Friday, July 21, 2006

Final Stop: Redfern

Welcome to Redfern

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.

Abandoned building adjacent to 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.

Tents and fire.

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.

Tony Mundine's Gym.

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.

Redfern Community Centre.

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.

Buddy and Ari.

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.

Flag and tents.

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.

Mural outside the Redfern Community Centre.

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.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Fifth Stop: Macquarie Fields

Welcome to Macquarie Fields

It's hard to believe that anything particularly exciting happens in Macquarie Fields. Stepping off the train, you find yourself in the midst of a semi-rural area, with paddocks lining the side of the tracks. The properties are large, the roads sometimes unpaved, and offroad vehicles that actually get taken off road are the norm.

So far on this Sydney sojourn I've been lucky to find that most of the interesting places to visit in a given community are centred on the railway station, which seems consistant with the pattern of growth these places experienced. Not so, Macquarie Fields. It took me the best part of an hour of trudging through parkland, alongside roads and along a creek before I came to the heart of the 'burb: a leisure centre on one side, and a football ground on the other (AFL, interestingly). Nearby was a primary school whose students were back for the first day of a new term. All this seemed remarkably ordinary and neat, a far cry from the public housing hellhole I had been led to believe existed at Macquarie Fields.

MacFields Housing Development.

Finally I settled down at a fish and chip shop to induldge in some potato cakes scallops and a decent Greek salad. As I devoured my Coronary Special, I flicked through the local paper, the Macarthur Chronicle, which fills its pages with a diet consisting exclusively of local criminals and local whingers (often about the local criminals).

It was only on my meander back to the station that I saw the darker side to Macquarie Fields. Just to the north of the station was an abandoned house which had suffered quite severe vandalism, to the point that the windows were shattered, rubbish was strewn and the walls complete with holes. It was an ugly eyesore, but was outnumbered by a factor of ten by properties in the area that were being built or renovated.

I wouldn't want to live here either.

Fourth Stop: Lakemba

Welcome to Lakemba.

Lakemba is a microcosm of the Muslim world, and the battles and contradictions that occur within. Though not immediately obvious, I sense that there's a power struggle going on in Lakemba between the old guard religious clerics who follow a hard religious line, and the new, educated and thoroughly westernised Muslims. Take the posters that litter every available wall and street sign. Amongst a collection of fiercely anti-Zionist and anti-western messages lie posters encouraging people to donate to Muslim Aid's Jogjakarta earthquake relief effort, or to the Muslim Blood Drive.

A damn fine initiative.

Take a look inside The Islamic Bookstore, where The International Jew (now complete with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion!) sells alongside thoughtful books on the Islamic solutions to environmental problems. (For what it's worth, my favourite item was one I ended up purchasing: a pamphlet about the Islamic opposition to mingling between men and women.) The battle between the nutters and the moderates is a close-run thing, but it is most definately a silent battle being waged on the streets of Lakemba.

Don't let me catch you mingling!

Separate from the handful of distinctly Islamic institutions are a fairly typical range of restaurants, cafes, whitegoods stores and supermarkets. Most of them promote themselves as being Halal (whitegoods notwithstanding), whilst the boutiques boast a fashionable range of headscarves. Lakemba can also lay claim to a unique restaurant: the Island Dreams Cafe sells authentic Cocos Island and Christmas Island cuisine. And a damn fine Pina Colada, as well.

Tastes sensational.

It would be nice for Lakemba to drop its guard a little. At present, there seems to be a simmering hostility toward outsides and a defiant streak to its character. Perhaps it's suffering from a siege mentality, which is a shame. Here's hoping the moderates can win the day.

Third stop: Cabramatta

Welcome to Cabramatta.

Cabramatta is the logical end-point of the multiculturalism of Australian society: if this is where we end up, then I'm happy. It is a suburb in which the lingua franca is either Chinese or Vietnamese, the smells are like those that waft through the streets of Saigon and the architecture seems like that of Asian societies seeking to dispell the lingering colonial influence.

It's an archway.

After stepping off the train, it's only a short walk to Freedom Plaza, the commercial centre of Cabramatta. Above it rises an archway like that of so many Chinatowns around the world, whilst to the side a series of concrete wildlife keep a careful, if somewhat static, watch over things. The shops have a let-it-all-hang-out approach, with wildly chaotic and random collections of things for sale spilling out the door, often quite literally.

Check this guy out.

