The Guardian 11 May, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Clearing the inner-city badlands

In the early 19th century, the well-to-do landowners of England began clearing the Scottish highlands of impoverished crofters and fishing folk, for the purpose of seizing their land for large-scale sheep farming.

The British government provided no relief, but instead allowed economic depression including the collapse of the herring industry to force most of the people into emigration. Where that proved inadequate, force was applied.

The wealthy needed the land for profitable business, the poor were simply in the way.

In more recent times, clearances of a similar nature have taken place in inner city areas, both in Britain and here. The aim of these clearances was not to create sheep farms but "urban development".

In many cases this took the form of profitable property speculation, but in others it was the work of government departments, engaging in "slum clearance".

The benighted state of poverty-stricken inner city working class neighbourhoods was presented as a function of the age of the dwellings not of the poverty of their inhabitants.

Demolishing the small working-class houses with their individual backyards and replacing them with "clean, modern" blocks of flats was promoted as social progress, the way to end "urban decay".

Only later was it realised that this form of "slum clearance" really meant "community clearance". The culture, history and social life of communities were destroyed in the name of improving their living standards.

The former slum neighbourhoods were replaced with blocks of flats designed for ease of maintenance rather than pleasurable living. They were so depressingly sterile and ugly that they were, well, depressing.

I went canvassing around a block in Redfern that had replaced a former slum area, a rat- infested, junk-covered collection of run-down little houses that simply shrieked poverty and hopelessness.

The new block did seem free of rats. But it also was bereft of people. The corridors were carefully bent, so that you could not see your neighbour's door. Every door had a little peephole in it so that you could see who was there without having to actually answer it.

It reminded me of the nice lady who, early in the morning and again at night, cleaned the Savoy office building in Bligh St, years ago. She lived alone but told me she never answered the door if the bell rang: "It'll just be someone selling something."

What a sad, blighted life that poor woman led! But as I went round this block of flats, although I knew there were people in at least some of the flats, not one of them would open the door.

I grew up in a working class street. It was not a slum area by any means, although the house diagonally opposite only stood up by leaning on its next-door neighbour and had not seen a coat of pain in a very long time!

But the street's social life was typical enough: people sat on their front porch, on the box over the gas meter usually, and talked with everyone who came along, whether neighbour or stranger.

And of course, they talked with one another. All the time, about everything.

It was not until the Whitlam government's Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD) took over the former working class suburb of Glebe from the Anglican church that a better way to improve run down inner city housing was demonstrated.

DURD did not knock the houses down, but renovated or restored them. The community could retain its character, the inhabitants their relationships and social structures.

Fortunately, there are sufficient voices now in favour of retaining the original houses and character of inner city suburbs that wholesale slum clearance has not been seen for several decades.

However, there are big profits to be made from inner city property development. Even when the original houses are retained, if the social character of the suburb can be moved up market, then bigger prices can be asked for the renovated houses.

With state governments winding back the activities of their public housing departments in favour of private developers "servicing the needs of the community", the process of gentrifying the inner city suburbs is all the vogue.

You know how it works: selected old working class houses sometimes terraces, sometimes free-standing are bought and done up for rental. Then hip trendies, artists, young singles without kids, sometimes gay men or lesbians, are encouraged to live in them.

As property values and rents start to rise, the former inhabitants can no longer afford to go on living there. Upscale shops and trendy night-spots begin to appear.

In their wake come the "yuppies" and the job is done.

When capitalism had need of workers in areas close to or even in the heart of the city, it tolerated areas of working class housing in what today it would describe as a "dress circle" location.

But with industry moving out of the city, and workers expected to train or bus long distances to work, all that lovely "dress circle" real estate is now available for capitalism to market to its own hangers on.

The professionals, the sales and advertising wage slaves who think they are professionals, the suits and the trendies all those who fancy a sophisticated, urbane life style, until they decide it's time to raise a family (when it becomes de rigueur to move to the suburbs) are persuaded to move in to the former working class areas.

Another triumph for market forces!

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