History of Waterloo, Redfern & First Nations Australians
(Credit, congratulations and thanks to Cox Inall Ridgeway (CIR) and the City of Sydney Council for their 2021 report. Full credits and thanks are available in the original copy here.)
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a long history with the inner Sydney suburbs of Redfern, Waterloo and Alexandria, and the place defined as the ‘Botany Road Corridor’. The connection runs deep, the spirit of place is alive still. People and culture, language and history are entwined, as roots of the giant Moreton Bay figs which stand tall throughout the region.
The area is part of Gadigal Country, within the Eora Nation. The Gadigal clan is one of the 29 Aboriginal clans of the Sydney basin which make up the Eora nation. As the City of Sydney’s Barani website reports: “The territory of the Gadi(gal) people stretched along the southern side of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) from South Head to around what is now known as Petersham.”
Aboriginal people established and used this place for many generations prior to invasion and colonisation by the British. They used the heath and wetlands in this area to camp, hunt, fish, construct tools, keep and share knowledge, create art, and harvest plant foods and medicine. They maintained pathways through the dune heath that connected coastal and inland clans. When the British invaded, Aboriginal people sought refuge here.
Significantly impacted through displacement, disease and frontier conflict, Gadigal people and other clans and nations based in the Sydney basin adapted and responded. Indeed, Aboriginal people were part of the working life of the colony. As Sydney expanded, Aboriginal people became an integral part of the city, adapting, negotiating, and forging shared histories.
During the twentieth century, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across Australia, and NSW in particular, came together to work, reconnect with family, and build communities in Redfern, Waterloo, Alexandria, Eveleigh and Darlington. The area became known as ‘Aboriginal Redfern’, the most recognised and significant urban Aboriginal place in Australia.
Aboriginal Redfern was the birthplace of urban Aboriginal rights. It is a key site of protest, the home of successful campaigns for recognition of land rights, human rights and civil rights, and of the first community-controlled organisations, such as the Aboriginal Medical Service. These people, events and organisations were instrumental in driving significant change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and for all Australians. They played a key role in changing the law, and shaping Australia’s understanding of First Nations people and itself as a nation.
It is probably no coincidence that ‘Aboriginal Redfern’ played such a significant role in shaping 20th century Aboriginal history. The place itself is imbued with cultural meaning. Located specifically within the Study Area are a large concentration of individual sites where important historical, political and social events, activities and organisations were formed or flourished, and where significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or families were born or lived.
Much of this history is not documented or recognised in official histories of Sydney. In many ways, this project is part of this process of reclamation and the re-storying of place, where the Aboriginal voice can be restored to a more central place in the narrative.
Prior to invasion, colonisation and industrial transformation of the land, the Study Area and surrounds were a waterscape of permanent ponds and semi-permanent wetlands supporting waterbirds, freshwater fish and turtles, forests of paperbark and swamp mahogany, sedges, reeds, ferns and lilies. Freshwater springs rose near current day Surry Hills and formed streams and creeks that flowed southwards through this area towards Botany Bay.
Small watercourses flowed through the study area and can be seen depicted as culverts under Botany Road in 19th century maps. The sprawling Lachlan Swamps, located at toady’s Centennial Park, were three times the size of the current park and surrounded by wetland vegetation. The Lachlan Swamps held expanses of sandstone outcrops including rock shelters (many of which have been destroyed).
To north of the study area, in current day Chippendale, there was a band of Turpentine Ironbark Forest with trees of between 20-30 metres in height forming an open woodland. Blackwattle Creek flowed through Prince Alfred Park and Broadway to Blackwattle Bay and was a rich mangrove habitat. The northern boundary of the Eveleigh Railway Workshops followed the creek, as did Boundary Street. One of the creek’s tributaries began as a spring around Pitt Street, Redfern. Nearby Vine and Hudson Streets, as well as Stirling and Short Streets, were built on opposite banks of this tributary creek.
Sheas Creek flowed from the freshwater springs and sandhills of Surry Hills, passing just south of the study area, to where the northern end of the Alexandra Canal is visible today, 200m from Huntley St, Alexandria. Sheas Creek is a tributary of the Cooks River. In many ways, this was a place defined by water: for Aboriginal people, water has significant spiritual and cultural significance and is linked to Dreaming and Creation stories.