The supposed crime and drugs which has ravaged Cabramatta are no where to be seen, at least not just before lunch on a Monday afternoon. It's hard to believe that this is the cause of Australia's only political assassination in nearly three decades. With few exceptions, people seem to be peaceful, with the only piece of nastiness coming in the form of a particularly nasty bogan mullet. Although the cliche is of Cabramatta as little Saigon, there are a variety of ethnic influences from all over Asia, with a Thai, Lao, Cambodian, Chinese and Filipino influence all being felt.

Cabramatta streetscape.

Cabramatta is also home to a Police and Community Youth Centre, a peculiarly New South Welsh concept. Although a little shabby and rundown, the centre provides some decent sporting facilities aimed and keeping wayward youth on the straight and narrow. It's hard to argue with a concept that seems to have worked, no matter how soft and fuzzy it might appear at first glance.

Finally on the journey was a visit to the Cabramatta War Memorial, dedicated particularly to the Vietnam War. It's an unusual message that inspires the memorial, focussing on the comradary between the Australian and South Vietnamese soldiers. Given the demographics of the area, that are much more likely to be decendants of the latter category rather than the former who are paying a visit.

Lest we forget.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Second Stop: Cronulla

Welcome to Cronulla.

My Sunday Cronulla adverture really started the night before. Having a drink at the Coogee Beach Palace Hotel, I started talking to a Sydney girl. When I asked her where she was from, she said she was from Cronulla. I then mentioned the riots from December, and asked her for her thoughts. She leaned back a little and pointed to the bottom part of her chin like a soldier pointing to an old war wound. "See that," she said with only the slightest bit of paraphrasing from me to suit the story, "I got that scar when I was 17. A Lebo bloke slapped me." Whilst the 'scar' itself was obviously much greater in her head that it was on her chin, the fact that such a story is told reveals plenty about the suburb.

Beautiful beaches of Cronulla.

After spending over an hour on the train this afternoon, I finally reached Cronulla. Rather than being just another suburb, Cronulla feels like a beachside resort town, with shorts, t-shirts and thongs forming the unofficial uniform. After a short walk from the station, I spent an hour walking along the path just beyond the beach, frequently being passed by attractive couples of various ages, mostly Anglo in appearance. There are a fair share of arrogant surfie kids, with impossibly blond hair and a fuck-you look in their eyes. Still, it wouldn't be a surf town without them.

Makes you proud...

Despite plenty of negative press following on from last year's Cronulla riots, Cronulla is actually a very peaceful place: the most threatening thing that I saw were some three metre waves that meant that most of the beach was off-limits. Kids play happily in the sand, surfers make the most of the waves and couples do coupley-things. The supposed simmering tension between Anglo and Lebo seemed non existant. It is, of course, entirely possible that the events of last December has meant that Mid-Easterners stay away from the regional altogether. After all, the outcome of a war is often said to be peace on different terms.

If this is the worst of it, then it aint too bad.

Cronulla looks like it would be a damn fine place to retire, or at least head for an extended holiday. The city is close enough, the retail district is interesting and varied, the views and world-class and the surf is always up. It's a shame you can't find a decent kebab, though.

Cronulla sunset.

First stop: Parramatta

Head an hour from the central business district of most cities and the world, and you'll most likely find yourself in either the bland heart of suburbia or well beyond the city limits. Do the same in Sydney, and you're barely half-way to the limits of those who think of themselves as Sydneysiders. This past week has been spent at a conference at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta, a suburb which has as many people living east of it as it does to the west. Unlike most pockets of surburbia, Parramatta is a proudly independent place, even boasting a CBD all of its own, only partly tongue-in-cheek.

Though Sydneysiders might scoff at the thought, Parramatta is a lively place with a real heart and sole. It's crowning glory is Church Street, a street with a collection of cafes, bars and restaurants to satisfy every palate. Just to the north of the Parramatta River lies a new arts complex hosting acts of surpisingly high standard, whilst just south of Church Street is a pedestrian mall with tastefuly sculpture and a sense of history.

Parramatta must give hope to those who yearn for urban renewal. Rather than satisfying itself as a place merely for people to rest, it is also where they play and work. Locals feel no need to head into the 'other' CBD in Sydney for a night out on the town, and there is a civic pride evident that most surburbs would envy.

It would be wise not to get too sentimental about Parramatta: it does have its own problems of crime and unemployment. It is, though, a worthwhile example of what can happen when town planners show some faith in the maxim that if you build it, they will come.

Oh, and stay away from The Roxy. This converted cinema now serves as a nightclub, bar, cafe, restaurant and pokies venue, and with it's neon signs and giant projections screens is also the only place in Parramatta that can be seen from the moon. It's loud and garish and is the sort of place that, if it was a retail store, would be termed a Category Killer. People of Parramatta: don't let it kill your categories. Check out the Mars Hill Cafe instead (how many suburbs could boast of having a cafe who's slogan is "Where Thinkers Drink"!?).

