Roger of Redfern

My attorney suggests I acquire boots. “Useful things. Cover the toes,” she says. The dog days of summer saw much flaunting of chipped scarlet toe-nail polish and flip flop tan lines, but today winter is lurking in the wings of this threadbare theatre, crowbar at the ready. She has a point.

It is a typical Sydney day, all flouncing clouds and majestic gestures. A worker’s skirt howls up around her ears as if intent on escape; a toddler bawls as his saliva-stained dog-eared bunny hits the deck and the traffic contorts and writhes indecently, a honking stack of metal and frustration. Clouds flash past sickeningly, a heady mix of burnt coffee and frustration is smeared through the air, and a rusted Streets ice-cream sign frets in its tired housing.

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Roger remains calm, an air of effusive gentility shrugged gently across his shoulders.

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Behind his head a reassuring sign reiterates that I am in the right place, bowed by the weight of eight pairs of tatty boots, old friends in need of a little love.

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Roger has been here for 48 years. Right here in the heart of Redfern, without a care in the world. Obstreperous weather, traffic insurgency and the transgressions of tots bring on another beaming smile – he’s seen it all before, welcomes it even. Roger is in thrall to the vibrant life that this particular swarm of chaos signifies.

Survivor of a simpler life, Roger champions the Redfern of today too;

“I love the place, you know? It’s like a little country town in the middle of the city. Me? I’m a people person. Here, on the streets, I see the people, I talk, I make ’em smile… I never bin robbed of anything. If people die in another suburb no-one mentions it. If they die in Redfern, everyone talks. It’s a community, you know?”

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38 years ago Roger’s shop was considered ‘high risk’, a risible description that sets him cackling with glee. The security firm forced Roger to install bars on the shopfront all those years ago. They would be unimpressed by his MO today, wandering out to go for a pee and leaving the shop open, unattended. But like he says, “who gonna want this stuff anyway? I got no money, I just got the leather and laces, you know?”

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Redfern is far from the warm scent of cedar and hash, sun-hot bricks and spilling souks of Lebanon. But that was a lifetime ago. And Roger quite likes the Asian tang of the Vietnamese hot bread shop, the oily dredge of run-off that courses through the gutters, and the smell of his own leather.

He is quick to flatter and praise, a ladies-man with a silver tongue and a twinkle in his eye;

“For you da-ling, no problem, no worries! I fix ’em good, eh? Make you look even more good with new boots, good shine, no more so tatty eh?”

And Roger is as good as his word. I entrust my soles to ‘the man that can’ and watch as he tenderly runs his hands over the leather, stroking the history woven into each one. As  he hums softly to himself I read the other sign, proudly displayed next to the 70s mags and crumpled plastic cups:

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The faded ink and cursive high-school flair does little to detract from the message: despite his ‘no tick’ policy, spelt out in texta, Roger is an all-round good egg.

Rollin’ Stock

My attorney advised me not to get sick. She patted my fevered brow and told me to lay off the synonyms, put down the allegory and retreat from this cataloguing of quirk.

Ignoring her advice, as one is wont to do in the face of a rampaging word habit, my verbal strength failed me. I found myself surfing a wordless wasteland, devoid of Australiana, though certainly not culture-less: I discovered hot purple lint beneath the bed, a significant crack in my favourite liquor jug and a preoccupation with gossip of the lewdest nature. The Tin Lid and the Cowboy learnt to approach bestowing Who magazines and gin, with caution flickering in the whites of their eyes. And we have run out of cheese.

But fear not. The search is back on, laced with vim and promising Australiana in spades.  The Secretary is braced for intrepid retrieval; she has purchased new pointy pencils for her scribblings and is wearing double band aids on her potential bunion blisters. My attorney is relaxing on a beach with a molotov cocktail, grooming herself with a small Spanish man.

All is good in the world.

I have found a dinosaur, kitted out in kitten heels, a behemoth whose wears its continued relevance as a shiny badge of pride on the latest Prada sleeve.

