A tour of the heart – Redfern

I got a call from my secretary.

Come in, sit down, let’s talk

she said. Uh oh. This looks bad. It can only mean one thing. Delete. Delete. Delete.

Seems my draft posting of our journey to the heart of Redfern was a little bleak, the darkened reaches of my imagination flicking the mud too far. Kinda like a small kid ‘playing’ with a skink… right up to the point the skink stops playing due to a lack of legs.

So I have revisited the draft with glee in my heart and I reckon another journey to peer closer beneath the carpet at the fluff is in order.

Here it is:

Redfern is a scabby-kneed old tart, her wise eyes brimming with a raw, indisputable  knowledge. At her heart is a community that stands strong and true, descendants of the earliest mobs on Gadigal land, and a tangle of characters who breathe life into the endless asphalt of the inner city.

Her’s was always the party to crash, a raucous orgy of social consolidation, an urban wonder dome  trimmed with every cut and colour. Obed West, who hunted with the Aboriginal community in the early 1800s wrote the following description in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1882:

Nearly all over the present Redfern grew luxuriant crops of geebungs and five-corners… Boxley’s Clear was a great rendezvous… [for the Aboriginal community] one of their great feasting grounds as well as the scene of many hard-fought battle… the Governor gave instruction that no waddies or spears were to be brought within a mile of the boundaries of the town [so] the clearing at Redfern, being nicely adjacent, was chosen [by the tribe] as the place of meeting for the settlement of disputes, in lieu of the Racecourse [Hyde Park]… The portion of Redfern, known as Albert Ground and Victoria Town, as well as the vacant paddocks opposite Elizabeth Street [Redfern Park] was known as Boxley’s Lagoon… Round the edges of the clear were the camping grounds…

Today her patina is a little speckled and worn thin. Her crepey skin stretches and sags to envelop a loyal crowd still seeking her warmth and her once booming heartbeat stutters a little with the more prosaic sounds of life on the streets, the grind of the rubbish trucks, the groan of last orders and the clack-clack of high heels as they commute to work.

But the old girl is getting a facelift, a splash of vermillion lipstick to accentuate her laughter lines, a sparkle of gilt to brighten up dank alleys  fetid with piss and sorrow.


Coloured facades for the face of the towers

Like male dogs marking their territories the developers have swooped, buying up swathes of land to rebuild the inner city dream. This is the new face of Redfern:

New kid on the block

Shaded by giant gums, set back in wide-lined streets, it really is the face of sophisticated, centralised living. It is described as:

“A sustainable social housing development [that] has provided a greater mix of social housing in Redfern-Waterloo and has been awarded a 5-star Green Star rating”.

But the old girl will always have deep secrets that writhe uncomfortably in her bowels. Directly opposite these new buildings squats a square of land, home to derelict houso blocks that are crumbling into the dirt scratched up around them. There is an air of neglect, of dark regret and untold tragedy.

I have no idea what happened here but fear drips down my neck as I glance through the hurricane fencing. These pictures can’t convey this but the air is uneasy and the space seems constricted, trapped.

The terrace that was destroyed in 1959 to make way for the housing commission block

How it looks today

The reality is that some of the urban renewal that forges ahead throughout the inner city pays little heed to the past. While there is a perceived desire to update and improve these old neighbourhoods, sometimes the stains are indelible. And here the ghosts swirl close to the surface.

Dead Christmas

And just when the gloom deepens I stumble on a memory that does justice to the bright light of Redfern’s people:

Mum Shirl

Mum Shirl was the founding member of the Aboriginal Legal Service, Medical Service, the Tent Embassy, Aboriginal Children’s Service and the Aboriginal Housing Company. She was a prominent Aboriginal activist committed to the justice and welfare of the Aboriginal community. She was also widely considered to be everybody’s mum…

Murals abound here, a living memory of the activism and cultural pride that thrives,

Smiling face

and Poet’s Corner can’t help but make you smile, its strange beauty the result of its incongruity and the presence of a thriving community garden at its feet, coiling and tangling with green hope in this chattering urban grid.

Poet's Corner

The politics of urban space are virulent and Redfern exists in an uneasy alliance of deprivation and accumulating excess. These pockets of memory, slithers of a long-forgotten soul are part of the patchwork, woven in and tied tight. Long may they remain so.

4 thoughts on “A tour of the heart – Redfern

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