The Gadigal are saltwater/ freshwater people who used the productive mosaic of dune heath and wetlands in this region to hunt wallaby, source fresh water, harvest native plants and fruits, dig root vegetables, and much more. Six thousand years ago the people here butchered and feasted on dugong in a different climate to today’s. Women collected the yellow summer flower of the Wiriyagan (old man banksia) for its nectar, soaked the blossoms, and drank the sweet water. Spear shafts were crafted from Casuarina trees and glued with resin from Gulgadya (the grass tree).
There are many fire-adapted plants in the area, which suggests fire was part of the landscape even though it was a wetland mosaic. Burning could occur in dry seasons. To the west, from current day University of Sydney, south through Petersham and Marrickville, Aboriginal people burned to clear undergrowth and create grasslands. Colonists called this area the ‘Kangaroo Grounds’.
Pollen records show abundant heath shrubs, which are small shrubs with stiff leaves and grow to about one metre tall. The red, pink or white tube-like flowers appear from late autumn to early spring. Honeyeater birds, particularly the eastern spinebill, feed upon the nectar of the flowers. It regenerates after bushfire by seed or by re-sprouting. Many varieties of the Sydney coastal heath shrubs were prized by cultivators and sent to Europe as garden and ornamental plants.
The Gadigal were adept and skilled at living and hunting on the land. The land was also the sacred container and living canvas for their stories, artistry and culture. This intimate connection between people and place can be hard to understand from a 21st century perspective. It is like walking through a forest and along a beach where every part of the landscape is vibrating with meaning, and there is an unspoken, yet deeply felt, two-way conversation between people and place.
The environmental and cultural heritage are intertwined: to Aboriginal people, they are the same thing. The dynamic and evolving system of ‘Country’ includes nature: water, air, earth, plants, animals, foods, and medicines. In the words of designer Danièle Hromek, it “soars high into the atmosphere, deep into the planet crust and far into the oceans.”
Country is the material objects people designed and used, ceremony, songs, knowledge, art, story – as well as all people past, present and future. Aboriginal people have responsibilities to Country, and both exist in reciprocal relationships. Country is integral to health, wellbeing, and identity. Aboriginal people will often describe this as “the land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land.”
One of the earliest maps of the area, from approx. 1820-1840. The map shows Botany Road including bridges over creeks which feed into the swamps and waterways. The area show includes the area which today includes Redfern Station and The Block to the west of the road, Alexandria Park to the south, Redfern Street and Redfern Park to the east, and the Waterloo Estate (near the location noted as the ‘Waterloo Mill’. Source: HLRV, Parish of Alexandria, County of Cumberland.
Invasion and colonisation
From 1788 when the British invaded to establish a penal colony at Warrane (named by the British as Sydney Cove, and today known as Circular Quay),9 the wetlands, forests, and banksia shrubs of the sandhills provided protection and refuge to the Gadigal and other clans from the colonists who were seizing their coastal territories. Governor Phillip sent a punitive expedition through here (equipped with hessian bags to bring back decapitated heads) in a failed attempt to assassinate Pemulwuy, the warrior of the Bediagal (or Bidjigal) clan who was living near Botany Bay.
William Dawes – Lieutenant, astronomer, surveyor – at first refused to take part in the expedition. He had many Eora acquaintances and had developed a strong working relationship with Patyegarang, a young Gamaraigal woman. Patyegarang and Dawes taught each other their first language and produced the earliest written record of Gadigal/Eora words and grammar. Professor Jakelin Troy considers Patyegarang “the first Aboriginal linguist in Australia.”
Gadigal and other clans made camps, held ceremonies, and settled disputes near the study area as their ceremonial grounds closer to the shore and city, such as Hyde Park, were taken by the colonists. These included near what is now Redfern Park, Victoria Park and Prince Alfred Park. The Sydney Echo newspaper reported that in the early 1800s, “their corroborees kept the few residents of Redfern awake till far into the night.”
The area over which Botany Road was established was likely the site of an Aboriginal pathway. Roads were commonly built on Aboriginal routes, including the roads in nearby Centennial Park, and the east/west rail line.
The colonial writer Obed West recalled seeing many well beaten paths when hunting in the Study Area and south towards Botany Bay. Aboriginal people maintained the paths by burning. Redfern’s high point on the terrain offered views of the trade route from Circular Quay to Parramatta, on which the colony’s first railway would be built. According to Keith Vincent Smith, “one notable path, which ran from Blackwattle Creek at the Brickfields Village (now Chippendale) southwards to the north shore of Botany Bay, was the forerunner of Botany Road”.
