Redfern on the rise

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The inner-city suburb of Redfern offers a unique insight into Sydney’s Indigenous past and creative future.

Written by Natasha Dragun. Photos from Getty, Alamy, Natasha Dragun.
April 2018.

Terri Bertakis, my guide on a three-hour walking tour around Redfern, loves the suburb. “It’s a place where you can see and celebrate Sydney’s Indigenous past, but also glimpse what’s new and happening, and how that is directly impacting the community.”

A graphic designer with a passion for art and architecture, Terri is one of the experts called upon by Culture Scouts – a team of young, finger-on-the-pulse creatives – to lead small groups around some of Sydney’s most interesting, and rapidly changing, suburbs. Redfern certainly falls into both categories. 

On the cusp of the CBD, it’s the heart of the city’s Indigenous community and the birthplace of the Black Power movement in Australia. It’s also where former prime minister Paul Keating launched the Year of the Indigenous Person on 10 December 1992, delivering a moving address – now dubbed the ‘Redfern Speech’ – at Redfern Oval.

It was the first acknowledgement by the Commonwealth government of the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

‘It’s important for the Aboriginal community to be able to provide housing as they wish, to whom they wish, on land they own’

Not far from the oval is the Block, the first urban Indigenous land rights claim in the country and an area that’s still of immense importance in Redfern. The site of protests and community gatherings since the 1960s, when landlords campaigned to evict Aboriginal residents, the Block grabbed international headlines in 2004 following riots sparked by the tragic death of an Aboriginal youth.

Strolling past the vast, grassy paddock today, Terri points out a huge mural of an Aboriginal flag painted on the side of a warehouse, its red, black and yellow beacon backdropped by the skyscrapers and cranes of Chippendale, busily erecting residential and commercial towers to keep up with the demand for property in these inner-city precincts.

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The Block, we learn, has been earmarked for a dramatic renewal project itself, dubbed The Pemulwuy Project by the site’s landowners, the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC).

When complete, the mixed-used development will include affordable housing for 62 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, a gymnasium, commercial and retail space, a gallery, student accommodation and a childcare centre. 

“We want people to say, ‘Hey, you’re going to Redfern, come to the place.’ The Block is the place. This is the main watering hole,” says Michael Mundine Snr., CEO of the AHC.

“It’s important for the Aboriginal community to be able to provide housing as they wish, to whom they wish, on land they own,” adds Mary Lynne Pidcock, president of the South Sydney Business Chamber.

‘It’s not that Redfern’s diversity is tolerated, it’s that it is celebrated.’

“Redfern is rapidly changing,” says Sophia de Mestre, the cultural program director and general manager of Culture Scouts. The pace of transformation is perhaps unsurprising given the suburb’s proximity to the city, major rail hubs and Sydney University, not to mention its streets of grand Victorian terrace houses, often painted in vivid colours.

Any gentrification is controversial, and the recent changes in Redfern have raised eyebrows. But to date, the businesses attracted here are not large chains set on altering the streets overnight. Instead, savvy independent operators are moving in, keen to honour the quirks of the neighbourhood.

“It’s not that its [Redfern’s] diversity is tolerated, it’s that it is celebrated,” says Mary Lynne Pidcock. “The community here is real, resilient and authentic; it changes and it moves, it sees opportunities for its older and respected people as well as its youth.”

We follow Terri into The Commercial, a gallery dedicated to Australian art and a space she describes as “small but vital”. Indeed, the room is not much bigger than my bed and is hung with only six works.

But each tells the vivid story of a city and a suburb that is “changing all the time”. There are other significant art and culture institutions in the neighbourhood, from the Redfern Community Centre, with its recording studio, performance spaces and dance classes, to the Sydney Story Factory, which runs free creative writing and storytelling workshops for young marginalised people. But you don’t need to be indoors to get an understanding of the vibrant creative scene. 

Cafe culture

Reko Rennie's Welcome to Redfern mural

At the top of the Block, Terri shows us the Welcome to Redfern mural, covering a Victorian terrace with vibrant graphic designs by Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi artist Reko Rennie, who was assisted by a group of young Indigenous artists.

‘Alfresco art is also a way of reminding people they are passing through
Indigenous territory.’

Spanning a long wall around Redfern Station we find 40,000 Years is a Long, Long Time, completed in 1983 by Carol Ruff and telling the story of Aboriginal people on the land. We also spot a large-scale Anthony Lister mural of Anthony Mundine, the legendary Aboriginal boxer who trained in Redfern.

Daniel Boyd’s 2016 installation What Remains saw the Indigenous artist cover a blackened wall with 12,000 small mirrored dots, to reflect the suburb’s daily movement of people, traffic, light and life. Indigenous people have used murals for generations as a way of visual communication, Sophia de Mestre tells me. In Redfern, alfresco art is also a way of reminding people they are passing through Indigenous territory. 

In between the art we find some of Sydney’s freshest bars, cafes and restaurants. Among Sophia’s favourite haunts are Redfern Continental – “It’s like an RSL but with an oyster bar”.

At Moya’s Juniper Bar you can sip gin-based cocktails in a space that resembles your grandma’s living room, and a new Viking-themed hangout pairs Thor-themed tipples with fur-lined sofas. 

Terri’s tour takes us to some of her favourite boutiques as well. First stop is Chee Soon & Fitzgerald, a Redfern institution home to a glorious collection of rare and antique fabrics alongside a curated wall of homewares from celebrated designers.

Around the corner is Seasonal Concepts, a jaw-dropping emporium overseen by moustachioed Ken Wallis, who has a penchant for fresh flowers and taxidermy. Ken has been here longer than a decade and seen endless changes, from burgeoning real-estate prices to morphing demographics and the types of small businesses lining the streets. His packed-to-the-rafters shop is a collision of colours and forms that I don’t expect but immediately want to linger over.

A bit like Redfern, really.       

Culture Scouts runs regular walking tours through Redfern and neighbouring Chippendale. 

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