Whither the Redfern Block?

The Block. Redfern.

Sydney’s Redfern Block is a colourful place. It’s houses and flats are covered by political posters and banners, graffiti and dot paintings. But new colours now appear on the doors of residents — eviction notices.

The Redfern Block is set to be demolished and replaced by the $60 million Pemulwuy housing project. The last 75 residents have until November 19 to leave but will be able to reapply to return in 2013 when the new project is set to be complete.

But those accused of selling drugs will be denied housing.

Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) CEO Mick Mundine told the Sunday Telegraph on September 19: “It will be based on their tenant history: if they're known for selling drugs, they'll never be allowed back.”

The Redfern Block was won as an Aboriginal housing project in the early ’70s after a long struggle to defend Aboriginal squatters from dispossession by cops and landlords. The Whitlam-Labor government of the time helped set up the AHC, which oversaw the housing development.

In the ’90s, heroin dealers began operating in the area. This was used to justify opening a cop shop near Redfern station. Reports of police intimidation and abuse of Aboriginal people in the Block rose.

There were plans to set up drug abuse counselling and support services in the area, but these were delayed until they were dropped completely.

In 1999, the NSW Labor government's then-health minister Andrew Refshauge suspended the Redfern needle exchange program. Periodic efforts to move Aboriginal people out of the Block and into places like Mt Druitt have continued since the Block was set up.

Problems of police harassment and brutality came to a flash point in 2004 when Aboriginal teenager TJ Hickey died in nearby Waterloo while fleeing police. The coroner found the police involved “not guilty” of causing TJ’s death, but few in the community accepted the ruling as just.

In the aftermath of Hickey's death, Aboriginal youth fought back against riot police sent to take control of the Block. The cop shop was attacked and parts of Redfern station were damaged.

This example of organised self-defence was labelled a “riot” by the media, which described it as the death knell of the Block.

The cop shop was attacked, and parts of Redfern station were damaged. The riot — described in the mainstream media as the death-knell of the Block — resulted in some property damage and minor injuries.

Many people in the Aboriginal community are sick of the drugs and the crime, and this is what Mundine is using to promote the development. But is this really the best solution — a mass expulsion of everyone to weed out the drug dealers?

Some in the community question if this is simply the gentrification of Redfern. Mundine, to his credit, has fought to ensure that the new development will have a high density of living space, so as many long-term residents can come back as possible. He has also said he is committed to Aboriginal control of the project.

However, notoriously pro-developer planning minister Frank Sartor has been involved in the redevelopment plans. He told ABC’s 7.30 Report in July 2004: “I know these people. I think they've been lied to. Their tenancies are safe. If they were to be relocated it would only be to better housing in the area. There's no plan to dislocate them somewhere else.”

This promise appears to have fallen by the wayside.

A resident known as Peter told BBC news on October 10: "I was taken from my parents when I was eight. I ran away from that institution and settled on the Block. And for all the different tribes from around New South Wales, this was the meeting place.

"But now with this new redevelopment, that's going to change everything."


i lived on the block, its got a good community there with some good people and once i painted the terrace it never got graffiti'd again. There was a bit of ugdrays and people coming in to buy and there was some noisy weekends but I miss that place, its got character no place like it.