I’d be very happy to let it to Aboriginal people. I will paint it ochre colours, just what they want.” It was very patronising sort of stuff and it had nothing to do with a sense of ownership and a sense of determining your own future or anything like that.
Anael: Give people some sort of hope.
Col James: He missed the boat by a mile. But with that, and with access to finance to gradually acquire more property, which is what we did. I have got some very fond memories of when property did come up for sale going to the auctions along with Bob Bellear and Solly Bellear. There was an interim sort of committee set up which ultimately became the Aboriginal Housing Company but we used to go and bid at auctions and as soon as all these big black people walked in the bidding dropped substantially, so we picked up property really very cheaply.
At the time the lawyers were advising the embryonic company to set up a company. There was a bit of debate whether it should have been a co-operative, whether there were better sort of feelings about a co-op or a company, but ultimately a company was the way they went. They had a long list of sort of shareholders, and they ultimately elected a board to manage the company’s affairs and secure the property and have it handed over in title and also access to Aboriginal Development Commission funds to repair the properties that needed repairing. So I was involved in that process as well. I mean my role was doing some drawings and images of what an Aboriginal housing association could do with that sort of property. I recall Whitlam saying that he felt when they announced this initially that this was going to be a new form of housing which was Aboriginal owned and controlled and which was going to reflect an Aboriginal way of life through being a group ownership of housing, which I think at the time sounded like a good idea.
I mean its strength lay in the fact that it was different from other forms of housing and the degree of co-operation was very strong when the thing was set up. There was concern expressed at the time about looking after the Goomies because they in fact had been the people who preempted all the political action and the publicity. There was a strong feeling, particularly coming from Mum Shirl and Ted, that a special place should be found on The Block to house the Goomies and give them some sense of security. Of all the people that ultimately ended up there the Goomies were the ones who were into sharing in a big way. Like some of their members used to go to Paddy’s Market and they would come back and they would all sit round in a circle and they would share all their food, Just like they would share the goom, the metho did the rounds, the food did the rounds. They needed each other for support too. I think there was this sense of supporting them, but what happened at the end of the day was that when the housing was being fixed up and people were being selected by the board to go into the first lot of housing, and priority was given to women and women with kids, they said these were the people in need who had a stake in their kids futures; that priority prevailed over the Goomies. Although, later on down the track there was a scheme which we prepared to have a hostel down the bottom of Eveleigh Street near the gym. That was occupied by the Goomies.
What was happening back at the church, the Catholic church was in trouble because they were obliged to look after them because they had been camping in the church, and then they had been camping in the presbytery next door. Father Ted was very keen that they have proper accommodation and that they were properly looked after so this was set up. But it didn’t seem to work, it was too much of a management headache. It didn’t work at the presbytery either, I mean there were some really bad scenes there with life and death struggles when people were hallucinating on metho. There were a lot of tragedies.
But what came of that and was the great thrill of owning and controlling the housing, there was a great wave of co-operation. I mean we implemented a scheme whereby the builders, which was the Aboriginal Housing Company acting as their own builders, they recruited a sort of a work force. With the help of the Builders Labourers Federation, by the way; they were very, very supportive and they were quite crucial to the political wave of support which convinced Whitlam to launch into this. But what we did was have a quantity surveyor who was an expert in measuring the value of buildings. He and I used to go around every Friday afternoon and the quantity surveyor would award a point system for recording progress on all of the renovation work, like preparing and painting and roofing and things like that. Then on the basis of the points that were scored, the cheques were handed out to the labourers and then they all had a big party Friday night. There was a lot of enthusiasm, people liked that sort of system. This guy, this quantity surveyor, he is still around and his name is Bruce Davies, he is a really good bloke. I used to enjoy that actually, going around and seeing progress.