By degrees Aboriginal camps were driven away from coastal Sydney into other areas including Waterloo and Alexandria.’ Although the existence of recorded archaeological sites (including the midden currently recorded as near or within Daniel Day Reserve) are not confirmed within the Study Area, the history of this part of Country means that there is a high potential for as yet unrecorded archaeological resources in the area.
Many clans in the region, devastated by smallpox, violence and dispossession, formed new alliances and groups. Heath and wetlands provided refuge in the early 1800s. However, the colonists activities such as timber gathering, tree-felling, and livestock damage (compaction and grazing), increased sediment into the wetlands, filling them.14 The Emu, brolga, black swan and other native wildlife had disappeared from the area by the 1800s.
By late 1800s the wetland complex had been degraded and offered far fewer resources. Government and factory owners drained most of the wetlands, cleared the vegetation, eroded the soils, and polluted the waterways. Land in and around the Study Area was granted to British settlers and former convicts, including to Dr William Redfern around 1817, after whom the suburb of Redfern is named.
Country, including the creeks and waterways running through or near the area remained important for Aboriginal people into the early 20th century, when the intensification of urban development led to the draining, redirection or pollution of remaining creeks and wetlands. The pollution of the earliest water sources on which the colony relied led to legislation requiring industry to move further away from Warrane (Sydney Cove and Sydney Harbour) into Redfern, Waterloo and beyond.
In Histories of Green Square: Waterloo, Alexandria, Zetland, Beaconsfield, Rosebery, the authors report: “The area was also used as a source of water for the growing city. The pure water was diverted into tunnels and dams, and a pumping station was built on Lords Dam, which had been built for one of the early mills. The diversion and pumping, however, resulted in the drainage of the wetlands, as did further draining work to provide land for market gardens. By 1869, the environment had changed radically: streams had almost ceased to flow, the swamps and their diverse plants and teeming wildlife were gone.”
Aboriginal people faced displacement, severe trauma, violence, disruption to sacred kinship and lore, and yet with remarkable resilience, adapted to new ways of urban living, trading with whites, working and living with them, perhaps returning to traditional life and back again. Aboriginal people continued to live in the area. However, there are fewer mentions of Aboriginal people in the written historical sources in this period, not because they were no longer there, but because they were deliberately excluded from the mainstream narrative of the period.
Areas of Sydney where there were known Aboriginal settlements in the late 1870s included Rushcutters Bay, Rose Bay, Circular Quay, North Sydney, Manly, Botany and La Perouse. There are also records of an Aboriginal camp at Moore Park near Redfern in the 1890s. The La Perouse Aboriginal settlement was established on a traditional camping ground and became the main community when the Aboriginal ‘camps’ around Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay were forcibly closed. It was declared an Aboriginal reserve in 1895, the closest Aboriginal reserve to the centre of Sydney. The original Aboriginal owners of the land were the Kameygal. The members of the La Perouse Aboriginal settlement which was established included families with cultural association to the Redfern area.
Since the early days of invasion and colonisation, Aboriginal people played a key role in the economy of Sydney, actively trading with the colony, and providing food (particularly commercial fishing and whaling) and unskilled labour. As the colony grew, it increasingly pushed out from Sydney Harbour and around the Tank Stream (the main fresh water source for the colony in its early decades). Although somewhat of an industrial hub from the 1840s, by the early twentieth century, Redfern, Waterloo and Eveleigh became Sydney’s busiest industrial precinct.
In addition to the established Aboriginal population with a strong sense of connection to Redfern and surrounds amongst families who had lived there for generations,21 Aboriginal people developed strong social bonds despite the burdens of poverty, in an area which was home to an increasingly diverse working-class neighbourhood, where the large anglo-celtic (including Irish) population was joined by Greek, Lebanese, Chinese and other cultural groups, following relaxations to Australia’s White Australia policy especially after World War I.
Aboriginal people from across New South Wales and Australia migrated to the area to find work in the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, glass factories, and myriad other manufacturing jobs. Redfern Station opened in 1855.22 The Eveleigh Railway Goods Yards was Sydney’s largest employer from the time it opened in 1886, and was one of the biggest employers of Aboriginal people living in Sydney.
