The Australian city that did not want its roofs of the past

An article in French in Cross Worlds by Loïc Renaudier…

A succession of red brick houses with two floors. They all look the same. For each, a staircase, in a falsely bright white, is leading to a roof terrace. Down the street, on his front porch, Barney’s waiting for me. “The main entrance is on the other side, but in summer the sun gets so warm that I need to lock everything”, he says smiling.

I discover his home sweet home, which before that was the home of his parents. Sixty-six years of a life spent here on High Street. Situated in the shadows, the “14th” is still in good condition, although a little austere. The grayish blue carpet has been covering the ground for the past 27 years. But the government wants to draw a line under the house of Barney, under the roofs of the past.

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Millers Point is one of the very first Sydney neighborhoods built by the bay. From the 1850s, his fate binds, in the dust, that of the emerging industry. The port, nearby, is the maritime heart of Australia. Millers Point serves as a roof to a whole class of blue-collar workers. Soon, a community is forged in sweat and in steel. “My father, who worked at the port, would often help colleagues to maintain their houses,” recalls Barney.
Then things changed. No more industry, no more coal. In the 70s, the government of New South Wales buys a large part of the neighborhood, to make it a popular and diverse neighbourhood out of a dirty, dusty suburb, earlier struck down by the plague. The workers’ houses became public housing, but the names on the mailboxes remained the same. The family of Stewart has been based here for five generations. “All my family lives in the neighborhoud”, he said.
Kelli, meanwhile, moved into the neighborhood very recently. She recounts with delight the openness between people and how fast she felt part of the community :
“Being able to talk to anyone in the street, it’s an amazing thing. Nowadays, it is rare enough, but here we are almost a big family. ”
A large family that draws its strength from the past. Because here the future is threatening.

The forced expropriation
19 March 2014. The government wants to give away these housings. 293 roofs. « They will be sold due to the high cost of maintenance. In the last two years alone, nearly 7million AUD hs been spent maintaining this small number of properties. That money could have been better spent on building more social housing”, explains the government in a statement (that disappeared from the online archive). 465 tenants.
Not once consulted. A simple letter, dropped contemptuously under their door, informing them of their eviction.
“It seems like we do not count,” lamented Barney.
The roof is falling in on his head. The community wants to understand. But it’s difficult, facing a government that turned a deaf ear. Among the last four ministers of Family and Community Services – Liberal and Labor – only the last and current one, Brad Hazzard, agreed to meet with members of the community.

Between heritage preservation and gentrification
Under the guise of protection of the architectural heritage, the government wants to sell part of the history of Sydney, in pieces, to investors “better equipped to preserve each building’s unique history”. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the authorities are hoping to withdraw more than $500 million from the sale of these properties. Before modest roofs for dockworkers, these units are now being sold for million dollars (the median price outright just over a million dollars). As a result: bailed-out banks, restored buildings, but residents handpicked.
“One can say goodbye to diversity”, says concerned Kelli. “Soon, Sydney will be exclusively a city only for the wealthy.”
Gradually, the historically popular neighborhoods such as Ultimo, Surry Hills or Redfern, are threatened by higher and higher glass towers, symbols of the threatening gentrification. Alex Greenwich even speaks of “social cleansing”. Millers Point is indeed being depleted of its people, its soul.

Community mobilization: “Save Our Community”
But the community wants to fight. From the Abraham Mott Hall, the municipal center, the people are leading the battle front to “save [their] community”. Their strategy: Do not move.

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“The government wants me to go. But to where? asks Barney in a very concerned tone. I have never lived anywhere else. ”
In the noise of the fan blades, which covers their voices, they are talking about the negotiations with the government. They know all the numbers, all the dates, all the issues. Their aim is to rally public opinion to their cause.
“Last year, we organized a visit of Sirius. It also shows, says Barney. Gradually, people understand. ” Everywhere on front of the houses, banners “No Surrender” or “Save our Community.” There are also portraits of residents, that John Dunn another resident, has posted.

Resignation on the horizon
The government wants to urge reluctant tenants. The growing unkept housing plays in his favor.
“Without any maintenance, houses are becoming decrepit. Last year, a white staircase even collapsed, says Barney with fright. ”
At the Splendid Cafe, a woman, frail and hesitant, is resigned to move. “The alternative housing (is supposed to be) much more comfortable, she says, In the end, I win the exchange. ” Insidiously, signs “Save Our Community” are swapped for panels.
The battle seems futile, unbalanced: 70% of tenants are over sixty years old. They lose hope, some get sick, others come to suicide. “The government does not understand the importance of the local community for this generation,” protested Kelli in the face of stubbornness from the government.

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The iconic Sirius, in a Brutalism style, was constructed to relocate an adjacent neighborhoud. But it is about to be destroyed as well. It’s a sign of the irony of the situation, that looks like an endless loop.

The younger generations find their ancestors badly treated by the governement. First, they do not understand. And then they get used to it. Kelli perceives her daughters distancing themselves from the elderly and others being evicted. “How do we help our children to learn respect, reciprocity if the government itself rejects these values? ”
They observe the abandonment of an entire community, yet one registered as a national living heritage since 2003. It is the only example in Australia. Even to the point of wanting to give up the name of Millers Point to that of Barangaroo, the newly created adjacent district undergoing rehabilitation and carved off from the original. Starting again, ignoring the past.
Loïc Renaudier.

Read the original in French.

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