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Sydney bound

Posts are likely to be a little scarce for the next 10 days as I head to Sydney for a break. Up there I'll be representing the people of Peru at the Asia-Pacific Model United Nations Conference. Afterwards I'll be spending a few days on my own self-directed tour of the rough suburbs of Sydney, covering Redfern, Cronulla, Cabramatta, Lakemba and Macquarie Fields, and anywhere else in between that takes my fancy.

Any Sydney readers who want to join me for the tour, or drinks at Darlinghurst afterwards, drop me an email (right-side column) and say g'day.

UPDATE 7/12, 2:20am: I'm in the midst of cleaning up the column on the right, so I'm now archiving the content related to my Sydney trip.

Firstly, photos from the trip and secondly my reflections on the 'burbs:

Macquarie Fields

Happy reading!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Prahran: Newton-Brown. Listens. Sacks.

It's been a rocky few weeks for CNB in the battle for Prahran. Last week Carbone and Money (two writers with the slackest jobs in Melbourne media, in my humble opinion) had an interesting story about the Good Ship Newton-Brown encountering rocky waters:

Rocky path
Five months out from polling day and bike-riding Liberal candidate for Prahran Clem Newton-Brown has suffered three flat tyres on the campaign trail. Electorate chairman/campaign chairman Tony Harris has stepped down (he told Diary it was for business and personal reasons), campaign manager Sol Green has stepped aside to focus on an IT role (for personal reasons, Clem says), and a fund-raiser has been cancelled (it clashed with another event, Tony says). Clem assured us everything was hunky-dory: "There has been no falling out." Clem needs to stay pumped because he's only 1337 votes away from seizing the seat from Labor's Tony Lupton. That's if his tyres go the distance.

Meanwhile, Newton-Brown has been pressing the flesh in a series of local Listening Posts. This is perhaps an apt title for a series of exchanges that will most likely see Newton-Brown repeating his well-rehearsed answers over and over again, much like its music store namesake. Anyhow, for what it's worth, Newton-Brown dropped a flyer in the letterbox on a Thursday informing the Resident (that's me) that he would be at an intersection less than 50 metres from my front door at 10:30am the next Saturday. Now that's service! Or at least it would have been if I bothered turning up. Still, it's a damn fine idea and one that's worth encouraging.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Review: Solo

Next week is the premiere of a new Australian film, Solo. It's always good to see a new Australian film, but this one doesn't seem to be saying anything new. Here's my review (fresh from the media screening!):

Perhaps the greatest fear of any actor is to be typecast. Stuck always playing the same style of characters in the same thespian groove can be a tough problem to overcome. Typecast as a bad guy, and you're a lifelong anti-hero, the one audiences love to hate. Typecast as a good guy, though, and audiences will struggle to buy your dark side. This is the problem afflicting Colin Friels. Friels is a legend of screens big and small, but seems to revel in playing quiet, likable everymen. In Solo, though, his character Jack Barrett is a veteran gangster, moving in a world of drugs, violence and sleaze, who decides he's dumped one too many dead bodies in a river. The problem is not so much believing that Friels’ character wants to leave the Underworld: the problem is believing that he's the kind of guy who would get caught up in it in the first place.">Perhaps the greatest fear of any actor is to be typecast. Stuck always playing the same style of characters in the same thespian groove can be a tough problem to overcome. Typecast as a bad guy, and you're a lifelong anti-hero, the one audiences love to hate. Typecast as a good guy, though, and audiences will struggle to buy your dark side. This is the problem afflicting Colin Friels. Friels is a legend of screens big and small, but seems to revel in playing quiet, likable everymen. In Solo, though, his character Jack Barrett is a veteran gangster, moving in a world of drugs, violence and sleaze, who decides he's dumped one too many dead bodies in a river. The problem is not so much believing that Friels’ character wants to leave the Underworld: the problem is believing that he's the kind of guy who would get caught up in it in the first place.

Solo marks the directorial debut of Morgan O'Neill, who also wrote the screenplay. O'Neill shows a deft confidence that defies his relative inexperience. The story contains a strong narrative that weaves together several stories with style and subtlety. The cinematography is garish without being overstated, beautifully capturing the seediness of the crime underworld it seeks to depict. Rather than focusing on the neon fa├žade of Kings Cross and the smooth perfection of young bodies, director of photography Hugh Miller shows every gutter, every wrinkle and every bruise with gritty honesty.

Read the rest at The Program.