Illustration: Edd Aragon
On Anzac Day we stopped in Cullen Bullen for lunch, if lunch is not too kind a term for a toastie that seemed to be made of melted-down prostheses. A local, formerly of Campbelltown, heard we were from Redfern.
''Which part of Redfern?'' he wanted to know.
The subtext was clear enough; there is a good part and a bad one. You expect that sort of thing from country NSW. What did surprise me was hearing similar sentiments from SBS newsreader Ricardo Goncalves, who more or less argued in print the other day that Redfern should be cut in half.
In Goncalves's plan the good half of Redfern - his half, naturally, the eastern half - would be rebadged South Dowling. The bad half would quarantine all the public housing, rental shackery, old-style walk-ups, elderly first-generation immigrants and The Block. Oh, and quite a few ratbag professionals in their $1.5 million terraces. And me.
What's wrong with being thought to live in Redfern? Why, although the hipsters flock here nightly, do my children's east-burb friends say they're not allowed to catch buses here?
The same reason those teenagers riding their car onto a Kings Cross footpath were first said to be from Redfern, when in fact they were from Mount Druitt. Redfern has become a metaphor for all kinds of social dysfunction, and a euphemism for The Block.
Mr Goncalves's friends, boldly visiting him at home (in his shiny security residence), assure him that his part of Redfern, with its high-rise apartments, new shopping centres and cafes ''has a totally different feel, character and look. It's not the same suburb.'' Damn right. Real estate agents agree.
Perhaps what Redfern needs is a wall to keep all the clean, shiny people from polluting us grubby old poor ones.
For in truth, it's not just The Block. There are black people and poor people (not necessarily the same thing) and old people and ratbag professionals strewn throughout Redfern, as well as Waterloo, Surry Hills - and indeed, Campbelltown. To my mind, this is fine.
What's not fine - as the failures of modern planning so catastrophically showed - is to separate cities out into constituent parts. A city is not about separation, but about mix. And this mixing - this intricate urban dance of which citizens partake - enriches not just the poorer ingredients, but us all.
Multiculturalism has its flaws, god knows. But this simple, pluralist message has informed the last 50 years of thinking across every discipline from urbanism to anthropology, from fine arts to physics. Surprising, then, to hear this secessionist rhetoric from a reporter for Australia's only expressly multicultural TV station, even if the rest of the Sunday tabloid story did smell of a beat-up.
I've lived in Redfern 14 years. It's been a period of rapid gentrification, in which I'm clearly implicated - not only as a resident but as a paid-up member of the global reclaim-the-city push. I have evangelised urbanism for 20 years, as writer, academic and local politician, for reasons cultural, environmental and aesthetic. I'm not about to back down now.
And these oldies are part of what I loved. I'm sorry to see them go, the toothless drunks, the heaving hookers, the foetal alcohol boys and the rooming-house ladies. There was one lot - a drug dynasty specialising in rooftop intimidation and barbarous back-lane bonfires - that I was happy to see locked up. Broadly, though, these old-school Redfernites furnish our streets with a warmth and affection to which the hipsters and designerati contribute little.
As old Redfern has dwindled, it's been a standing joke with us how yuppies and real estate types yearn to classify our place as ''Redfern East'' when it's clearly plain old Redfern. When, equally clearly, plain old Redfern is vastly more real and vivid and interesting and, well, urban, than the brash shiny bit.
In a small way, of course, each of us changes the neighbourhood where we live. But it should still be understood that when you move in you take a city on its terms, not yours. Just as it's bad form for empty-nesters to move from Turramurra or Ku-ring-gai then start whingeing about late night noise, it's bad form to move into a city centre then whinge about the existing community because you somehow see it as lowering the tone, especially when it's the oldest urban indigenous community in the country. Very bad form indeed.
The Block is largely now a ghost-town. Over a decade, virtually all its 62 houses have been demolished by the Aboriginal Housing Company to whom the Whitlam government deeded them in 1973.
The idea is to redevelop.
A first scheme was approved by planning minister Kristina Keneally in 2006; a revised and enlarged scheme was submitted late last year, under the dreaded Part 3A, and awaits decision.
There were a few public submissions, mostly objecting to the height increase from three storeys to (maximum) six. Objectors noted incongruence with the two-storeyed environs. They worried about traffic generation and that the new buildings would overshadow their solar panels (an interesting new issue for planners; I see compensation coming). Some argued against designating the housing specifically for Aboriginal people, others against allowing commercial components that are not for Aborigines.
But if it's such new high-rise developments and shopping centres that are lifting Redfern East into Redfern Heights (where's Dame Edna when you need her?), how can the same be banned from The Block? Especially since the local RSL, two blocks away, is just now completing its Frank Sartor-approved tower of 20 storeys.
Twenty storeys would not suit The Block - especially not since they share the RSL's architect, Nordon Jago. But Moore Park Gardens (over in Redfern east) shows how height can be achieved with grace and street-making charm.
Redfern is rightly a metaphor - for the beating black heart at the centre of Australia's oldest city and for authentic urban grunge. This we sacrifice at our peril.
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