People Power: Saving Sirius

written by Sara Savage, photographed by Alisa Gore and published in Assemble Papers.

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Cherie Johnson, 61, is an original Sirius tenant, having moved in with her mother shortly after the project’s completion in 1980. “When I first moved into Sirius, I remember going around to Millers Point to buy the newspaper and people in the street would say ‘good morning’ to me – it was like a little country town, right in the city,” she says, smiling. It’s a different story now, with the majority of the area’s public housing tenants having been relocated by the NSW Government over the last two-and-a-half years. “It’s been a complete turnaround,” Cherie says of the rapidly transforming neighbourhood she’s called home for 36 years.

We’re sitting in Cherie’s ninth-storey apartment, immaculately kept and lovingly dotted with knick-knacks and ornaments, indoor plants and a shrine-like arrangement of framed family photographs. “Everyone who visits my place says it’s like walking into a doll’s house,” she laughs. More generously sized than the average doll’s house, however – or the average public housing unit for that matter – the 79 Sirius apartments were built to accommodate 200 people in a series of one, two, three and four-bedroom units, both single-storey and split-level. Many of the apartments enjoy picturesque views of Sydney’s world-famous harbour, but you won’t find the residents bragging about it. “The thing is, it’s not about the view. It’s about the people that live here,” says Cherie, suddenly switching to the past tense. “That’s what made this place.”

The impact of the NSW Government’s haste in moving out the residents of both Sirius and Millers Point cannot be overstated, with the remaining residents sharing a discernible air of exhaustion. The ever-houseproud Cherie (“I had just swept the ceiling and shampooed the carpets!” she says of the day she found out about the government’s plans to sell Sirius) speaks of her diminishing will to clean the house with the same vigour she used to. Likewise, 55-year-old Kelly Moss, who has also lived in Sirius since the beginning, tells of her elderly mother – also a Sirius resident – whose health has deteriorated significantly since the announcement in 2014. “My mum was a vibrant, healthy woman two years ago – getting up early to walk the bridge every day. Now, she’s a shell of her former self,” says Kelly. “Being in limbo like we have been for the last three years… it’s not a good way to live. You can’t relax.”

And then there’s Myra. If you’ve followed the Sirius story at all over the past three years, chances are you’ll be at least somewhat acquainted with Myra Demetriou – a figurehead of the remaining residents. Though 89 years old (she’ll be 90 by the end of November) and physically frail, Myra is often described by others to be ‘tough as nails’. Myra is blind – in fact, the armchair in her 10th-storey apartment faces away from her so-called ‘million-dollar’ harbour views – but she remains fiercely independent and is a cherished member of the local community, having lived in the area for 60 years and in Sirius since 2008. But for all Myra’s resilience, she says her disability is a major reason why she’s fighting for her right to remain in the building and in the area. “How can they expect someone like me to just pack up and go somewhere strange?” she says. “I want to stay.”

Myra’s and Cherie’s apartments sit directly on top of one another, and the two women became close after Cherie’s mother Betty died a few years ago. Speaking to them both in Myra’s unit (known to many as the apartment with the ‘SOS’ lights in the window), they agree their ideal outcome would be to stay – if not in Sirius then in the Millers Point area.