“A lot of the Kooris came from the country. The country in those days were in missions or outside towns. … They went to school and that, but after school there would be no work. Luckily could get a job on the railway, have to travel and that, away [so they came to Sydney].” Gadigal Elder, interviewed by CIR June 2020
Ruby Langford Ginibi (Bundjalung) writes of her migration to Sydney, where she lived in and around Redfern for many years:
“This great city that us country folks referred to as the big smoke was awe-inspiring to me. The year was 1949, and in those years there was a huge push of my people coming to the city to find work, because there was no employment in the country towns. There were droves of us, trying to get away from the clutches of the Aborigines’ Protection Board, who had been rounding up people like cattle and putting them onto missions.”
Historian Heidi Norman has found that in 1945 there were as many as 158 factories in Redfern and Waterloo, and that Aboriginal people held a number of senior roles. The Sydney Barani website states: “Aboriginal women living in South Sydney worked for the Federal Match Factory in Alexandria, which was affectionately known as Wellington Matches because so many of the Aboriginal workers were originally from the NSW country town of Wellington. Other local industries where Aboriginal people worked were the Henry Jones & Co IXL Jam Factory on Golden Grove Street in Chippendale, Francis Chocolates on Stirling Street in Redfern, and the Australian Glass Manufacturers on South Dowling Street at Waterloo.”
As the Aboriginal population of the area grew, so did its identity as a centre for Aboriginal social and political life, from as early as the 1920s. While Aboriginal people faced discrimination when seeking accommodation, there were relatives and friends to stay with in Redfern and the inner-city.
The area included workers cottages and other low income housing. It was common for older, large houses which had been the homes of middle class families in the 19th century to be converted to boarding houses. Continuing loss of lands, revocations, and eventual close of the reserve and mission schemes saw waves of Aboriginal migration to the area, peaking in the 1960s.
“Now, when we cannot give the Aboriginal youth accommodation here, they are forced into ghetto-type dwellings in Redfern, Waterloo, Newtown, Alexandria, really congested areas where we have Aborigines living perhaps 15 and 20 to a room.” Charles ‘Chicka’ Dixon, interview featured in The Foundation 1963–1977 (2002) documentary
“Redfern… in the 50s you had all these little cottages around the area, and three families living in each house. … Blackfellas we didn’t own our houses, so renting was the only way to go. … My first place by myself was renting a single room, at 16 years old. A big building, you could have 20 or 30 rooms with people living in them, but that would be a little community in itself, you know what I mean.” Gadigal Elder, interviewed by CIR June 2020
Aboriginal people migrated to Redfern and surrounds not only for work and access to transport, but because it was known to be the place where other Aboriginal people gathered. It was an important place of social connection where Aboriginal children and adults were welcome and safe.
“The one thing we all had in common, was that we were all poor. Redfern was regarded, by the rest of Sydney I suppose, as the slums, and despite there being some fairly dodgy landlords, it was a place where Aboriginal people could actually get somewhere to stay.” Gary Foley, interview in The Redfern Story (2014) documentary
The Empress Hotel at 87 Regent Street and the Clifton Hotel at 1 Botany Road were common meeting points for new arrivals. Another significant social venue in the community was Palms Milk Bar where ‘everyone and their bloody dog used to meet.’ It was also known locally as the ‘Greek Café’ (although its owner might have been Jack Ferry, a man with Lebanese heritage). Residents recall it had pinball machines and the ‘best milkshakes in Sydney.’
The Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs (FAA) offered important support for the Aboriginal community, especially young Aboriginal men and women migrating to Sydney. Opening in 1964 in George Street Sydney, from 1973 it was located in Regent Street Redfern.
“Government funding was pretty scarce in those days. There was no other organisation around delivering any kind of service to Aboriginal people. That’s why they had to do some fundraising. If a Koori got off a train, they’d give them a ticket, and there was a cafe just down three or four doors down where they’d get a meal.” Esther Carroll (nee Ingram) interview in The Foundation 1963–1977 (2002) documentary
Some were part of the Stolen Generations and had come to seek lost family. At a time when there was limited communications, the ‘blackfella grapevine’ was important.
“Back in the old days when the blackfellas would come down from the country. Didn’t have land lines, so had to turn up and look around. Go to the pubs where blackfellas drink and things like that, like the Empress.” Gadigal Elder, interviewed by CIR June 2020
“[In Redfern in the 60s] if you couldn’t find your relo down there, or someone who knew where he was, he was either in jail or dead.” Allan Madden (undated) interview for A history of Aboriginal Sydney website
Aboriginal people migrated into areas across the inner city, but Redfern was the centre.
