Looking for an apartment in Sydney on our budget isn't easy, even though our budget has increased since we first moved here. We were stunned by the rents when we arrived last year: Sydney is the country's most expensive place to live and when compared to Atlanta the prices sound astronomical. We were paying $1067 a month for our previous place (shared with a flatmate) and we figured we could swing $1200, or $300/week, as they list them here. Finding a one-bedroom place for that price is tough, and finding one in a decent part of town is tougher. We hit the rental websites and came across a few availabilities in acceptable neighbourhoods; actually, we didn't really want to move very far and would've probably stayed just where we were had our specific living conditions been different. In fact, in the past year Nija and I have developed a real affinity for our neighbourhood of Redfern/Waterloo. To me, at least, it's the best place in the city to live. It's centrally-located and accessible, compact, attractive, and one of the most historically interesting and culturally important places in Australia. And, for now at least, Redfern is a cheap place to live.
The politics of living in Redfern are complicated. Redfern has long been the heart of urban Aboriginal life in Australia, and has resultantly been the most notorious and maligned neighbourhood in the country for decades. In the sixties, Redfern was a centre of Aboriginal political organisation and resistance, and since then there has been a determined effort to displace the neighbourhood's population. From the perspective of Sydney's powerful cabal of developers, it's simply too well-located and pretty to be left to the blacks. The first stage of this project involved moving thousands of immigrants into huge tower blocks in south Redfern. The second involved draining resources from the area and increasing police harassment to terroristic levels justified as part of Australia's "War on Drugs." This stage culminated in the killing of TJ Hickey and the subsequent Redfern Riots in 2004. The third stage, the present stage, involves using real estate and financial leverage to simply price and zone the Aboriginal residents out of the area.
Whether our recognition of this tragic history conflicts with our desire to live in the area is the complicated part. We're both socially-conscious people and don't think we're entitled to live anywhere in particular. We like Redfern because it has a clear sense of community, even if it's in decline. I partly think that we feel the way we do about our neighbourhood because it's the perpetual underdog, always maligned and demonised. When I tell people I live in Redfern I tend to get looks of surprise, and I get a sick delight out of confronting people with the notion that the only reason Redfern is notorious is because of its demographics. It's without a doubt as safe, if not safer, than most inner-city neighbourhoods, and while there have been several stabbings on my campus in the quiet Eastern Suburbs over the last year, no one ever says "Oh, wow, you go to UNSW...isn't that a dangerous place to study?"
That said, we are not "from" Redfern and in a sense we don't belong there. We are certainly riding on the wave of gentrification, even if we're not part of the gentrifying force itself, and are taking advantage of the fact that Redfern has been "cleaned up" to some degree. It's certainly not as dangerous to walk around the neighbourhood as it might have been a decade ago, though even then it seems the levels of violence were on par with most American cities (remember that Atlanta was America's most violent city for a few years in the late 90s.) We recently went to an event examining the history of Redfern, and distinguished Aboriginal activist and Melbourne Uni lecturer Gary Foley said in his keynote speech that "if you moved to Redfern in the last ten years, you should consider that you might be part of The Problem." The Problem in this case is the displacement of Aboriginal residents of inner-city Sydney and the related collapse of Aboriginal radical organisation in urban Australia. I was taken aback by the frankness of this statement and it made me re-examine my fondness for the neighbourhood and whether we should in fact be trying to live there. I don't think I have completely resolved this issue, but in a sense white people don't belong in Australia on the present terms anyway, so perhaps there's no sense in fretting over the smaller issue of what part of Sydney we live in.
Regardless of my personal political crisis, we focussed our search on Redfern and its surrounds but appropriate places were sparse. We looked at some scuzzy places, some that were smaller than were advertised, and when we did manage to find a really nice place, perfectly located, we were strung along for a good two weeks as the owner wavered on whether he wanted to rent or sell it (he eventually decided to sell, not to us.) We found some decent places that were far afield, but couldn't convince ourselves to move so far from this part of town that has started to mean so much to us. After three weekends of apartment inspections all over town, we managed to find something only four blocks away: a one-bedroom top-floor apartment in a quirky building in a slightly industrial part of the neighbourhood. It seemed to be the best thing going, so we took it, signing the lease on Friday, May 29, leaving us three days to move before Nija's family was to arrive.
The move was indeed an adventure, with the usual pain, annoyance, sweat, and so on. I borrowed a university catering van that made it unnecessary to rent one, hire movers or beg some friend to spend his or her precious time lugging around our stuff.
I managed to drive on the left side (the legal one) without incident, but I did manage to get the van towed by parking it in a weekday "clearway" zone (fine: $150 + profound panic at 6AM.)
Somehow we threw it all together in short order, with very little sleep or food. Everyone loves before-and-after pictures, so here's a shot of Saturday night's hot dog dinner amidst the chaos:
and here's the scene on Sunday morning:
No move would be complete without a panicked trip to Ikea, solver of all problems. A Sunday afternoon trip to Ikea here is just like a Sunday afternoon trip to Ikea anywhere, it turns out:
And the whole experience left me wondering if it's possible to move without much hurry, so that places like Ikea are unnecessary. We bought a whole heap of crap that we needed quickly but that we could've found at second-hand shops all over town; part of me felt gravely defeated when we walked out of that store with all that new stuff, as though I could feel perfectly good coffee mugs and dishracks being tossed into the landfill as the Norse overlords of home furnishing turned up the corners of their mouths in bloodsucking grins in their sterile, frozen castles of medium-density fibreboard.
In the end, thanks to Nija's superior powers of organisation and foresight and the generosity of friends and even strangers that we met at our local cafe, we put the place together very nicely for the arrival of the Dalal/Parekh travelling party. I know that moving here will prove to have been the right decision for us all right now, and worth all the hard work and stress. I even think that the experience helped us feel more at home in Sydney, made us realise that there's a network of people of which we're a part that can offer us support and friendship and to whom we can offer the same. I look forward to getting to know our new neighbourhood; while it's not too far from our old one, it feels very different. I'm thrilled that we managed to find a place in this part of town that we weren't ready to leave yet, and to know that wherever we are in town we can still look for the Redfern towers that point the way home.
(View over Botany Rd toward the northeast from our balcony.)
Stay tuned for our adventures eating our way up the east coast and snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, as well as tales of our new 'hood.
Oh, and please write if you need our new address.