human behavior

Redfern goes private

Posted in Australian Culture & Politics, Race & Ethnicity by humanb on December 4, 2006

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a new campus of St. Andrew’s Cathedral School, one of the city’s oldest independent Anglican schools, will open in the Redfern Community Centre on the Block. The Herald calls the Block the cultural centre of the city’s indigenous population. One of Australia’s popular right-wing bloggers calls it an angry tribal slum. He asks:

This is a very generous attempt to help, but why put the school in an angry tribal slum?….Why can’t Aboriginal children have the advantages of a private school in settled, leafy suburbia?

A blogger at one of Australia’s most popular left of center group blogs, responds:

It saddens me to think that anyone could ask such questions in all sincerity. Even Bolt.

Chalk it up to my being a newcomer to these shores, but both sentiments strike me as sincere and well-meaning, and Bolt’s question, an interesting one.

Especially in light of my maiden tour of the Block just two weeks ago.

The Redfern Community Centre and PACT Youth Theatre sponsored an evening tour of the Block called Gathering Ground: History Ceremony, Protest, on the evenings of the 16th, 17th, and 18th November. I attended the event on the 17th, because I had been curious about black Australians even before I moved here. I suppose I was also feeling a bit lonely and culturally isolated, as a black person living in all-white leafy suburbia.


The tour involved walking through the neighborhood and stopping at stages to listen to our speakers, a brother and sister with strong ties to the neighborhood. They discussed the history of the area from as far back as early British settlement. There were video projections of neighborhood kids on two crumbling walls; a circus-cum-title fight at Mundine’s Gym; a hip hop session at the basketball court with adolescent male and female artists and breakdancers; a viewing of documentary film shorts, and a fashion show performed by local girls.


I enjoyed the entertainment. I especially enjoyed watching those shy but courageous young people enjoying themselves, and showing off their talents to their families, neighbors and fellow Sydneysiders. I also enjoyed seeing the neighborhood everyone has heard of, but few have ever visited.

I came away from the tour surprised that there were so many young people living in, or affiliated with, the Block. I think this was meant to be one of the take-home messages.

And I was pleased to find a large, central and inviting community centre alongside a stone amphitheatre of sorts, and a tidy green park with a performance stage and large film screen. It’s in the Redfern Community Centre that the new St. Andrew’s Campus will be located.

A slum is “a thickly populated, run-down, squalid part of a city, inhabited by poor people”. I’m not sure about the population of the Block in total or per house. The Block is certainly run down to an extent – our tour guides didn’t shy away from this reality – and the people from the Block are likely among the poorest in the city. As for squalid, well, the Block isn’t as clean as say, Rose Bay. But the house in the picture below is an example of the evening charm I found along those narrow streets.


The word “slum” has negative connotations, and no one likes their home described as such, but I’m not sure if it’s inaccurate to describe the Block as a slum in comparison to other city neighborhoods. It’s certainly ungenerous to describe the Block so, and no doubt hurtful to all of those shy and courageous kids.

As for “tribal”, one of the things I disliked about our tour guides’ discussion, was their regular references to the mixed race visitors as “you white fellas” to poke fun at us in such a way that, while meant to be facetious, seemed to alienate us more. I understand the history of this phrase and that it’s not considered derogatory; but, it especially had the effect of alienating us when mixed with discussion about our presence in the neighborhood as a novel thing that needed to be handled carefully. Obviously our guides were correct to insist we be respectful of the residents, but I also left the neighborhood feeling that I had little right to enter it again unless invited. Not sure if this was meant to be a take-home message.

As for neighborhood “anger”, the only angry people I encountered were our tour guides at various stages, when discussing past abuses against Aboriginal Australians at the hands of government. The anger was palpable and current and not invalid, although possibly at times, misdirected. The residents however, either stood away from the event quietly watching in small clusters, or joined us in the tour at various stages to look on proudly at the local children perform.

There were also a few clusters of drinkers hanging back, with one very inebriated older woman circling our group, whose drunken exclamations were sadly unintelligible, save one remark she shouted as we walked deeper into the Block: “Here they come!!”


So I can’t say if Bolt’s remark about the Block being an angry, tribal slum is entirely without foundation, but it’s certainly insulting to its residents and other Australians, and quite possibly not informed by first-hand experience.

I don’t know. But I know I loved watching those kids, and I know that I love that this historical neighborhood still stands, and tries desperately to thrive among its crumbling buildings.

The opportunity for the kids of the Block to attend private school is a fantastic one. Like most Americans, I went to a mediocre public school, but I had ample academic and extracurricular resources at my disposal. I also had zero socioeconomic distractions around my school.

I would love for some of these kids from the Block to have even more than this at a private school in leafy suburbia, as Andrew Bolt claims to want. They will. The plan is to send the kids to the main campus in the afternoons.

But they will also be given a private school education in the mornings in their own neighborhood. This is good for the kids, as it makes it easy to get to school, and on time. And if there are any truancy problems in the neighborhood, the locals can better ensure they get nipped in the bud.

But this is also good for the neighborhood, and this is the point I think Bolt is missing. Sending the kids of the Block away to leafy suburbia may improve their futures, but bringing a product of leafy suburbia to them, improves the Block’s future.

Whether your home be in a rural or rundown area, if you have to leave it behind to seek educational opportunities, you are more likely to leave it behind forever. But if the opportunities come to you, they come to your neighborhood too.

Bolt may think, like many, that the Block is a lost cause, and that its kids should therefore leave it behind. This argument is worth dissecting and considering if it is an argument on behalf of the welfare of the children. But it is not an argument that should be entertained without one having toured the place, heard its history and met its talented children.

Having done this – and granted, with little more information to go on – I say bring in St. Andrews. Give it a go.

ELSEWHERE: Joe Hildebrand on living in Redfern.


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