Millers Point Three Years On

In 2012 I wrote a story about Millers Point and mentioned the threats to the community from the surrounding developments and the government’s proposed sale of public housing. Last year it was made official, the houses would be sold and since then residents have been fighting to stay in their homes and keep their community together.

MP Protest 1

It’s almost three years since I wrote about Millers Point, and High Street has a very different atmosphere. It has changed from one of peaceful community to one of struggle. Banners are hung over balconies, spray painted onto sheets in stencil letters: Millers Point Not 4 Sale; Say No to the Total Sell Off of Public Assets. The street has a stripped feeling, some of the houses already empty, others clinging on.

The building site beneath High Street is busy as the Barangaroo project continues. The construction site makes a mechanical churning, digestive kind of noise, and I imagine this is the sound of it chewing up the past. Already the shape of the land below has been altered from the straight lines of the wharves. Now the curved shoreline is a neatly curated return to a past shape, based on an 1836 map. Blocks of sandstone, each labelled with a barcode for correct placement, have been assembled at the water’s edge. A larger sandstone block than the others has been unveiled on the point, renaming it Barangaroo Point.

Barangaroo Point

Image from the Barangaroo website.

Millers Point is facing disappearance. Some of the houses are now empty, their windows blank and curtainless, the residents moved elsewhere. Other residents are fighting, their houses hung with handmade signs: No One wanted to be here when I came here over 30 years ago, so now should I have to go? Some Millers Point residents have lived here for three or even five generations, and all speak with sadness and anger at the loss of their community. Many are elderly and have been fighting to stay in homes where they have lived for much of their life. Most recently, a petition for Mary Vo to stay in her home for the last few years of her life has been collecting signatures.

The state government says the houses must be sold for reinvestment in the public housing system, although how exactly the money will be invested hasn’t been revealed. The houses are being gradually auctioned anyway, and continual pressure is being put on those remaining in their homes to relocate. People fear that Wooloomooloo will be next, then Glebe, until all the city’s social housing has disappeared.

A 1960s plan for Woolloomooloo. From "Sydney 1842-1992" by Shirley Fitzgerald.

A 1960s plan for Woolloomooloo. From “Sydney 1842-1992” by Shirley Fitzgerald.

Last year, just after the announcement the houses would be sold, I went to Millers Point one afternoon and spoke to the industrial heritage artist Jane Bennett who was painting the High Street vista, her easel set up near the fence. I looked through her folder of previous work, paintings of industrial landscapes that have disappeared, most of them around the harbour. It was late afternoon and a soft, sunset light was cast over the street. I watched for a little while as she painted and we talked about the Harbour Control Tower at the end of the street, where she was an artist in residence for more than a decade. Now the tower is owned by the Barangaroo corporation and will be demolished. (See Jane’s paintings of Millers Point, and read about her involvement with the suburb here.)

MP Jane BennettThe scene Jane was painting that day, the houses in the lush afternoon light, has already changed. Construction seems to bear down upon it from all sides, Barangaroo down below, roadworks. Last June I went on the tour of the development. Like all the other visitors I was given a branded water bottle, cap and tote bag as I entered and then spent time trekking around the construction zone, asking the same questions everyone else seemed to be asking: what’s going to happen to the tower, and where had the fire been? The barcoded sandstone and reptile petting zoo was meant to distract me, but it didn’t, or at least not in the right way. My eyes drifted to the streets above, and the banners hung over the railing. I didn’t want the carefully arranged development, the park where I could go down to actually touch the harbour water, if I had to look at the rows of Millers Point houses glossed up and made into exclusive residences.

Millers Point Banners 2 Walking around Millers Point in 2015, I have a grim feeling. For as long as I have known it the suburb has been a gentle place in the city, small, old houses, with miscellaneous window decorations, and always people around, leaning over their front fences, chatting. It was out of step with the cut-throat city surrounding it, and that made it precious.

High Street MP

On Kent Street one house has on its front wall a carefully assembled collection of laminated A4 posters of heroes and villains: Cat memes next to Tony Abbott, Johnny Rotten next to Margaret Thatcher, Clover Moore next to John Howard, amid a storm of laminated monopoly money.

MP Collage

MP Collage 2

The protests continue. Follow their progress at the Millers Point Community, which has resident’s stories, history and links to other resources. There are also a number of facebook groups, including Save Our Homes.

MP Houses 1

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Redfern Time Machine

Waiting to cross Redfern Street, I look up at the post office clock tower. Since writing about suburban clocks I’ve been noticing them everywhere. Once you start paying attention to an element of the urban landscape, whatever it be – house names, closed-down video stores, boarded-up buildings – they appear with sometimes alarming frequency. It’s all there, waiting to be noticed.

The most common lamentation about old post office clocks around Sydney is that they are neglected and many have stopped, the hands fixed at a permanent 3:45 or 9:20. I’d had it in the back of my mind that the clock on Redfern post office was one of these. The building no longer houses the post office, which has relocated to a small shop across the street, leaving the grand Victorian building to other, more profitable businesses. Things have changed a lot in Redfern over the last decade, cafes and mid century modern furniture stores have appeared along Botany Road, houses on Eveleigh Street, once a no-go zone for the young professionals and middle class families now said to be attracted to the suburb, rent for more than $1000 a week. With all this change the post office clock, under its verdigris dome, is struggling to cope.

I check the time on my phone – it’s 3:30. I don’t expect the Redfern clock to be correct, rather to be halted at a random hour. I get a surprise as while it doesn’t show the right time it is not stopped at all, the opposite in fact. The minute hand is moving fast, keeping pace with the seconds. I watch as it races through 1 o’clock, then 2, then 3, onwards into the future. Like in the 1960 film of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, days and night passed me by, the sun arced across the sky, flowers opened and shut, snails raced past, small buildings were replaced by tall ones, then inexplicably all the people fled, the buildings fell into disrepair, wild creatures took over, and Redfern turned into a forest, as the hands of the clock continued to spin.