Richard Pacey was the director of the Housing Company at that time, he was a very nice guy. They had a very small board, very lean organisation, sort of committed to self-help. For the first ten years I think that sort of flourished. A lot of people were housed, a lot of people went from there into public housing. There were not big rent arrears or any sort of typical tenancy problems. At the end of that first wave things did start to go down hill when rents weren’t being paid and not enough money started to come in to pay for maintenance and rates and stuff. We got rid of the rates later on because that was one of the burdens. But the houses started to become a maintenance burden. I think one of the fundamental problems at that time there was a rent set for each house regardless of how many people were in there. A two-bed house was $55 a week, and a three-bed was $65 a week, it might have been even lower when it started. That led to a lot of overcrowding and more overcrowding led to more maintenance problems. It was the householder who was trying to collect the dough and people scarpered off.
It generally led to a conclusion that it wasn’t working. No more capital funds were available, it was supposed to be self-sufficient and the rents were supposed to pay for wages and rates, because they were paying rates then, and repairs. It did start to go downhill then and there was a lot of hue and cry going about the buildings falling apart and it wasn’t working. Anyway the government was then approached to back it up and that the housing was inappropriate. I mean what was seen to be appropriate at the time proved to be little two bedroom English terrace houses which were not really appropriate for Aboriginal housing anyway. Funds were made available to start turning two houses into one house, so a two bedroom terrace house became a four bedroom house. There was more money made available for dressing it up and painting it and the enthusiasm started to build up again. I think the rents still stayed at a fixed rent, but the houses were bigger and the bigger the houses the more rent, it went up to $75 or $85 for a four bedroom house. There were some three-bedders that went to six beds.
Just looking at it back from now, like 2002, and its thirty year history, every ten years there seems to have been a nose-dive and then something had to happen to pick it up again. That second ten year phase was all right. The company did secure some funds to build new housing which was going to be a redevelopment of The Block and we wanted to do it slowly and carefully, not knock everything down and displace people. Those houses on the corner of Caroline and Louis Street were the first of that lot. But while it was going on the white residents were getting quite upset that The Block was attracting a lot of people from country areas. There were a lot of people acting out. The coppers were getting involved. Alcohol was the big drug of the time then, which I suppose had its origins in the Goomies anyway with the metho. But there was an incident that actually inflamed everybody and that was where some young kids were caught tunnelling underneath a house on the corner of Caroline and Eveleigh Street actually, it is not there any longer. The white residents dobbed them in and the police picked them up, because the kids were in this tunnel, and the kids went to gaol I think, repeat offenders or something. Anyway the kids’ mates threw fire crackers through the window of the house and the curtains caught and the house got burnt down. That really got the white residents inflamed and it was a Liberal government at the time and there was a big move to close it down. This was towards the end of the second phase.
So the redevelopment didn’t go any further than that and there was this move to close the Company down. I remember the Director of Aboriginal Affairs, New South Wales at the time was Pat O’Shane and she commissioned a study which involved a woman called Leoni Sandercock, who was Professor of Planning at Macquarie University. She in turn thought there were better people to do it than she and she hired Wendy Sarkissian, who is a Canadian social planner. She got myself and a black American called Ivor Lloyd to form a team to look at what the issues and the problems were and to recommend some remedies.
My time line is a bit out there, because when that dysfunction all happened and then we did this report which basically said there were some fundamental problems but there was no point in closing down the Block the same problems would emerge somewhere else. This problem could be fixed and new accommodation would be a good start. That’s when we did the redevelopment scheme, of which three houses were built. That was the end of the second phase actually. Then this third phase we are into now where drugs have made a big inroad into the community, along with petty crime. I mean there was always bag snatching and things like begging going on but it hadn’t reached the sort of proportions that it has reached now. This third phase, I think, was the way the political agenda was moving with support from the premier and a general notion that there has to be a holistic attitude towards a redevelopment of the Block.