“The community was really strong from Alexandria, Redfern, Darlington, back down to Newtown and Erko and all that. All the blackfellas lived around there.” Gadigal Elder, interviewed by CIR June 2020
Amongst the cluster of organisations provided support for Aboriginal living or arriving in Sydney was Redfern All Blacks rugby league club. The club had formed in the 1930s, and was reformed in the 1960s.26 It supported the welfare of the community through sport, training, help with employment and accommodation, and social events such as dances.
By the mid to late 1960s the Aboriginal population of the area was around 35,000. It was the heart of the Aboriginal diaspora. In the words of Gary Foley, Redfern became “the biggest Aboriginal community that’s ever existed in the 60,000-year history of Australia.”
Activism and self-determination
Redfern and surrounds, particularly the Study Area, became the centre of the Aboriginal rights movement in Australia, with land rights, civil rights, and anti-racism its core concerns. Against a backdrop of civil rights activism in Australia and internationally, the Aboriginal-led rights movement based in and around Redfern spawned the Aboriginal Legal Service in 1970, the Aboriginal Medical Service in 1971, and the Black Theatre in 1972, all on Regent Street within the Study Area (as well as the idea for the Aboriginal Embassy in 1972).
Aboriginal Redfern as a focal point for political activism began before the 1960s and 70s. William (Bill) Ferguson, the founder of the Aborigines Progressive Association, and the leader of important civil rights actions such as the 1938 National Day of Mourning, held a number of meetings at Redfern Town Hall, and the former Boot Trade Union Hall at 122 Eveleigh Street.
In the late 1960s, young Aboriginal activists and intellectuals frustrated at the lack of progress after the goodwill of the 1967 Referendum began sharing literature associated with the United States’ Black Power movement.
A collection of streets opposite Redfern Station (just outside the Study Area) known as ‘the Block’ became the site of the first Aboriginal housing companies in NSW. The Block included Caroline, Eveleigh, Vine and Louis Streets. It was where a number of Aboriginal extended families had moved during the 1930s Depression. It became the subject of large protests, starting in the early 1970s, when landlords in the area conducted a campaign of evicting all Aboriginal residents.28 A group of campaigners, led by Bob and Kaye Bellear , successfully lobbied the Whitlam government for a grant which allowed the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) to commence purchasing houses in 1972.
Police harassment and violence was a key driver behind the establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service and other community controlled organisations, and Aboriginal activism generally.
“The war between Aboriginal people was constant. You know, it was a crime to be black. It didn’t matter what the charge was. The real charge was ‘walking while black.’” Marcia Langton, interviewed in The Redfern Story (documentary)
“The police harassment had a significant role in politicising all off us.” Gary Foley, interviewed in The Redfern Story (documentary)
Murawina, a childcare centre run by and for Aboriginal people originally started as a breakfast program, operated from purpose-built accommodation on Eveleigh Street from the late 1970s (it moved to the Redfern Public School in 2003).
Aboriginal community-controlled organisations established in Redfern served as inspiration for self- determination among other Indigenous communities around Australia. It was the place where Aboriginal people came together to hold important meetings, such as the first NSW Aboriginal Land Council meeting, and attend large social events, such as the Koori Knockout.
Aboriginal Redfern was also a key birthplace of important contemporary artistic and cultural movements including Aboriginal theatre, dance, music, art, radio and film. Several of the first Aboriginal-controlled artistic institutions were based in or directly adjoin the Study Area. The Black Theatre (originally at 181 Regent Street, in the Study Area) brought Aboriginal voices and stories to mainstream audiences and launched the careers of actors, filmmakers, and other creative artists.
It became a community hub, the ‘black caucus’.
“Theatre was basically a political tool. It was a way to get our stories on the streets. It … started with street theatre.” Lisa Maza interviewed in The Redfern Story (documentary)
The Black Theatre supported contemporary Aboriginal dance, and dance courses led by Carole Johnson. Like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander political and sporting organisations which were formed in the area, these movements and institutions have had a national impact which continues today.
While the political history of this period is recognised nationally and internationally, Aboriginal people also regard it as significant for becoming a place where they felt acceptance, belonging, and strong identity. Redfern was a place of cultural revival and creation of a new shared sense of national Aboriginal identity, one which connected Aboriginal people from different nations.
