Culture

An Entire Suburb In Sydney Is Being Evicted

The NSW state government is kicking over 400 people out of their homes near James Packer’s new casino, but they’re not going down without a fight.

“I just want to put Seth Rogen’s personality and Zac Efron’s body together!”

“With that kind of data management, you’re really looking at a different kind of IT delivery service.”

Such is the banter you overhear walking around Millers Point, the steadily-gentrifying microburb squashed between James  Packer’s ill-fated Barangaroo project on Darling Harbour and The Rocks, on a Friday afternoon. It does not endear you to the speakers – packs of young urban professionals, laminated platinum-blondes and spiky-haired office workers with their top two buttons undone. They’re off to their end-of-the-week liquid lunches to be served by square-bearded waiters at the Lord Nelson, the flagship pub at the top of Argyle Street that proclaims itself the oldest in Sydney.

They part around the shuffling old man in the middle of the footpath as though he’s not there, leaving him to puff away on cheap cigarettes as they chew up the hill with gym-sculpted calf muscles. Nor do they notice the yellow ribbons tied to the front doors of the shabby old houses they pass, and they certainly don’t acknowledge the houses themselves. Such things do not exist in their world – at most they are unsightly intrusions, disfigurements to be removed with minimum fuss by men in fluoro vests who do what you pay them for, and replaced by artisan cafes and design agencies.

Millers Point: A Man’s Home Is His Castle

As much as they’d like to, the young urban professionals have so far been unable to claim Millers Point’s historic terrace houses for their own. They remain confined to office hours in the old wharves and warehouses down the hill, because the suburb is home to one of the inner city’s largest surviving public housing precincts. The people who live here are not the sort you’d expect to find on such prime real estate. They are overwhelmingly past the age of retirement, many being pensioners, and bear the marks of decades of hard work on their faces and hands.

They wear singlets and stubbies, and decorate their homes with the colours of their rugby league teams. They have names like Lawrie and Julie and Bev.

The area used to be the hub of Sydney’s thriving ports industry, with thousands of working-class families living in housing owned by the Maritime Services Board, and providing the manpower that loaded and unloaded the ships that docked in Darling Harbour.

It was here in January 1900 that the bubonic plague first broke out in Sydney, borne by rats coming off the ships. For months Millers Point was a quarantined warzone, with authorities demolishing homes and hunting rats to check the plague’s spread. The plague would end up killing 103 people in eight months. As a sign of danger, yellow ribbons were tied to the doors of houses with infected people inside.

The dockworking industry eventually died a slow death, and the wharves took on new functions as sites for high-end apartments and the Sydney Dance Company. The ownership of the public housing passed to the Department of Housing in the ’80s, but the people who worked the wharves are still there, in the houses they’ve lived in all their lives, keeping a tiny remnant of the old, working-class Sydney alive in the community they’ve built for each other.

The Sirius buildling in The Rocks, one of the historic sites being sold off.

The Sirius buildling in The Rocks, one of the historic sites being sold off. (Photo by Glen Wright)

But the state government has called time. Last Wednesday, the 400-odd public housing residents of Millers Point, some of whom have 200-year-old ties to the area, found a letter from Community Services Minister Pru Goward in the mailbox telling them they are due to be evicted and their properties sold off to the highest bidder – all 293 of them. They have not been told where they may be moved, or when. The yellow ribbons, which residents again began tying to their doors last year when the sprawling Barangaroo development’s approval raised fears of just such an event, now signify death of a different kind.

It may be the first time Sydney has ever seen the eviction of an entire suburb.

“A Rich Person Wants To Live Here Now, You Need To Leave.” 

The evictees are not alone, though; their representatives at all levels of government have reacted with outright fury. Federal Member for Sydney and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek gave a barnstorming speech in Parliament the night of the announcement, saying the O’Farrell government “may as well have dropped a bomb on the centre of Sydney for the damage they will do to the community”. By Friday, letterboxes in Millers Point and the Rocks were filled with open letters from Plibersek inviting locals to a resident’s meeting the next day at the local church hall, where the MP herself would be speaking.

It’s Saturday now, and around 70 people have turned up to the meeting, all very, very old. Aside from most of the politicians in attendance, Tanya’s youthful aides, her toddler Louie and Plibersek herself, the only one under 60 is a bored red-haired kid dragged along by his grandma who spends the meeting on his phone. As Plibersek speaks though, they get fired up, feeding off her anger and her determination.

“Some genius comes along every ten or twenty years thinking they can turn these houses into a quick buck – we’ve beaten them before. We can beat them again,” Plibersek says to applause. Louie hugs her legs, wrestling for her attention, and she takes a second to distract him with an iPad.

Residents gathered at a community forum on Saturday.

Residents gathered at a community forum on Saturday.  © Geoff Turnbull 2014

The Shadow Housing Minister, Sophie Cotsis, is also here, and pledges to take up the fight. So does the Labor Sydney councillor Linda Scott, and the Greens and independent councillors who’ve come along as well. But the biggest applause is reserved for Bernie, the local representative of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). He’s a stocky, sunburned bloke in a union tee and shorts with a classic union-bruiser voice, perfect for riling up the troops. The MUA have deep ties to the old wharfie community in Millers Point, and are in this fight up to their necks. Bernie knows what the people want to hear.

