BY AMANDA PARKINSON
Aunty Simone calls the kids in for dinner. Silence falls over the street. Looking around, only few homes are lit; most are boarded up, the residents gone. In mid-September The Block‘s 75 residents were issued with 60-day eviction notices as developers prepare to demolish and rebuild the site.
The Block is bound by Eveleigh, Hugo, Hudson, and Caroline Streets, and has become renowned for crime, a thriving drug trade, and the 2004 riot after the death of teenager Thomas “T.J.” Hickey, who was impaled on a fence while being followed by police.
Resident Simone Phillips was born in The Block and has never known another home. Her family has lived in the area for more than seven generations. “We don’t hate change,” she says. “We just want it to be fair.”
With less than six days to find a new home residents fear they may never be able to return.
The $60 million Pemulwuy Project will include 62 apartments and 9000 square metres of commercial space, including shops and a redevelopment of the iconic Eloura Tony Mundine Gym.
NSW Premier Kristina Kenneally, Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt, federal member for Sydney Tanya Plibersek and Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore all support the planning approval. But neither state nor federal government have agreed to fund the development. Aboriginal Housing Company Chief Mick Mundine told The Australian: “People say to me, ‘Where (will) the money come from?’ I don’t know yet.”
Everyone who lives there agrees The Block needs upgrading, but not everyone is in favor of how it’s being done. After the redevelopment fewer than half the number of existing homes will be rebuilt. Many families are afraid there won’t be room for them to return.
“We didn’t make the earth or the trees, we don’t control the ocean or the wind but God did put us here first,” Ms Phillips says. “We just want to know our elders will be taken care of. They’ve done nothing wrong.”
The Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) has assured residents that those who are not involved with drugs or other crimes in the area will be free to return when the development is finished in 2013.
Mr Mundine says the only people upset by the plans were “those known to cause trouble”.
Ms Phillips says: “We aren’t upset about the plans, but this isn’t about drugs either. If they want to crack down on drugs they should be going to The Cross, or Block 9 (in Punchbowl), or Chinatown. This is just about getting the original people out of here.”
Sydney developers have shown keen interest in the site due to its prime location and market value. “What it boils down to is sheer greed, the hunger for money,” says Ms Phillips. “That’s exactly what they’re doing here turning everyone against each other, just for greed.”
Tony Mundine and the members of Eloura Gym support the redevelopment, and the gym will close its doors in November. Like the rest of The Block it will be boarded up and eventually demolished in January. The iconic flag painted on the side of the gym will be destroyed. Gym owners are considering purchasing a warehouse on Eveliegh Lane which will not be demolished in the redevelopment.
The gym has given hope to the community since the early 1980s, and through all the conflict residents and ‘outsiders’ could find refuge together. Gym users are able to train, lift weights and spar together. Not long after the 2004 riots the NSW State Government cut the gym’s funding. For the past six years it has run at a loss but gym owners, block residents, and inner city locals have rallied together to keep it running.
Gym member Matt Carling travels from Erskineville to box at Eloura. “The gym is a great place, we don’t tolerate racism of any kind, drugs or anything else, we all just come here to work out, get fit and believe in something better,’ he says
Simone explains that the people who call The Block home hope for a better life for their children. ‘They are good kids,” she says. “They can read and write and that, some of them are dancers, artists. We want them to know where they came from – we want them to be proud of that.’