At the national level, the Whitlam Labor Government formally replaced the assimilation policy with self-determination in 1972. Aboriginal organisations in Redfern were amongst the first to operate and receive support under this new policy, though under administrative requirements which in some ways constrained the work of those organisations, including by requiring accountability to government rather than directly to community members, which was a source of frustration for many activists.
Redfern and Waterloo were also important sites of shared history and examples of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities working collectively for social change, with non-Indigenous supporters involved in the establishment and early years of a number of the Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.
As historian Johanna Perheetupa writes “Aboriginal activists needed to negotiate and maintain … complex relationships with white supporters … moving away from … paternalism. … Many of the supporters in Sydney were of a new kind; they participated in other socially radical movements and supported Aboriginal control of their organisations.”
Churches, unions and students played an important role. In 1964, students at the nearby University of Sydney formed Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA), a group led by Charles Perkins, who became the first Aboriginal man to graduate from university. In 1965, SAFA organised the ‘Freedom Ride’ bus tour from Sydney University through regional New South Wales towns to raise public awareness about racism and segregation, and the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing.
Aboriginal activist Mum Shirl [Shirley Smith], the ‘Black Saint of Redfern’, worked closely with Father Ted Kennedy of St Vincent’s Church in Redfern Street. The support of Father Ted and the local Catholic church was significant in establishing Aboriginal ownership of the Block, and supporting the Aboriginal Medical Service, to which the church donated a site in Redfern Street where the Aboriginal Medical Service was operating. Today the Redfern Street clinic is the Aboriginal Medical Service Redfern’s office. A plaque out the front of the building and a large statue inside acknowledges Mum Shirl.
South Sydney Community Aid Coop, a neighbourhood centre, was established in 1968. It had an office at 142 Regent Street (within the Study Area), which provided the first space to the Aboriginal Legal Service, and supported the establishment of the Aboriginal Housing Company and the Aboriginal Medical Service. The second Black Theatre site, at Cope Street, was donated by the Uniting Church.
The Cope Street premises, where the Black Theatre took up residence, was owned by the Uniting Church. The Uniting Church turned that building over to the Black Theatre. Actually, it was handed over to the people of Redfern. And that was the first land settlement that the Aborigines had. Gerry Bostock, The Redfern Story
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal local residents worked together during the period to protect existing low income housing in Redfern and Waterloo. During the 1960s the Housing Commission started addressing the problem of inner-city ‘slums’, which involved evicting and knocking down existing low quality housing, rezoning or sub-dividing land to attract private development, and establishing new high-rise, higher-density public housing. The construction of the 29-storey Matavai and Turanga towers in Waterloo (adjoining the Study Area) in 1977 was part of this ‘urban renewal’ process.
Aboriginal people had an uneasy but growing relationship with unions. Historically, sections of the union movement had opposed equal wages for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while others had actively supported campaigns for civil rights. In the 1960s and 1970s new partnerships were formed, particularly between activists and the left-wing Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). The BLF was a sponsor of the Redfern All Blacks football team, and later placed a Green Ban on the development of The Block in the early 1970s, in support of the community’s campaign to keep Aboriginal families living there.
Detail of the original mural on Lawson Street, Redfern (Photo: Carol Ruff) as featured in South Sydney Herald
Struggle and strength
The last decades of the 20th century were marked by the grinding work of building on the successes and aspirations of the Aboriginal civil rights activists of the 70s. Residents navigated the tensions and pressures of inner-Sydney life while juggling the demands of daily life: raising kids, working, caring for Elders, studying, playing sport, maintaining relationships with friends and lovers.
Factories closed from the 1980s on, and the jobs went with them.32 Aboriginal Redfern was heavily impacted by Sydney’s heroin epidemic from the 80s into the 1990s. Aboriginal Housing Company Chair Mick Mundine says of the time:
“In the early 1980s, this place was so beautiful, it was the caring and sharing. Our people used to sit around together of a night-time, go to sleep with their doors open. It was a beautiful community. But as you know since the 1990s, the drugs started creeping into the community and we ended up with this vicious cycle of drug-related issues, crime-related issues. It was a vicious cycle.”
At the same time, the number of Aboriginal community controlled organisations, or organisations working with Aboriginal communities, evolved and grew in number. Radio Redfern was established in 1981, operating out of a terrace in Cope Street (in the Study Area). Radio Redfern inspired the formation of Gadigal Information Services and Koori Radio, which was established in 1993 from a terrace in nearby Cleveland Street and today has its offices in Cope Street.