“Working people have a right to security in the own homes! You shouldn’t have to wait for the government to come knocking and say, ‘A rich person wants to live here now, you need to leave’. Are we suddenly not good enough to live here?” he thunders, and the crowd rumbles its approval. A contact sheet is passed around and Tanya wraps up, stressing that she will work with “anyone, absolutely anyone, who will help protect this community”.

If that’s the case she’s going to have to coordinate with her state and local counterparts a little better; Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and the independent state MP for the area, Alex Greenwich, have organised their own community forum two hours after Tanya’s, down the road. While all seem genuinely outraged by the sell-off and committed to fighting it, a streak of political one-upmanship is at play here too – the independent duo of Moore and Greenwich penned a joint column for the Herald on Thursday, pointing out that the Iemma Labor government was responsible for the first sell-offs of Millers Point public housing, back in 2008.

Blue Lucine, a Sydney-based filmmaker, is documenting the Millers Point controversy for her upcoming film, Sydney For Sale.

Barangaroo: Packer’s Easy Gamble

The Greenwich/Moore forum is in the Abraham Mott Youth Centre, a town hall that can hold around 400 people, and it takes everyone about ninety seconds to walk there from the church hall. There’s still an hour to kill until the second meeting starts, so some of the locals head to the Argyle Café down the street and huddle at a table outside. The interior is full of burly tradesmen taking a break from laying the foundations of James Packer’s monstrous six-star hotel and casino at nearby Barangaroo, which will eventually loom over the city’s skyline.

An artist’s impression of James Packer’s updated Crown proposal for the development of Barangaroo, from crownresorts.com.au

An artist’s impression of the Barangaroo development; source: crownresorts.com.au

Like the public housing up the hill, Barangaroo is publicly-owned, and was originally slated to be dominated by a waterfront park in the award-winning proposal that won the competition to redesign eastern Darling Harbour in 2006. Since then, however, the public space has been steadily chipped away by encroaching commercial interests. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl resigned from the Barangaroo project in October in protest that “concerns for the people landscape have gradually evaporated” in favour of a “strong urge to build as much as possible”.

The final nail in the coffin for a public Barangaroo came in early 2012, when Packer’s proposal for a high-rollers casino on the site was given the nod by Premier Barry O’Farrell. Since then the casino has had a golden run of luck, sailing through every part of the development approvals process so easily that accusing Packer and the government of stitching up a deal has become a common refrain of the project’s critics.

In November O’Farrell and the Labor state Opposition both agreed to the casino being built on what would otherwise have been public parkland – an exclusive casino, to which only VIP members and wealthy gamblers will be allowed entry. Regular Sydneysiders won’t even make it through the door, let alone Barangaroo’s working-class neighbours at Millers Point.

Whether or not the casino has anything to do with the sudden announcement to turf out the public housing tenants up the hill and sell their homes to the highest bidder is a matter of conjecture. It would go some way towards explaining why, in a state with 57,000 people waiting to get into public housing, many perfectly good Millers Point properties have stood empty and boarded up for years, or why residents have long complained that getting even basic maintenance inside their homes is nearly impossible.

But the casino is the pet project of James Packer, the second-richest man in Australia, and it has the backing of former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

The world has a way of giving such men what they want.

“I’ll remember that.”

When it’s nearing midday, time for the Clover/Greenwich forum, the locals head back up the hill to the Abraham Mott Centre where a huge crowd has gathered. A couple of old buggers have a smoke outside beforehand.

“How’d youse go last night?” one asks. The other, wearing a sweat-stained Rabbitohs cap, shakes his head solemnly.

“Mate, I do not wish to discuss it.” Souths took a beating at the hands of the Wests Tigers the night before.

Inside, every seat is filled, and a knot of people forms around the door. It plays out much like the one Plibersek ran two hours ago, except where she played down individual grievances to progress the meeting, Alex Greenwich opens up the floor for people to vent. A woman in the audience, Judy, talks about Greenwich’s motion on Wednesday to prevent the sell-off. She speaks with a quiet dignity that makes her anger stand out all the more. “During Alex’s speech on Wednesday afternoon, I was in the viewing gallery, and I watched what people were doing,” she says. “The minister, Pru Goward, didn’t listen to a word. She sat there talking – and laughing – all through it. All through it. And I remember that.”

When the meeting’s formally done, there’s a sausage sizzle outside, provided by the City free-of-charge. I leave the locals to talk tactics and start walking home. Along the way I pass the Sirius building, the apartment complex containing 79 public housing units due to be sold off as part of the plan Goward announced on Wednesday. It’s a bizarre, ugly thing, built like a giant set of concrete steps. At the top of one of the highest steps is the iconic sign every commuter across the Bridge has seen a thousand times, balanced in a window: ONE WAY! JESUS. It’s tried to convert unbelievers for years, but the message smacks more of frustration now.

Across the road from the Sirius building, the young urban professionals queue for the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, a unique Sydney experience starting at $198 a pop. They have a much better chance of conquering the Sirius building than the current tenants do of ever climbing the Bridge. They are everywhere now, the young urban professionals, and wherever they go the 24-hour gyms and the frozen yoghurt shops go with them. Nothing messy or cluttered, nothing crass or bogan or in any way dirty, can remain in the world that is being created for them and for their money; only glistening, meaningless perfection. Only immaculate farce.

Alex McKinnon is a Sydney-based writer and journalist, and former editor of The Star Observer.

Geoff Turnbull is a Sydney-based photographer working for Inner Sydney Voice, the quarterly journal of the Inner Sydney Regional Council for Social Development.

Feature image by MD11, under a Creative Commons license on Flickr.