I was very keen to get rid of that old housing. It was English style housing which doesn’t respect the climate, the environment, and is also very vulnerable. It is made out of sandstock bricks and any kid can go straight through a brick wall in a terrace house. The houses are facing the wrong way, most of the houses are facing east and west, whereas that sloping land has a fantastic prospect of getting north-easterly breezes and the sun all day. The sun is a health, life force. Apart from that what the Housing Company say is they want to lift self-esteem, they want a new start. They are going to amend their rental structure so that it reflects more realistically what people can afford, what they can pay. One of the models they are using is the City West Housing Company which is now about ten years old, that’s been pretty successful, holds a social mix. There will be a chance to look at ways of handling crime from an environmental point of view. There will be ways of doing much healthier housing and much healthier infrastructure, like good water, sewage disposal and good services. Access to gardens, which has only ever happened on a piecemeal basis.
Although in the original plan, the one we first drew, there was a big garden in the middle of all these terraced houses all around. That was quite good. That reflected what the Goomies were doing, meeting in a circle in the middle of this sort of Redfern area. Then gradually people asked for private back yards and with the advent of the private yards that’s when dealing happened to take off because there were these secure sort of enclaves that could help privacy, I suppose. There was a time when the fences came down again but then they went up again. The way it is unfolding for the new redevelopment there may be a return to people looking into central areas certainly with what they call “eyes on the street”. Certainly looking at the way Eveleigh Street, the street life and things like that, there is a lot of activity can take place which could be a deterrent to crime and wheeling and dealing and things like that.
Anyway, the people I am working with are very optimistic about their chance, this third chance as it were, to create a new environment which is more respectful of Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal needs and which is affordable and sustainable and adaptable and which is very good housing. Much better than the two bedroom English model.
There was one thing I was going to tell you about which might clip in a bit later. My earliest memory of Eveleigh Street, when we were talking to residents about this move for the Aboriginal housing to sort of take over The Block, people were upset, white residents were upset. There was a coffee factory, they were very upset too. There’s an old guy used to live in Eveleigh Street and he used to sweep Eveleigh Street every morning. He was a nice old bloke and he got on with the Kooris, but he just liked the street and every morning he’d get up at seven and he’d sweep the whole street. I think that was his contribution to community life. He was one of these old fellows who liked the notion of the community. Sometimes I think maybe a mix might have worked, I am not too sure. Probably wouldn’t have, but anyway, that was one of the ingredients of a mix that might have worked.
I mean my commitment to that place, because I’ve actually been there longer than most, now Ted Kennedy and Bobby Bellear, the judge are deceased. But Dicky Blair is around somewhere, the last I heard he was heading for the North-coast. [amended by Col James in December 2006 to reflect the passing away of Ted Kennedy and Bob Bellear since the interview was done in 2002].
Col James: We set up the Aboriginal Christian Youth Organisation for Dick and Yvonne Blair in Holden Street. It never worked out to capacity though. It was set up as a workshop for training unemployed people on the ground floor, then there was a kitchen at the top. There was accommodation for about five or six people who were supposed to be homeless kids and a caretaker’s place. Dick actually moved a lot of people in there and they set up temporary shelter on the ground floor. There used to be an Aboriginal hostel on the corner. There used to be a pub on the corner of Abercrombie Street and Cleveland Street which Aboriginal Hostels bought and they set up a hostel there. They found it very difficult to manage.
Anael:Just because of the clients?
Col James: I think so. Very vulnerable. The fact there were pubs on every corner around that area. The Aboriginal Legal Service moved in there, they took it over. Then they were resumed by the Main Roads for that intersection there and they moved up to Cleveland Street, 200/201. But what endures out of that, which I think is vitally important, is there’s a very large network of Aboriginal organisations and about thirty agencies in Redfern. It may not always be mutual support but it is a very good reason why Aboriginal people should live in Redfern because it used to be viewed as the centre of Aboriginal life, that’s where the Aboriginal Medical Service started, the Aboriginal Housing Company, the Aboriginal Legal Service. All these grass roots initiatives sprang out of Redfern long before the Northern Land Council, the Central Land Council became more powerful, these big land owning and very wealthy organisations. But that bred a lot of other infrastructural Aboriginal support like Children’s Services and South Sydney Community Aid had an Aboriginal arm. There has been a growth of organisations which are variously the centre of the state. In some cases they are national but they are certainly locally based as well.
