Building Blocks

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Words || James Booth

In March of 2019, controversial plans for a six storey student accommodation tower were approved at Redfern’s “the Block”. The Block is identified as the area between Hugo, Caroline, Eveleigh, and Vine streets, and therefore is in close proximity to the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Sydney. In providing a 99 year lease to student accommodation provider, the Pemulwuy project built in Redfern would be able to provide 62 affordable homes for Aboriginal people to be built alongside the student accommodation. 

NSW Department of Planning and Environment confirms three precincts to the project. Confirming that Precinct One has “concept and project approval for up to six storeys and includes 62 affordable dwellings for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a gymnasium, and retail space”, Precinct Two has “concept and project approval for up to six storeys and includes a 60 place childcare centre and retail and office space”, and that Precinct Three has “concept and project approval for up to six storeys and includes 154 student accommodation beds within 42 rooms”. Precinct three has been identified as a State Significant Development, and this means that there is very little that concerned activists can do to stop the Pemulwuy project.

Prior to my conversation with Uncle Phil Duncan, I had largely associated my knowledge of the Pemulwuy project with the protests I had observed in left leaning circles. There had been calls to boycott the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) and Last Minute Productions led event “Rock the Block”, as a means of protesting the decision to develop the Block. I hadn’t considered that beyond the cultural significance of the area to the Aboriginal community, there was a genuine desire of the AHC to secure Redfern’s Aboriginal history in a world of continuing gentrification. 

Uncle Phil Duncan is a respected elder of the Gomeroi /Gamilaroi Nation, as well as holding the position of Aboriginal Cultural Training Coordinator at Walanga Muru. It is important to note that the views of Uncle Phil Duncan are not those of the local community, he was not a part of the decision making body, and as such he respects the decisions of that community. He also noted that in his opinion, those who are not a part of the process should not make false judgement on the decision makers. As well as noting the trials and tribulations of the process, which make it hard to please all members of a community – a sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation.

In our conversation, Uncle Phil drew key attention to the cultural significance of Redfern as a central place of meeting for many inner city mob and as a birthplace for historical Aboriginal activism. There has been 126 years of settlement in Edwards street in Redfern, however the historical significance of the Redfern area is linked to pre-colonial times. Moreover, the large population of Aboriginal peoples in Redfern made it a safe place to meet and have courageous conversations as to what was needed for the Aboriginal community.

In 1938, Redfern birthed the first Aboriginal source of media the “Abo Call” which cited a 10 point plan to push for Aboriginal rights in Australia. It provided a place of celebration of the results of the 1967 referendum. Key leaders from the past and present have participated and led some of those rights, Redfern is central to the post-colonial Aboriginal narrative in NSW. 

Redfern is also where the tragedy of TJ Hickey occurred, and the source of the 2004 Redfern Riots which followed the death of the young boy following a police chase. As Uncle Phil Duncan summarises it “Redfern is at the historical point of the fight”. Redfern is central to almost a century of Aboriginal history, activism and community. As such it can be understood why the introduction of student accommodation would be seen as controversial move, or an attempt to gentrify over Aboriginal history. 

Uncle Phil went on to discuss that there is a lot of rumour and innuendo about the dysfunctionality of that process, and that there is a sentiment within the community that the mob was not engaged enough by the AHC in regards to its decisions on the Pemulwuy Project. However, he did also make a key point in that if these developments are going to occur “why can’t Aboriginal people be the beneficiaries of the development of their land”. This sentiment is echoed by the classification of the development as State Significant, which provides it a lot of legal protection under planning legislation. 

Moreover, when speaking to National Indigenous Television, Alisi Tutuila noted that the motive has “always been to build affordable housing for Aboriginal people”. Uncle Phil Duncan believes that the Pemulwuy project represents Aboriginal people realising their full potential to self-determine and self-realise their own futures, and it seems he is right in that by ensuring affordable housing for Aboriginal community Redfern will retain its demographic identity.

In my discussions with Uncle Phil Duncan, I learnt of the symbiotic relationship of Aboriginal communities through the songlines. People don’t understand that the spiritual connection to country does not include a western view of ownership of the land. It seems as if the Pemulwuy project is a means of using the system to ensure benefit is provided to Aboriginal people, ensure that the spiritual connections to traditional countries are able to be maintained, and continue to provide a safe space for community activism.

That way Redfern can remain the central place of Aboriginal identity in a post-colonial world.