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Rich history belies Oaks Estate's reputation

Oaks Estate, a forgotten village on Canberra's eastern outskirts, may not have completely shed its crime haven status, but is nonetheless cherished for its history and obscure status.

Long-time resident Karen Williams says the village's neglect over many years has inadvertently defined Oaks Estate.

''A lot of people want to dump on us. Yes, bad stuff happens here, but hey, it's our bad stuff. At the same time, it is probably one of the best kept secrets in Canberra.''

Ms Williams arrived in Oaks Estate in 1987 and answered a call from the Arts Council to establish an arts festival by talking to old people, including some born in 1909.

She spent six months gathering oral history, applied for more grants and helped stage an inaugural festival, which drew people from all over Canberra.

In 1993, she exhibited much of the history she had gathered, and kept building on the information she had, doing three years of archival work and research which led to her book Oaks Estate: No Man's Land.

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The exercise left her with a whole new family around her.

The fact Oaks Estate sits on the ACT border, with people unsure whether it belongs to NSW or the territory, is no bad thing.

''In one sense, it has been a good thing that it has been 'forgotten', because I appreciate the irony of its history of being neglected.

''That's it is its saving grace. It is protected in some way by neglect. It has given it a rich depth of heritage, because it has not been developed too much.''

The ACT Government is about to draw up a new masterplan for Oaks Estate and Ms Williams is keen to see its historical context reflected in the planning document.

The layering of history would have to be done in a way that showed an appreciation for the village's depth of social and environmental history.

''It is so tenuous now, because of its age. There are only a few remnants of each layer, but they still exist and as a whole that's what makes this place so rich.''

A previous planning review, about 20 years ago, was unsuccessful, leaving social and cultural development issues, such as the public housing problems, unaddressed.

Offering services like public health, which could only be obtained at Woden and Civic, was difficult, because often people at Oaks Estate were in emergency housing and did not have transport to get to those town centres.

Ms Williams is worried about the ACT Government's future plans, because those social issues had to be acknowledged and addressed.

Increasing the village's population was not a solution, because there was no infrastructure there.

''We are concerned that more medium-density housing, whatever its nature, will result from the planning process.

''The Government intends to release and sell 10 blocks of vacant land in Oaks Estate, the majority of which is in locations that will significantly affect the appearance and character of key gateways into Oaks Estate.

''There is a real risk that medium-density housing will undermine the heritage values that, so far, the Government has recognised but not adequately protected.''

Although not linked to Queanbeyan, Oaks Estate's close proximity to the NSW border city raised the question of who would be responsible in the event of a fire or emergency.

Like Queanbeyan, many of the early residents had a role in building Canberra.

''We actually provide the link between the early colonial times, which Queanbeyan represents, and the building of Canberra,'' she said. ''The building that actually symbolises that is the Robertson's House.''

That house, the 1830s homestead The Oaks and Queanbeyan railway station, with a state boundary between them, summed up the entire history of the ACT.