“Radio Redfern is the voice of the Aboriginal community in Sydney and its role takes the form of communitv announcements, ie rallies, services etc, catering for the musical taste of the listeners (the audience wants to hear Koori bands), and finally, being seen as a positive and constructive move towards maintaining and supporting the culture of our people.” Wayne Costelloe (1992)
The world-leading Bangarra Dance Theatre was formed in 1989 by staff and students of National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA), including Carole Johnson who had been involved with the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre in Redfern since the 1970s.
The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act was established in 1983. The NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) had been formed out of a state-wide Land Rights conference in the Black Theatre site in 1977, organised to coincide with the NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout in Redfern. NSWALC had its first offices on Botany Road, and had a “major instrumental role in pressuring the NSW Government to respond to Aboriginal demands and eventually focus on land rights”.35 The Redfern Local Aboriginal Land Council has its first meeting in 1985, later becoming the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council,36 with statutory responsibility for representing Aboriginal people in the inner-city.
The overt police racism of past decades was replaced by government commitments to reconciliation, cultural awareness and community partnerships, deaths in custody like David Gundy in 1989 and teenager TJ Hickey in 2004, and ensuing ‘Redfern race riots’, were stark illustrations that Aboriginal people continued to face discrimination and violence from the State.
From the 90s the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of the area began to decrease, as new residential development replaced industrial land uses. Aboriginal people began to migrate from the area to Newtown, Marrickville, Erskineville, Glebe, Woolloomooloo, and Southwest and Western Sydney – sometimes by choice, but more often pushed due to state social housing policy, for work, and pressure from increasing costs of living.
“People [were] moved out to the new housing developments. Blacktown Seven Hills Mount Druitt and that.” Gadigal Elder, interviewed by CIR June 2020
“[Moving people out to] Mount Druitt [was part of the] displacement model, in the 1970s. Lots of our people.” Senior Aboriginal community representative, interviewed by CIR June
Non-indigenous institutions began to incrementally recognise Aboriginal self-governance structures and include Indigenous perspectives in policy. Wider society increasingly began to acknowledge Aboriginal history – in the Mabo decision (1992), Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Redfern Park Speech (1993), the Bringing Them Home report (1996), and the Walk for Reconciliation (2000). White Australia was beginning to reckon with the profound and continuing consequences of dispossession and trauma that Aboriginal people bore.
The inner city became increasingly gentrified, and areas like Redfern and Waterloo which had previously been seen as low income areas were part of this. Housing prices grew and the number of Aboriginal families living in the area continued to reduce, and is today estimated to be between 500 and 1,300 people in the Study Area today.
Today Aboriginal Redfern continues to be a key urban centre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait rights and identity. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live, work, study in or visit the area. Important Aboriginal and Torres Islander organisations, services, cultural bodies and businesses continue to be based in the area, including those that grew from the historic first organisations formed there. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait people continue to travel to Redfern to access Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, attend events, connect with family and friends, and to maintain and pass on connections with the history and significance of the area.
There is a powerful sense of ownership and cultural connection by Aboriginal and Torres Islander people to Aboriginal Redfern today. This sense of ownership and cultural connection exists very strongly for those who have lived or have family who lived in the area, who worked in the area, or were part of organisations formed out of or based in the area.
Strong local connections extend to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families based in nearby inner-Sydney suburbs of Surry Hills, Glebe, Newtown, Erskineville, as well as other parts of Sydney where large groups of Aboriginal people lived or were moved following colonisation, such as La Perouse, or were relocated as a result of more recent government policies relating to public housing and gentrification, such as Mount Druitt.
Beyond this, Aboriginal Redfern, and the Study Area, is a place which holds significance and connection for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia, because so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have personal or family connections, or have been part of or impacted by organisations, campaigns or significant events held in the area.
The significance and history of the area is actively and explicitly passed on by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through generations. Parents continue to bring their children to Aboriginal Redfern to educate them about the history, and to foster strong connections with the area within communities for the future.
The roots put down by Aboriginal people over generations continue to flourish and blossom today. The land itself, beyond the buildings and roads, beneath the footpaths and concrete, still contains the stories of ancestors, and the wisdom of Elders. It is this deep connection to culture and customs that regenerates and innovates in the rapidly changing world. This history is an integral part of Country here.