The Battle for Waterloo: A resident’s perspective
Catherine Skipper | 28 April 2017
The NSW government has redevelopment plans for the Waterloo estate but the local residents are gearing up to resist the plans. The fightback started with a front page photo and double page inside spread in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, featuring some of the residents, including Catherine Skipper. Following is Ms Skipper’s account of how she became a happy resident of the estate. Below is a statement from the NSW government on its plans.
Once upon a time I was living in a privately rented home in Carlton (100 yards from my favourite haunt, the Nova Cinema), doing a postgraduate degree at the University of Melbourne and enjoying my retirement after 36 years of teaching. Then my daughter became ill and I began travelling to and fro from Sydney on a regular basis to visit her.
When my daughter was hospitalised for a prolonged period, travelling to Sydney became impractical. I was offered short-term accommodation by a kind woman living at Millers Point (and now unhappily “relocated”) who generously accepted my two furry companions as well. Prior to this I had had no contact with public housing apart from walking past high-rise housing estates in Carlton and Brunswick. I had sometimes helped serve food to the needy and homeless outside the Brunswick high-rises and found the transitory recipients very pleasant, practical people who managed their unfortunate situation with common sense and resilience.
When eventually I found myself without a home (but fortunately with an aged pension) I was distraught and first sought help from Housing NSW. Their representative, who may not be representative of all staff, was unfriendly, almost hostile, and her help consisted of handing me a pile of documents and sending me on my way to fill in the forms appropriate to my circumstances.
During this time, I relapsed into an old behaviour, becoming extremely thin as well as being unable to sleep. However, recalling my conversations with the Brunswick homeless I sought support from an inner-city homeless station. I will always be grateful to their staff who treated me with respect, and gave me practical help as well as comfort.
After my daughter was released from hospital I received a letter from Housing NSW inviting me to inspect the tower unit in which I now reside. We were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves walking across a leafy little park I later came to know and love as Waterloo Green.
We were even more surprised when the two compassionate social workers who accompanied us to our new home, unlocked a very solid door to reveal a spotlessly clean, airy unit. We were delighted. Our new home had good light – a quality I value as an artist – a small serviceable kitchen, a lovely L-shaped sitting room and two small bedrooms, both looking out onto the magnificent trees and plentiful bird life of the Green.
In this secure setting, my daughter was able to resume her studies, achieving both her law degree and later a postgraduate diploma.
We, and our dogs, were welcomed into the active social life of both 29 storey towers, Matavai and Turanga, reserved for the over 55s, and later inducted into a vital community life, the like of which I had never known before coming to Waterloo.
Through the kind offices of the Waterloo Recycling Workshop housed under Turanga, we were not only able to purchase quirky handmade furniture at very low cost, but were also shown the ways of Waterloo. We were given the local paper, the South Sydney Herald, with its page of info-ads about what was on in the area, and introduced by the sympathetic manager to a local art class. The SSH, for which I now write theatre reviews; the art class and its agency, The Orchard Gallery, of which I became co-curator; and the local church, which established each of these activities, enabled us to redefine ourselves as useful, valued members of society.
However, we began to hear many rumours about the siting of a proposed Metro station at Waterloo and the possible demolition of the Waterloo Estate. I attended a meeting at the Long House, Redfern Park in which I was assured that the twin towers would not be demolished to make way for a station. An initial visit from the then minister for family and community services to Turanga and Matavai, seemed to have the intention of reassuring tenants – and the TV watching public – that the buildings were safe environments, that the towers would continue as part of the public housing program, and that Waterloo Green was well-patronised by tenants.
The rabble-rousing TV presenter, however, had a different agenda. All her questions were aimed at telling the public that the towers were drug-infested slums, housed dangerous criminals and were a waste of what was otherwise valuable real estate. To her, we were riff-raff.
The minister announced in person that the new station would be sited at Waterloo and the Waterloo Estate would undergo “redevelopment”, AKA demolition. Not only was the announcement made just before Christmas on 21 December 2015 when the extensive tenants’ support systems had closed for the holidays, but also before the tower tenants had received the official letter informing them of the proposed redevelopment.