That means that Redfern is a good place for people to live as well as work. This is what happens at the City West Housing Company. What they do there, this is based over by Ultimo-Pyrmont, is they have three income groups, low, low-medium and medium incomes, so that is where they get their mix. People who apply need to have either a residential association with the area or they work in the area. So immediately there is a locale which is appropriate to the fact that people can live there. They have no trouble with what they call social mix, it is income mix actually. That seems to be a model that the Housing Company are interested in. We have had lots and lots of meetings with City West. They get access to funds that the Housing Company wouldn’t have though. They get a 2 per cent levy on any development on Ultimo-Pyrmont and that allows City West Housing Company to build more housing. The problem is that even that 2 per cent levy can’t compete with the rise in price and value. Housing at Ultimo-Pyrmont is very, very expensive now.
Anyway there seems to be a pretty good climate to support what is going on, that there will be a new Redfern. Everyone is keen to get rid of the word ‘Block’ but it doesn’t seem to be... I was asked a little while ago, PM did a programme, and this bloke said, “What would you like to see in a couple of years time in Redfern?” I said, “It’s not really appropriate what I would like to see, it is more appropriate what the people who live there would like to see.” All I could really say was that I would like to see a sense of ownership, or a sense of home for the people in Redfern. A lot of people still do. I mean there are people who stay there come what may, they see it as home. So I would like to see a home ownership scheme there.
There will never be a real home ownership in the sense of you own the land and the building, but there could be a way of the Aboriginal people as a whole own the land but the buildings, apartments or whatever, could be strata titled and they could hand them on to their kids, they could alter them, but if they wanted to sell them they would have to sell them back to the Housing Company at valuation. There is still an interest in keeping prices down because a lot of low income Kooris would never get housing in the city if there wasn’t places like that. Only because the word has become misused I would like to see Eveleigh Street disappear, it has got bad sort of connotations. I hear people call it ‘Evilly Street’ and things like that. I would like to see an Aboriginal name.
I would like to see a lot of public art in there too. I think Aboriginal art is one of the great achievements in Aboriginal culture in Australia. I think it is public exposure and its message making capacity and its stimulation of brighter things, or a recording of history, public art is a powerful tool for any community to have and to control.
Anael:Is it a community? Do you see it as a community?
Col James: Not now.
Anael: Can you describe where you’ve seen this community?
Col James: Well I think the Goomies had a community going. That’s the most visible exposure about sharing things. In the first ten years the workmen had a sense of camaraderie and they were going to make the future work. It was very boyish, but nevertheless... I think Murawina was a very powerful force in the place for a long time. Murawina was the Aboriginal kindergarten that was in Eveleigh Street. It stood there like a rock for years and years and years.
My notion of community is that it is something that has to be really nurtured. I like this notion of social capital, that you help to empower people with social capital which is power and access to resources and the strength of collective action. There are people now who are measuring social capital and they are equating it with economic capital, which is about time. I mean the world seems to be driven by economic capital and globalisation, whereas my vision of the future is more that social capital is what drives the world. I think they are probably related but social capital hasn’t been valued properly enough by us, me. Like environmental capital, it is another measure that needs to be addressed. It has been more addressed than social capital. I mean that word ‘sustainable’ crops up in every political statement of the last five years, it has become a mantra now, ESD, like LSD.
Anael: That’s great. Thank you, Col for sharing all that. Some of the things I hadn’t heard before at all.
Col James: I think I did make a technical blue on the timing of those three ten-year cycles. The fires led to the start of a new development and it fell over because we got three houses up and then the company went broke because their tender was too low, or they couldn’t do it, and the job stopped because we had to sack the builders. Then we had to get another builder to come in an fix it and that builder charged enormously and the houses ended up costing much, much more than the budget and ADC had to bail it out and they said, “No more new houses. Sorry boys and girls.” So what was to be the first redevelopment got stopped at that point. Which is partly why in this next phase of redevelopment I for one I am quite keen that we do it in big slabs so that it doesn’t stop half way. I think the latest thinking is to do it in two stages, but not to disrupt people too much. I mean it is awful being shoved around no matter how the crook the housing is.
