The Block in Redfern is seen by many as the heart of the Aboriginal community in Sydney.  It is the place most people think of, good or bad, when they think of Aboriginal spaces in the city.  Currently, the Block is undergoing a major change in direction with plans to transform it from a predominantly Aboriginal housing community to a mix of commercial offices, student accommodation and housing, a change that has reignited debate about Aboriginal ground in the city.

For 40 years the Block has been the most visible residential space for Aboriginal Sydney.  But how did it come to be?  There have always been Aboriginal people living in Redfern, from pre-European right through to now, but it was in the late 1930s that the area began to attract Aboriginal families from elsewhere and a recognisable community began to emerge.

The Block, 2004 Pat Baille photo. City of Sydney Archives
The Block, 2004 Pat Baille photo. City of Sydney Archives

The area was centrally located and close to some of Sydney’s largest industrial sites, places where newly arrived people could get work such as Eveleigh Railway Workshops.  With the offices of the Aboriginal Progressive Association set up nearby in 1937 (they organised the 1938 Day of Mourning) and an all Indigenous All Blacks Rugby League team in Redfern by 1944 , the area was getting an indigenous focus.

In 1964 the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs established their headquarters in George Street Redfern.  The Foundo’s mission was to help the community with housing, jobs and organising social events.  The success of the group, which was a mix of Aboriginal and European helpers, fostered a desire amongst the community to have Aboriginal run services.

This was achieved in 1969 with the establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service, the first all Aboriginal administered service in Australia.  Using European lawyers and barristers, the service began defending local people against increasing police harassment and false arrests.  The service gave the community a confidence boost and was quickly followed by the Aboriginal Medical Service and Murawina Childcare.

But housing was still an issue.  From the late 1960s a number of terraces in Louis Street had been taken over by Aboriginal squatters.  Squatting was not unusual in Sydney at the time but was never popular with owners/developers.  And with racist attitudes high, Aboriginal squatters were particularly unpopular.  Ongoing police harassment and arrests led to a campaign to secure housing and control over their own future in the city’s centre.  No longer would Aboriginal people be pushed to the fringes.

The arrest of 15 squatters in 1972 sparked the campaign.  When they were sentenced to prison, St Vincent’s Catholic Church stepped in and gave them shelter in the church hall.  The numbers soon swelled to 80, with others dropping in for meals.  The cause was soon taken on by trade unions, such as the BLF, politicians and student activists.  But South Sydney Council and the police were against any housing deal.  Eventually the purchase of the Louis Street terraces by a single developer gave the community its opening.  The formation of the Aboriginal Housing Company Ltd (AHC) enabled a focused campaign with union help to pressure the developer to negotiate sale of the terraces to the community.

Louis Street terraces, The Block. City of Sydney Archive, 2003.
Louis Street terraces, The Block. City of Sydney Archive, 2003.

In April 1973, after a prolonged and bitter campaign (410 arrests in one street between March and May 1973), the federal ALP Government granted the AHC $530,000 to purchase 41 terraces houses in Louis, Vine, Eveleigh and Caroline Street–The Block.

40 years on, after good and very bad times, the community is once again fighting for access over housing and their place in Sydney as the AHC grapples with redevelopment options and future planning.