At the heart of every stereotype lies a kernel of truth: a starting point from which the mythology emerged. Although the truth may be overwhelmed by platitudes, exaggerations or bombastic rhetoric, this itself is not a denial of the truth that sits at the core of these assumptions. In the heart of the nastiest and most nihilistic cliches of modern Aboriginal Australia sits Redfern.
Redfern is a suburb that inspires passion in even the most nonchalant of Sydneysiders. Just a ten minute walk south of the bustling metropolis sits a collection of streets which look all the world like a sub-Saharan refugee camp. In a desolate grassed quadrangle poorly pitched tents blow in the breeze while the meagre possessions of its inhabitants sit to the side. The properties on all sides of the grass are long abandoned, the glass shattered, any good material scavaged and the rest left to rot. The area has the unkempt air of people who are resigned to living in their own filth. Local residents, both friends and foes, call it The Block.
When I visited I was determined to give The Block a chance. Sydney friends had warned me of what to expect, and I wasn't expecting an open-armed welcome. My first greeting was friendly, though, soon after I ventured off the relative safety of Lawson Street. I was met by Buddy, an Aboriginal man who looked about forty and considered himself the area's diplomat. He gave me a firm handshake and took me on a tour of the area. He signalled with a mix of disdain and dispair to the collection of twenty of so drunks who congregated around a campfire in the part of The Block closest to the train station. Clearly they disappointed him, but he understood their woes.
As we meandered through the small collection of streets at the heart of The Block, he gave me a running commentary on a place that had been his home on and off for decades. Each of the properties along the perimeter of the area had been abandoned, either by local residents who couldn't stand the sight outside their front doors, or by Aboriginal tenants who couldn't confine their lives to four walls. Those few properties that did remain occupied had metal bars and forboding signs outside. Clearly the abandoned properties were in major need of repair, but Buddy remained hopeful that it would happen. He envisioned a plan whereby the tent-dwellers of the area would take possession of the houses along the perimeter and live domesticated lives.
As we walked a few kids rode around aimlessly on dilapidated bikes. I asked one of them what life was like living in Redfern (clearly, I'm a fan of incisive questioning). "Boring." was her response. There are many ways to describe Redfern, but surely boring is not one of them. Unless, of course Boring has taken on a new meaning in much the same way that Wicked and Sick has. In which case, bore away.
One of the few buildings that remained occupied was the Tony Mundine gym, a boxing training gym run by Mundine, whose rugby-player-turned-boxer son Anthony is a local hero. Sadly the day I visited it was locked, but it did seem like one of the few rays of hope in an otherwise bleak neighbourhood.
The other ray of hope is in the form of the fantastic Redfern Community Centre, an all-purpose facility funded and managed by the City of Sydney. Inside is a computer room, an arts and music centre, a painting studio, a leisure area, a kindergarten and a space specifically for elders which can best be described as a 'chill out zone'. Children and adolescents are the primary target. In stark contrast to life just outside, inside the centre things are clean, organised and positive. It seems that the Centre is part of a crude strategy for dealing with Redfern: abandoning those over thirty who are so enmeshed in an anti-social lifestyle that they are beyond redemption, whilst giving opportunities to youngsters to embrace a heathier lifestyle. The very deliberate effort to keep out dangerous and destructive visitors acts as a crude filter.
At the end of my improvised tour of The Block, I discreetly slipped Buddy a crisp blue ten dollar bill and told him I wanted it to be shared around and not to be spent on drugs or alcohol. He seemed to be sober and thoughtful, and I trusted him. He explained that the item most needed by the group was fuel, both for cooking food and keeping warm. Already most of the nearby vegeation had been burnt for previous fires, and bottled of gas were proving expensive. Together we walked back toward the group of down-and-outers who were keeping each other company by a makeshift fire. Buddy left me there, and returned to his tent away from the group.
This group of about two dozen are representatives of the Aboriginal underclass. Each of them carried a depressed, defeated expression on their face and all were on a drip feed of VB. As they disgarded the empties, they chucked them dismissively on an already sizable pile just to the side. Their faces carried cuts, bruises and scars and many were rough and unshaven. They spoke to each other in small groups, speaking an accept so full of accent and dialectic differences it was hard to understand it.
The only time they focussed their attention on one thing was when a police van appeared in the distance, an occurance which happened every twenty minutes or so. Collectively they would shout abuse, usually with things that probably sound very witty after half a dozen VB cans. One man near me threated to take off his pants: "Suck on this, ya fucken cunts," he said. He later told me that he was a community elder.
Occasionally members of the group would come up closer to me, even nestling against my jacket. Whilst initially flattered by the attenion, it later became apparent that they were discreetly reaching for my pockets with their hands, keen find out what was hiding inside. I soon wised up to the trick and removed various stray hands, their owners not at all ashamed of being caught.
After some inquisitiveness toward the oversized, interestingly-pocketing whitefella stranger, the discussion came to the question of how much money I'd given Buddy. To avoid seeming like a human ATM, I avoided the question and did my best to change the topic. The group were persistant, though, and wanted an answer. In the absense of a figure, they started speculating. One suggested I'd given $150, and another latched on to this idea. In the way that wild rumours tend to spread, idle chatter quickly became fact, and the idea that I'd given a three-figure sum to Buddy quickly became crystalised. My admittance of the truth at this stage, that I'd given him just $10, was disregarded by the group as a lie.
The group were upset that I'd (in their mind) given such a generous sum to just one member of the group. They told me that Buddy would just "shoot it in his arm" and that I should give them some grog money. When I insisted that Buddy would share around the money I'd given him, they were quickly dismissive. Two of the burlier men then decided to take matters into their own hands. They started walking away from the group and toward Buddy, determined to get their share of the money. All of a sudden my attempted act of goodwill had backfired terribly.
The group around the fire gave me some helpful words of advice: "You better go after 'em if you don't want your mate Buddy to get bashed up." They were right. I marched assertively after the two men and tried to persuade them that I had only given a small sum. As they got closer to Buddy, the restrained themselves. The police van in the distance, plus my presence, gave them second thoughts about meting out rough justice. Whether they showed the same restraint later in the day, I don't know. I went over to Buddy and did my best to explain the situation. He was not impressed.
In the end I had no choice but to leave the group. I'd come to the group keen to learn about it, understand its plight and spread just a small amount of goodwill. In the end I was viewed with an untrusting eye. I guess in a small way I was like the missionaries who had gone before, arriving with the best intentions in the world but unable to gain the trust of those who were in need of help. It's also a useful little metaphor for the dangers of unfocussed charity: when there's 'easy money' floating around people will do all they can to chase it, regardless of the consequences.
As for the future of Redfern, it seems that the place is almost ungovernable. The stragegy outlined earlier, to give the kids a chance to succeed whilst conceding that no amount of external help will assist those entrenched in the lifestyle, is probably correct. Only a collective change of mindset of the participants - that drugs, alcohol, welfare and violence is a failure rather than a legitimate choice - will rescue them from themselves. My brief experience in Redfern gives me few signs of hope.