A 2009 exhibition and publication project explored conditions in the inner city Sydney suburb of Redfern as an exploded field of contestation. Grounded in community and activism, this arts project presented diverse approaches adopted by artists and urban practitioners to undermine the ideological rendering of urbanism and urban decision making. There Goes The Neighbourhood: Redfern and the Politics of Urban Space, the project publication edited by Zanny Begg and Keg De Souza, bridges art, social issues and community activism. Together with contributors, Begg and De Souza write the complexity of Redfern’s cultural and spatial politics including their own displacement from the suburb due to gentrification writ large across the lives and histories of lower income, Aboriginal and long term residents. Here they document institutionalised and ordained processes of land holding, culturally repurposed industrial heritage and statutory authority control. During those process, the values of community clash with the professionals who engineer the gentrification, while artists, as Bec Dean explained, take on diverse roles as organisers, activists, social networkers, thinkers, documentary makers and agitators around the inner city areas in which they work and live.
This project involved both a rewriting of practice – an alternative practice of practice – and creative engagement in place. Whether we recognise it or not, Redfern, like The Rocks before it, expresses an urban resistance and militance that rankles corporate and political interests. The Rocks retained its built heritage but lost its community powered character, as people were side swiped into far flung suburbs. Redfern is resisting that fate with its expressions of the powerlessly powerful and with its potent images of urban poverty, social housing, creative transgression, boiling rage and cultural identity. ‘The Block’, established as Aboriginal Housing in the early 70s, is referred to as ‘slum’, a slur that somehow justifies the calls for cleansing. Angela Pitts, social planner with the Aboriginal Housing Corporation, describes the 35 year mission of the AHC to provide a better environment for Aboriginal people, often obstructed by government. The AHC has lodged an application for the Pemulwuy Project, which will see the regeneration of The Block as a mixed use development. Presented at a public meeting on 22 November, some community members voiced lingering apprehensions about the proposal. Pitts explained the Pemulwuy Project is drawn from Indigenous knowledge and values articulated though a community-based planning process. It delivers a self-sufficient development and relevant approaches to the issues experienced on The Block.
There is a history of community taking matters into its own hands and Gary Foley recounts a history that has been largely ignored – that of the Black Power movement in Redfern’s Aboriginal community. He notes that it was “essentially about the necessity of Black people to define the world in their own terms, and to seek self-determination without white interference”. Foley recalls a generation of young radicals working towards reform and autonomy in the face of racism and a daily grind of police harassment and intimidation. He affirms the legacy of Black Power as it remains embedded in intergenerational memory of Aboriginal people in Redfern and elsewhere.
There is a deep concern for the relational, the participatory, the social and the experiential throughout the writings, many of which document realised artistic projects. There are artistic statements that evoke Ranciere’s ideas of the emancipatory project and the politics of art; where aesthetic experience “allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation”. The rigidities of planning, architecture and design practices that are the handmaidens of gentrification – that play by the code – are called to account. As Dean notes, those professionals where more attached to design briefs focused on the ghosts of the long gone, rather than the realities of the still living. She interrogates the redevelopment of the Eveleigh Railyards as a contemporary artspace and reads its adaptive re-use as a sign that further encroachment into the locality would ensue. Large scale cultural redevelopment stands like a giant against the guerilla rebuff of local artists and activists. But the guerilla gesture – as an act of resistance – can strengthen community bonds and pride in the face of uncertainty and possible loss. It sends a message.
Begg and De Souza acknowledge that Redfern is changing – “but not entirely as the government planned or wanted”. Gentrification can be a slow burn and slower still when there is well organised community opposition. The writings in this book present alternative plans, actions and visions for Redfern, they parody and appropriate the impositions of the state government’s Redfern Waterloo Authority, they propose dismantling and undermining the mechanisms that uphold gentrification, they propose collective governance and ownership, and they present the lived and poignant histories of place. Yet, residents endure coercive processes of false participation. There is sharing too. REDWatch, a resident action group, organises online and posts information about the acitivities of the redevelopment authority. The Tour of Beauty Project organised cycling and bus tours in the locality to highlight the experiences of residents.
There Goes The Neighbourhood charts the flows and connections of spatial politics, art and community activism in a way that shapes a field of negotiation and collaboration in the making of places and the making of space. In this process, international artists and urbanists themselves question their own involvement, even complicity, in gentrification, while simultaneously participating in collective and processual action to mitigate its impact. This is a productive and polyvocal discussion that recognises politics and ethics in the urban context, while questioning other urban practices that normalise social exclusion, criminalise inequality, silence cultural difference and degrade civic society. However, some practitioners, like spacemaker and urban planning scholar Ava Bromberg, are engaged in re-evaulating their practices in ways that close the divide between community, art, theory and plan; that address specifically what spatial and social justice can mean. There’s a questioning of practice here – an awareness – that opens into other possibilities, opportunities, relationships and choices for citizens and practitioners.