Is Millers Point Sydney's Suicide Note?


Look, I'm a Melbourne person, by birth and inclination. Grim City on the upside down river. I liked it when it was a dour town when the only places you could drink were dying, frayed-carpet pubs with footy tipping sheets on the wall. I liked it when that all opened up a little and you didn’t have to spend hours trying to find something open after 10pm. When Kennett came in and it was open slather I still liked it, and I even like it now that it's crowded out with hipsters, and people on low incomes are being priced out of the inner-city.

It’s just blind love, and like all love, it relies on the suffering of others to really get its edge. So when there's news of something disastrous happening to Sydney, Melbourne is blessed, for few cities have been engaged in such a determined effort at self-destruction as Sydney. The place that was once Australia’s face to the world is, after decades of neglect and mismanagement, a second-rate town around a world-class harbour, desperately trying to catch up. Heh.

But there are disasters and there are tragedies. Two weeks ago Sydney pulled one of the latter, when it was announced that more than a thousand public tenants at Millers Point, under the shadow of the bridge, would be turfed out, and the area sold for private housing — from which there would be a substantial dividend.

The upkeep on these properties — many of them century-and-more-old terraces — was blowing out the social housing budget, Community Services Minister Pru Goward announced, and the money could be better used elsewhere. Cynics noted that, by an incredible coincidence, Millers Point is near the Barangaroo mega-development site.

When Barangaroo was announced, it fitted easily into the "Sydney disaster" category. Pushed by Jamie Packer, who believes that the site’s globo-identikit towers will prove a global tourist attraction, Barangaroo (an Aboriginal term meaning "neoliberal space-image commodification") is a Dubaification of the Harbour City, a manifestation of the desire of the mega-rich to turn the great cities of the world into characterless nothing-spaces, whose vacuity reflects back the emptiness of neoliberal life. Sydney killed itself a little more when it agreed to the current design, a final sealing-in of a city that has turned its back on its natural setting.

The Millers Point eviction looks to some suspiciously like class cleansing; the last thing the globo-rich and inner-city high-six-figure professional couples want is to be cheek-by-jowl close to the varied community of workers, ex-workers, mums, kids, the ill and the well, the troubled and the fine, as one finds in a place with public housing.

There is some small plausibility to Goward’s case — though, in this op-ed, with all its snide self-satisfaction, she reminds you that Liberals are in fact scum-of-the-earth — given the maintenance costs of heritage buildings. But in an area such as Millers Point, rising costs could be dealt with by natural attrition, as tenants die or decide to move on.

You would only need to sell a half-dozen of the Millers Point terraces to amortise the surplus costs of the Millers Point public housing area — and there’s a good argument for mixing private and public housing in any case. One also suspects that the maintenance costs cited by Goward are inflated — she claims that every Millers Point terrace transferred to private ownership has cost $300,000 in renovations, which may well include the sort hipsterfication of such properties as inner-city professionals are likely to indulge in.

Anyway, the argument misses the wider point: first about communities, second about public housing, third about cities. First, Millers Point has been a working community of Sydney going right back to the early 1800s. That may have been subsumed by the public system at some point, but the continuities predate it. So what is being disrupted here is one of the city’s last real links with its past.

Second, the idea that public housing must always cost the least amount per unit, by virtue of location or stock, is a minimalist, warehousing notion of how public housing should work. Public housing should ideally be scattered throughout a city, and through different types of housing stock and style. Some people should just get lucky from it. Goward’s sniffy comment was that each Millers Point tenant was underpaying on presumed commercial rates by $44,000 a year — but that is a circular logic, by which public housing is always presumed to be a-list commercial/private rental property de facto. Going from the other direction, that decommodified public space should be a part of every region of a city, means that the presumed commercial/private rate is irrelevent.

Finally, those intent on throwing out the Millers Point residents just don't get the nature of cities. Cities, great cities, are made by the poor, by the working class, by the modestly recompensed. They give a city its distinctive character for the simple reason that such people create neighbourhoods. What is a neighbourhood? It's a collection of people who can’t afford to go anywhere else — or at the very least, have somewhat less mobility and transferability than others. They hang around, they hang out, they have to live together — and in doing so, they create distinctive places, unique urban forms. I don’t think this is the most important reason to fight for Millers Point — the most important reasons is that the people who live there want to keep on doing so — but it’s a point about cities, and how they thrive or fail to, that’s worth making.

Living cities are above all communities, a living together, with all that that implies, a degree of tolerance and mutual accommodation that doesn't require a human rights commission to enforce it. Great cities come from that — Paris of the 19th century, when the rich lived on the first and second floors and the poor lived in the basement and the garrett. London, with 60 per cent public housing, reaching into every corner of the capital, so that even today Soho is filled with the creative, the modest, the simply poor, and the purely reprobate. Manhattan, kept lively for decades by rent controls imposed in World War II, and never lifted, so that the poor could live blocks from Wall Street right into the 90s. Melbourne, saved from a US-style freeway urbancide by one of the most concerted urban heritage campaigns the world saw in the 60s and 70s, which retained its character, as perhaps the greatest intact Victorian city in the world.

Sydney got its reprieve too, and in getting it, saw the birth of a global movement. The inner-city areas such as The Rocks and Millers Point were saved from annihilation by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation's "Green Bans" movement, a startling and audacious political leap by the union’s leadership of Mundey, Owens and Pringle who took up the allegedly "middle class" concern of urban heritage, and transformed the whole idea of what a union’s purview should be, and what a Left politics should be.

The Green Bans saved Sydney from being Akron, Iowa-by-the-harbour downunder, first time around. They also helped launch a global movement, predating and influencing the German Greens to a significant degree — which then came back as the global Greens movement. The Right would like to despise them unabashedly — if you want a sample of that check out Miranda Devine’s blog, where she expiates on BLF "thugs".

It is unquestionable that the Green Bans campaign (and those led by Nick Origlass and his small group of Trotskyist comrades in the inner west) stopped Sydney from turning into a disaster zone. The Green Bans also made it the place which was, for a few years in the 80s and into the 90s, a genuinely striking global city.

Thus, extinguishing the Millers Point community is not merely a cruel and wrong thing to do to the people who live there — it is another instalment in the city’s long, long suicide note, a record of the determination of the place to kill itself as a complex, dynamic city acre-by-acre. The saving grace? The Millers Point residents are resisting. With support, they have a fighting chance of getting something of a settlement regarding residence there. But they won’t be able to do it alone. Millers Point will live or die on whether other groups are willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

Is the CFMEU — the successor, to a degree, to the NSW BLF — willing to stand up and defend what was gained earlier? Are the NSW Greens willing to get out of the plush benches and the committees and get arrested? Are Sydney artists and activists willing to stop filling in grant applications for their psychogeography projects for a few months, and get on the front line? Given Anthony Albanese’s intervention in the issue, will he actually — gasp! — lead some ALP members into an actual social campaign, on the ground? Are other activists willing to suspend whatever they’re working on for a while, and focus on a campaign that will determine the political character, and social form, of the city, for decades to come?

Well, we’ll find out. Should nothing happen, Sydney will keep sliding into the neoliberal deadzone. Partisan as I am, I hope that forces will rally in Sydney, get the Millers Point people a better deal. Not only for their sake, but because it's as ideal a rallying point as one could get for a fight for the future of a city.

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