The thing is the Block now has lost its capacity to earn any rent. There are very few people left, the people you want around are out, and it is not a viable housing organisation. Like I was party to setting up a group called ‘Swish’ and we had property at the end, where Larnie lives is Swish property. The reason it survives is because we have access to rental subsidies which is the difference between market rent and low income. Like if people are spending more than 30 per cent of their income in rent they are viewed to be in housing stress. So people who are on very low incomes, or on the dole, then a rental subsidy will make up the difference to make sure they are not spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. The market then has to deliver this sort of housing. Now public funds go more into rental subsidies than go into new housing and the problem is it just drives the price of the rental rents up and the price of housing up. The only solution is to build more new houses or keep old housing going if it is appropriate.
So I am very keen on this redevelopment, I think it is the only way out to a future. I am a bit disappointed in some ways that it wasn’t managed a bit better, with respect to the people who still live there. I mean to a great extent it is driven by a political agenda too. Now there is an election twelve months away and the government wants to be cleaning up places that is part of the impulse to get the thing going. But if it is not sustainable economically, it just won’t work. There is no income coming in, or very little.
Note: Col James interviewing the interviewer
Col James: You live in Holden Street don’t you? How do you like it there?
Anael: It is not a particular place I would choose generally to live, but I’ve come because I’m a Christian and there certain things I would like to do to help. There is a definite situation there to help with people. What I’m actually doing is I am a volunteer with an indigenous based organisation there, Tribal Warriors Association.
Col James: Has that got an indigenous board or whatever. Are they linked with any other Christian group? World Vision?
Anael: No, no. They started it themselves, they are grass roots people. They are headed at the moment by three elders, Uncle Bruce Stewart from La Perouse, Uncle Lionel Monter from down south, Jalaway, and Uncle Max Uhler from out west. There are members that come from different tribes and everything throughout Australia. There is a total of about eleven members. We have started off this maritime training programme with people there. It is a wonderful thing that they are doing, it seems like a real positive thing.
Col James: Good for you. I mean being on the site is a hell of a lot better. We had a brief flirtation with Habitat for Humanity. They were welcomed with open arms and they came in strumming guitars and, “We love you all,” and they got a good reception until down the track the people running Health Habitat, or one of them, chose to try and develop some publicity about what a good thing they were doing in Redfern, helping to redevelop the Block. They felt used and didn’t want them there any longer.
Anael: Well I think the vision started with this association, the guy whose vision it was, he had been living there for quite a while and he was just really tired and shocked at seeing people around him just die.
Col James: Was this Daniel?
Anael: Yes. Little kids suffering. So he had to do something so he started it off.
Col James: He has got a lot of respect around the traps, he is good.
Anael: Along the way there has been a lot of outside helpers, voluntary helpers like myself, sort of contributing some sort of resources.
Col James: So do you think the place should be redeveloped?
Anael: Oh definitely. There needs to be some sort of change in a positive way and redevelopment will affect lots of areas that need to be affected at the moment, changed. Like you were saying about the drug scene and stuff, that needs to be cleaned up a little bit. I think the correct housing will make a big difference to that too, the way they structure it.
Col James: Yes. I mean I would love to see people’s spirits just get a kick up.
Anael: It is time for that definitely.
Col James: Sure is. I get very impatient though. It is probably because I am getting old, but I want to see this fixed.
Anael: I am sure there are a lot of people like that too.
