One of the many ironies about the Redfern Block is the fact that the Block is only just in Redfern. It’s just an LJ Hooker billboard or two away from much more real-estate friendly Darlington. Much of Redfern parts of which are but a 10 minute walk from the southern edge of the CBD – is increasingly indistinguishable from the rest of inner Sydney. Relentlessly renovated terraces pushing the magic million, converted warehouse apartment developments, groovy ethnic fusion restaurants etc, etc. Pockets of deprivation certainly remain. Sydney’s sole flirtation with the horror of British post-war tower block public housing looms large on the Redfern horizon and tellingly, most shopfronts in the commercial hub still have Beirut Blinds. Then there’s The Block.
It’s actually only about 4 streets forming a rough rectangle in the area between Redfern railway station and – irony of ironies – the eastern edge of the prestigious, sandstone seat of learning. Thousands of Sydney Uni students trek along Lawson St between the station and the Darlington campus skirting the web of blasted, burned out terraces and the interconnecting web of dunny lanes – perfect for drug deals – that surround Eveleigh, Caroline, Louis and Vine Streets. To most of the transiting scholars, it must be another country or planet, maybe.
A few more ironies: Very few Sydney-based aboriginals actually live there. The vast majority have little or nothing to do with the ongoing pathologies of the area and astoundingly the Block is actually in aboriginal ownership. The aboriginal housing co-op has been about to do great things with it for about 30 years. It hasn’t happened.
The Block is far from being a service delivery desert. It’s arguably the epicentre of the most concentrated on-the-ground welfare effort in Australia. An angry Rev Bill Crews observed to the ABC’s Sally Loane, on the Monday after the riot, that ‘over 80 welfare agencies’ are working in the Redfern community. His message was clear: they’re not very effective. I’d argue that they are, but only in the sense of supporting people in their current deprivation. Against any positive and sustained improvement measurement, their failure is embarrassingly, total. The police have copped some flak in addition to the Molotov cocktail stuff chucked at them last weekend but in general the police presence in Redfern seems determinedly low-key; conciliatory wherever possible rather than deliberately confrontational. You get the distinct impression that the cops are as baffled by the intractability of it all as everyone else.
So, what to do? State opposition leader, John Brogden offered a bulldozing of the Block. It’s not a bad idea downstream but as an immediate response it’ll only work in the leafy Liberal electorates north of the Bridge – to whom, of course, his soundbite was aimed. Bulldozing won’t do anything to change the immediate circumstances of the people who actually live round Eveleigh St. You can be drunk, desperate, hopeless, drug-fucked and a permanent victim wherever. It’s not the Block that’s the problem ultimately. It’s the blighted lives that coalesce around it.
Kerry Nettle called for more “resources” (like 80 agencies aren’t enough?) and recognition of the need for aboriginal self-determination. Maybe. The fact is that aboriginals are “self-determining” in Redfern and the results of that didn’t do much for the life prospects of TJ Hickey and lots of kids like him. I know what she means it’s a laudable aspiration but the most liberating act that could be struck for the people of the Block is to remove the crushing burden of perpetual victimhood that chokes the life out of them. A burden that, seemingly, condemns them to an endless cycle of dysfunction and despair.
Given this scenario, it seems to me that we could quadruple the resources currently available and still wind up in the same place. At some point, aboriginals are going to have to start doing it for themselves. It can’t ultimately be done for them. That approach no matter how well meant has failed dismally. It’s classically the sort of moment that calls forth the man and woman. And therein lies the core problem:
Where apart from a handful of notable exceptions – are they? And if they exist, how will they ever have the fortitude to stay the distance in terms of the scale of challenge they have to undertake?