Consequently, the number of tenants who gathered for the minister’s appearance was small; he took only three questions before ending the briefing and shuffled the tenants off to a barbecue while he slipped away. The barbecue was an apt metaphor of his government’s image of housing tenants – an image maybe derived from the SBS’s denigratory Housos.
The food was of the cheapest possible kind (as the tenants obviously had no knowledge of either nutritious or quality food), and in addition we were considered so stupid that our shock at being ousted from both home and community could be diffused by sausages and green balloons.
When I did see my official letter I was outraged. That a minister for family and community services could begin a letter introducing a plan which entailed dismantling a community and taking away people’s beloved homes by claiming to be “excited” at the prospect, was, besides the irony, simply crass. I was even more appalled by his apparent unawareness that Waterloo was a thriving community culture, artistically vibrant and remarkably knowledgeable as many of the tenants were artists, writers, gardeners, mathematicians and carpenters. Many had full-time and part-time jobs, and many volunteered regularly in a variety of areas.
Moreover, Waterloo is an important vestige of a formerly historically significant working class and a culturally important urban Aboriginal environment. The construction of a Danks Street-like concrete wilderness or Green Square-like monster shopping mall can never replace what will be lost – a unique community.
The unanswered questions and concerns that tenants had at the minister’s first briefing about the redevelopment remain unanswered. Despite an increasing mound of butcher paper lists and a plethora of meetings with tea and biscuits, the ultimate outcome is a reiteration of the same two generalities – the first relocations will take place some time after July 2018 (originally July 2017) and the redevelopment is a long term project taking 15-20 years.
In addition, we have been invited to one after another meeting with representatives from the Land and Housing Council, UrbanGrowth NSW and other organisations involved in the redevelopment. Ultimately, after talking governmentese – a language, for instance, where “divest” is used rather than “selling off”, and “social mix” a euphemism for concealing the socially diverse poor amongst their economic “betters” – the meeting will be assured that all will become clear in the Master Plan.
The Master Plan, however, remains a mystery, although we leave each meeting with a diagrammatic representation of how the Plan will be approached. The colour, or “branding” as it is referred to, chosen for their handouts is sap green, no doubt an intended link with the so-called “renewal”, and not a reflection of their opinion of the Waterloo community.
The information we need so desperately to be given – when will we have to move? and where will we be moved to? – remains unforthcoming. In the meantime our tiny tenant brains are to be preoccupied with various activities making it appear we are engaged in the process of redevelopment. Many of these activities centre around the request to record life as it is lived on the Waterloo Estate before it vanishes, and to archive the experiences of its inhabitants before they are plucked from their habitat. Commendable, no doubt, but these projects uncomfortably resemble a David Attenborough program on threatened species of wildlife.
For me, at 80 years of age, and having believed that I had found a haven and a way of life in which I could still be useful and my skills valued, the announcement of the relocation has been deeply traumatic. All the meeting and tweeting that has followed the minister’s announcement is, unfortunately, a real life example of the Office of Circumlocution in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, and I feel increasingly like Kafka’s character K, who, arriving in a village, futilely attempts to gain access to the mysterious authorities who control it.
Ms Skipper is a resident of the Waterloo estate.
Statement from the NSW Family and Community Services
A spokesperson from the NSW Family and Community Services said the redevelopment of the Waterloo estate would be staged over 15-20 years, allowing most residents to move from their old home to a new home at Waterloo.
“A smaller number of residents will need to be temporarily relocated from Waterloo for the first stage of redevelopment. It is intended that these temporary relocations will be into areas near Waterloo. Waterloo residents have been advised that the first relocations will not occur before mid-2018.
“The NSW Government made a commitment to all residents that have to temporarily relocate that they will have the right to return to a new home at Waterloo.
“The master planning process will inform the staging of the redevelopment, the first area to be redeveloped and in turn the required relocations. The master planning process is underway and is forecast to be completed by early-2018.
“Similarly, the length of time a resident will need to be temporarily relocated and when the first new homes will be completed is dependent on the completion of the master plan.”