Australian Aborigines have met and lived for millennia in what is now Sydney’s Redfern district. With young urbanites moving in and driving up property prices, their chances of remaining rest on an empty hectare of land.
Known simply as The Block, the plot is owned by the Aboriginal Housing Company and was home to a slum demolished when the previous indigenous housing project became a den of drugs and crime. The AHC is seeking bank loans to build shops, student lodgings and 62 affordable homes for its people.
“If you don’t have The Block rebuilt for an Aboriginal community, Redfern will become the center of hipster life for good,” said Brad Cooke, director at Jawun Indigenous Corporate Partnerships, which tries to boost links between corporate and indigenous groups. “It’s the single most significant piece of work that should happen in Aboriginal Australia.”
Across the country’s biggest cities, where the majority of indigenous people live, soaring property prices are increasing the marginalization of Australia’s most disadvantaged group, whose home-ownership rate is half the national average. The pattern is part of a global trend, with minority indigenous peoples comprising 5 percent of the world’s population yet 15 percent of those in poverty, according to the United Nations.
Redfern, a half-hour walk from Sydney’s center, has fewer than 300 indigenous residents left, while neighboring Waterloo has 386, according to the 2011 census. That’s down from about 35,000 in Redfern and neighboring suburbs in 1968, according to government statistics. Before 1967, Aborigines weren’t officially counted in the nation’s population.
The gentrification of Redfern, regarded nationally as a center of Aboriginal culture, was delayed for decades by its more recent reputation as a haven of heroin and crime. Addicts injecting in the streets was a common sight, said Trevor Ord, 72, an Aboriginal resident of the area for about 15 years.
“The drug scene was very much alive,” said Ord, who returned to the Casino region in northern New South Wales with his family in the late 1990s and was back in Redfern in February to attend a funeral.
Demolition of the slum began in 1996 and the last house was razed in 2011. Now, the district is catching up with the rest of inner Sydney. In March, a Redfern home with a designer tin shed in the backyard sold for A$2.73 million ($2.5 million), a record for the suburb, the Daily Telegraph reported.
About 200 meters from The Block, across from Redfern’s train station, a 19-storey apartment tower is being built by Deicorp Construction Pty. The median house price surpassed A$1 million for the first time in February, according to the Property Observer website.
“New investors in the area are in the million-dollar neighborhood,” said Mick Mundine, chief executive officer of the AHC. “Why can’t we be part of that? We don’t want the world. All we want is respect and to be part of the community.”
While the AHC has received offers for The Block, the land should stay in indigenous ownership because it’s regarded as sacred and must be kept for cultural and spiritual reasons, said Mundine. “We’re here to stay,” he said.
That may not be easy as the organization is struggling to get finance to build the indigenous homes, the core part of the project, said Lani Tuitavake, general manager of the AHC. The group, whose approval for the project expires in 2017, is seeking government or alternative funding because “servicing a bank loan will not be viable,” Tuitavake said.
Meanwhile, the AHC said it expects to go ahead with the commercial parts of the project, which would take up about half of the land. Bank funds for those could be agreed within weeks and construction start by mid-year, Tuitavake said.
Redfern’s services for the Aboriginal community may disappear if its people can’t afford homes there, said Jawun’s Cooke. The area has institutions such as the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence and the Aboriginal Medical Service, which has been operating for more than 40 years. Aboriginal life expectancy is about 10 years shorter than that of other Australians.
“Cool, funky bars are popping up on every corner,” said Cooke. “Non-indigenous people from the ages of 20 through 40 are filling those bars, and they’re not buying into Aboriginal cultural issues, or the organizations, at all.”
In the Pepper Berries cafe on Redfern Street, suited workers buy coffee on their way to the city. Four months ago, it was called the Purple Goanna and had an Aboriginal-themed menu including kangaroo and crocodile burgers.
At the Social Laneway Espresso cafe, which opened in August, patrons watched Aborigines and supporters gather outside Redfern police station on Feb. 14 to demand a formal apology 10 years after 17 year-old Thomas “T.J.” Hickey died during a police chase. More than 40 officers were injured and the train station was set alight in riots that followed Hickey’s death.
The Block lies on lands of the Gadigal people, whose population was devastated by smallpox carried by European settlers. Aborigines have lived throughout Australia for at least 20,000 years, and were in parts of the continent 40,000 years ago, according to the Australian Museum.
Redfern’s gentrification added to the dispersal of Sydney’s Aborigines, who are now largely spread throughout western suburbs such as Blacktown, Campbelltown, Liverpool and Penrith, according to the New South Wales state website. Those areas, where house prices are typically about half those in Redfern, have Australia’s highest urban indigenous population.
“Indigenous history since white settlement has been one of constant displacement,” said George Morgan, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and author of “Unsettled Places: Aboriginal People and Urbanisation in New South Wales.”
Cultural connections were stronger in the more densely populated inner-urban areas of Redfern, Melbourne’s Fitzroy and Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley than in sprawling suburbia, where governments put in place a so-called “salt and pepper” policy designed to disperse black families and assimilate them into white neighborhoods, he said.
Fitzroy had an Aboriginal community of about 300 people in the 1950s, according to Yarra City Council. By 2011, a census recorded 64 indigenous residents, including Torres Strait Islanders, among the suburb’s 9,430 population.
“The biggest problem in Fitzroy is that it has become so trendy that our people can no longer afford to live there anymore and they’ve been pushed out,” Annette Xiberras, a Wurundjeri elder and co-chairman of the Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group, said by phone.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has taken ministerial responsibility for Aboriginal affairs, says urgent efforts are needed to improve employment opportunities, health and education for indigenous people. The unemployment rate for Aborigines was 17 percent, the 2011 census showed. That compares with 5.8 percent for the nation in March.
In Redfern, Robert “Sonny” Edwards isn’t worried about the area’s changing demographic. He’s lived there for more than 40 years and prefers to be called Australian, not indigenous.
“If there’s millionaires all around me, they can do what they want,” said Edwards at the outdoor terrace of a local bar. “I can still walk anywhere and say, this land belongs to my people.”