Col James: Well, being party to the beginning of it I feel responsible, that I was party to helping get this thing going and I now think, ' what did we do wrong?' I still live in the area and I work in the area and I try and bring university resources in to help, which is what we are trying to do. There will be a mob of students getting stuck into it in a week’s time actually, it is their major project, about twenty of them. What we are going to do is we are going to have about twenty schemes, different way out ideas, in consultation with people around. They will be on public display for the people to say, “Oh I like that.” or “Hopeless bloody students.” Anyway it will be provocative and what it is doing for me it is an opportunity to work the brief just to see what happens with a bunch of students, senior students, before it gets out to tender. We will be going to tender for ideas and there will be a process which is called Designer Construct Tenders. So we are going out to four or five selected teams and they will prepare designs and they will put in a tender figure. Then they will be displayed. They will have a look at the student work to see if there are any good ideas there. But out of that process they will select one.
Anael: Do you think that is the only problem though, having housing there?
Col James: No. No I don’t. In fact I get a bit dispirited sometimes that government sees new housing as the solution whereas there should be much more investment in community development and social capital.
Anael: Like you were saying, for sure.
Col James: But it does lift the spirits I know that. Like if you walk into a new house and it’s better than the ones you have been in before, or it is clean...Got your family around you, enough room for your family.
You see your kids, healthy kids. I mean I teach housing and Welfare at Yooroang Garrang at Lidcombe to the Aboriginal Health Science students and our programme, Housing for Health and Housing for Well-being, is totally focused on over five kids that whatever it takes in a house, whether it is old or new, it has got to have good washing clothes capacity, good washing bodies capacity, good nutrition, good equipment, like the fridge has got to stay at minus seven. We go round measuring communities and finding out whether it is a healthy house. The electricity has got to be safe so there are no electrocutions going on. We call them nine health living practices and we try to train Aboriginal health workers for work out in reserves and old missions and things where they are actually nursing. We are working with nurses as well now and the nurses fix Koori kids up in the clinic, they send them home and they get involved in the same disease pool. They all sleep in the same bed, the washing machines can’t cope with the loads, you know, at least five or six loads a day. I’ve worked in houses where thirty people live up in the north and you just can’t control disease spreading. Like one kid gets a virus and whish, the whole house gets it. So we are trying to make a difference there.
Most of our work is fixing houses, not building new ones at all. It can be done more cheaply and quickly. But you couldn’t fix those houses in Eveleigh Street, they’ve had it, they are just so bad. Apart from which they’ve got suspended floors, the place is running with rats. It will only be a matter of time before something like a fire would just sweep through those roofs. They are not even safe from break and enters. I’ve watched kids with screwdrivers go straight through those bricks.
Anael: I’ve seen it too myself.
Col James: It is so soft. You’ve only got to make a hole big enough for a little kid. I’d better go.
Anael: Thank you very much again Col, that’s great.
Postscript from Col James to the 2002 interviews about the Block:
I forgot to mention another key factor affecting the Block and the redevelopment proposals.
Like many (possibly even post) colonial Aboriginal settlements across the country, Redfern inherited what is called the “mission mentality”. This is the management model imposed by Governments on Aboriginal communities, notably by religious organisations, versed in welfare assistance and values associated with various church denominations. Whilst some Aboriginal communities thrived under church lore, e.g. Palm Island and other Catholic missions, Redfern was certainly influenced by Father Ted Kennedy and Shirley Smith and also became home to many families who had experienced mission values.
I think that the "mission mentality" evident at the Block settlement at Redfern was that of perceived dependence on the manager of the Settlement Estate. This in effect placed an enormous burden on the Aboriginal Housing Company manager and Board of Directors to provide day-to-day assistance with all the services necessary for a family’s very survival. The irregular collection of rent was never enough to pay for rates, repairs, insurance, funerals, travel, food and health care for kids and was a key factor in the decline of the Block. The AHC 2004 Social Plan addressed this issue directly by advocating a home ownership model for at least 42 households with an additional 20 tenants integrated into clusters of five households for mutual support. This co-housing arrangement is now popular in Canada and the US and is supported by a recent 2006 survey of Aboriginal key workers in Redfern.
Source: Redfern Oral History Website