A short documentary history of the Block in Redfern
Material from the Gary Foley Collection

Friday deadline on the Block, but last residents are refusing to go

Don’t want to leave ... Donna and Les Polletti in the home they have lived in since the Block’s beginning. Photo: Quentin Jones

by Matt Khoury
15th November 2010

More than a decade on, the demolition is almost complete. Row by row, terraces have given way to a patch of green grass. Graffiti, cracked paint and rusting iron on last-standing houses symbolise an Aboriginal dream lost. Eviction notices served to 15 remaining tenants expire on Friday, but some have vowed to stay on, and not let go.

The chief executive of the Aboriginal Housing Company, Mick Mundine, has stared down onto the Block's makeshift shooting galleries and drinking circles from his Eveleigh Street office since the '90s.

After the company's concept development application was approved this year by the Premier, Kristina Keneally, his vision of having to destroy to re-create is close to realisation.

''You have to be cruel to be kind,'' Mr Mundine said. ''It's time for tough love, and to let go of this vicious cycle. We can't be suffering no more - we're doing this for our children...Some tenants don't like the changes, but they'll have to move, or we'll take 'em to the Tenancy Tribunal to get 'em out.''

The Aboriginal Housing Company - which owns and manages the Block - has signed a contract with the developer Deicorp for reconstruction, pending final DA approval.

The $60 million-plus project for a cultural centrepiece includes commercial spaces, non-Aboriginal student accommodation, and a reduction to 60 homes for Aborigines. Rents will double, and an annual profit of $4 million is expected. Mr Mundine has promised a tough approach to any new tenancy applications, in a bid to keep drugs, violence and troublemakers away. The new Block would be a landlord's selection of the community.

A resident, Les Polletti, 57, said the community felt it had lost control of its land and its livelihoods. ''The Block's now finished, and they're giving housing to white students - that's a no-no … If people want to work with the system of the white people, do it, but do it in a way that benefits Aboriginal people.'' His wife, Donna, 57, said: ''We've seen this place from the beginning, the middle, and now the end. It used to be such a thriving place, but now we sit on the porch at night and it's like a ghost town. It's very sad.''

They hold on to a dream, and an ethos of self-determination and independence, given birth in an era of idealism when the Whitlam government granted the Redfern patch to Aborigines. ''It used to be a meeting place for Aboriginal people,'' said a former tenant, Cec Bowden, 71. ''We'd come from north, south, east and west, and everybody would know everyone.''

Hard drugs hit the Block in the late '80s. Floor boards crumbled, plumbing collapsed, and then houses disappeared, as a community relocated.

A tenant, Dennis Weatherall, 63, said: "Nobody wants to move, but we will eventually. I'll probably go bush, but most will go to the western suburbs." Residents are now queuing for public housing and hoping for priority. The Aboriginal Housing Company has said they will not end up on the street. But long-time tenants and founding members are preparing to dig in and make a last-ditch appeal for their land.

A former national middleweight champion, and now pastor, Richard Phillips, 73, and his wife, Yevonne, 71, who was born in the area that became the Block, are vowing to stay. Mr Phillips said, ''I've demonstrated and fought to get this place … They can bulldoze with me in it. I ain't going nowhere. "It's not Mundine's kingdom, it's the people's kingdom. Why can't we live the life we want to live?''

Their son and neighbour, Shane Phillips, 45, says it is now not such a black-and-white issue. He says it is time for a change, and supports the project. "It's about building a sanctuary that helps Aboriginal people thrive and survive. We can't keep our people shackled to welfare dependency, and we need to break that pathetic perception that we can't succeed,'' he said. ''We need to make this place strong again- that's what my dad fought for."