Straddling the criss-cross of tracks at Redfern Station, Carriageworks to the north, loco yards to the south, Eveleigh is a flirting anachronism that melds past, present and future.

The Eveleigh Locomotive Workshop is decked out in pop-bright flags that herald Innovation, Heritage, Sustainability, and Community, the tenets of a modern reincarnation. Once the powerhouse of a vibrant steam industry, Eveleigh has evolved into a paradox; it is an industrial museum, threaded with memory and steeped with the souls of the past, while at the same time a bright-eyed bustle of innovation, the Australian Technology Centre, chock full of businesses with names like elcom; ac3; and thoughtweb.

The Tin Lid taking it all in

The most recent arrivals are flouncing fashionistas and doe-eyed interns who traipse across a landscape once reserved for hardened men, in teetering heels attached to smartphones. The media has arrived…

Built in 1887, Eveleigh championed the power of steam, forging, stamping, pressing and bolting metal into the rolling stock that powered the halcyon days of Victorian industrial development.

Rows of pounding machine shops lined up to be fed from the fires of the foundry, the hammer and press of the forge clamouring long into the dark. It was a place of fire and pain, steel and sorrow.

Remembered in black and white, courtesy of our perspective on the past and the pitch of the coal that coated everything, the characters that brought Eveleigh to life are long lost to our modern world. Cloaked in navvies humour and clad in flat caps, steel boots and itchy wool, these men embodied the grind and grist of non-automated workforce. They were the face of the headlong hurtle to the six o’clock swill, a flutter on the nags and a meat pie ‘n’ sauce on a Sunday.

It’s a long way from iPad-clutching cashmere suits and dolly-birds in vermillion sipping double-shot-skinny-soy-caramel-lattes (“hold the sugar, I’m watching my weight”).

Contemporary buildings peer out suspiciously at the heritage-listed loco shops from behind fortified slatted fronts, their eyes narrowed in distrust..

Or is it envy? The incidental architecture jars painfully, with sharp lines that jut, a scope that is stingy, and a lack of wildlife in the lobby. The arches at Eveleigh are vast, arcing high above me, the space filled with sound and memory, scrabbling birds and thick cobwebs.

In the blacksmiths bay a working smith, thick dreads snaking down his back, is busy striking metal into shards of russet and gold before thrusting molten steel into icy water and disappearing behind a curtain of steam. The Tin Lid is most impressed, casting his Charlie and Lola book onto the ground over and over in sheer admiration of this worthy skill.

This is a place where three worlds overlay each other, a shadowy resonance beneath a glossy facade stapled onto an arresting history. Naturally that includes CCTV…

The dross of over a hundred years of operation has been carefully scraped away to reveal a sterile, staid beauty, yet still present within the glossy corporate facade are elements of the past, a reminder of a previous life, though ATMs crouch expectantly in corners once reserved for the gaffer’s office:

Vast bolted pieces of the obsolete sit redundant in the windows, as if gazing curiously into the present. The trundling beep of cherry pickers and scissor lifts, the clink of a teaspoon and the sharp bite of Ajax serves to remind me of the prosaic nature of Eveleigh now. The cranes and hydraulics lie idle, the tracks no longer lead anywhere, and there is a eerie calm, interspersed with busy cutlery and whirring cash machines…

The strict Victorian austerity of this era is smoothed out, softened by the buildings’ evolution, but in places the past peeps through, a stark reminder of the brutality of Eveleigh’s history:

In memory of the fallen

As you wander further away from Innovation Plaza, an air of desolation and dereliction lingers, somnolent workshops lie empty and dark, their windows smashed, the small information signs have become extinct and there is barbed wire to deter.

It is here that the past is closest to the surface. Here you can smell and taste another world and best understand the proud history of Eveleigh and then men who worked here.

The path from past to future is never easy. Eveleigh manages to maintain a sense of pride and purpose and though the innovative adaptive reuse program is far from the gristly origins of the loco yards, it is also a long way from any further encroachment by the developers and the concrete crawl that typifies them.

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.

Facelift

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.