Fighting to save Sydney's working-class history

A protest sign, High St, Millers Point, Sydney, Australia Image copyright Sahlan Hayes

Australia's first public housing site and an area with deep roots in Sydney's history is being transformed into a millionaire's precinct thanks to a government plan to sell homes built for dock workers to developers.

Strolling along High Street in Millers Point, Barney Gardner points out the empty terrace houses that were once home to friends and neighbours.

"Margaret was born upstairs there, she inherited the lease from her father… she's gone," he says of one of his old friends.

"The lady in No 22 moved out under pressure; Pat's going," he says of two other neighbours. Someone else has died; another person appears to have moved on, and so on.

Image copyright Sahlan Hayes
Image caption Barney Gardner was born and bred in Millers Point

The humble homes in High Street, built at the beginning of the 20th century as part of a public housing estate, are dwarfed by Sydney's nearby central business district to the east. To the west, is a new precinct dubbed Barangaroo, once home to the city's wharves and warehouses but now earmarked for luxury residential towers, office blocks and a controversial six-star casino.

Sitting on prime real estate complete with city and harbour views, Millers Point's 11 streets of public housing were earmarked for sale in 2014 by the New South Wales state government. Local residents have been offered newer housing elsewhere in Sydney's suburbs.

Image copyright Sahlan Hayes
Image caption High St has witnessed the highs and lows of this inner-city suburb

The government says the A$500m ($360m, £233m) it stands to reap from the sale of the harbourside properties - close to the city's prestigious theatre district and the sandstone heritage area known as The Rocks - will be used to build much needed public housing in Sydney's southern suburbs, the Illawarra region and the Blue Mountains.

But Millers Point residents, many of them elderly, say they stand to lose family homes, a tight knit community and a working-class legacy that has been erased from the rest of inner Sydney.

Image copyright Sahlan Hayes
Image caption Barney is determined to fight on
Image copyright Sahlan Hayes

Fifty odd years ago, Millers Point was a thriving community of families and dock workers. A hundred years earlier, the area was home to seafarers and whalers, and a mercantile elite.

Before that, the Cadigal Aboriginal people speared fish and gathered shellfish from mudflats around the point.

Image copyright NSW State Library
Image caption The view across Millers Point, circa 1875-1885

Barney was born on the Point and has lived nowhere else.

The 66-year-old is a gentle, softly spoken man who is passionate about the Point.

The son of a seaman who "wasn't around much", Barney's parents divorced when he was 12. His brother was sent to a mental asylum at the age of 16.

"As a child I lived in No 12 with my mum, dad, my older brother and sister in a three-bedroom apartment," Barney tells the BBC.

"Later on, my brother moved away, my sister married and her and her husband along with her new baby lived with us. We did ask for another place but we were denied".

Image copyright Sahlan Hayes
Image caption Like many local residents, Barney has strong ties to Millers Point

Barney is among the 100 residents out of an original 400 people who are still living in public housing in Millers Point.

Since his election to a public housing tenants committee in 2013, the former labourer, shipping and council worker has acted as a spokesperson for residents who don't want to move.

He has studied the government's proposals, knows who to lobby to get residents' views heard and keeps an eye on his neighbours' health and welfare.

"I was born here, they were tough times," he recalls.

"No one wanted to live here, it had a stigma about it, but it was our home."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Residents have vented their anger at meetings about the sale of their homes to no avail

Not everyone has been able to keep up the fight.

One man whose terrace overlooks a brand new, landscape-designed apartment complex shows little interest in staying on.

"I'm going to Rookwood soon [in Sydney's west]. I'm 87, you can't beat age," he says, remembering more vibrant times.

But when Barney sees people being moved out of their homes, he sees the extinguishment of a working class community that in one way or another has been on the Point for almost 200 years.

'Only for the rich'

"Mums would sit on the footsteps of the houses and shell peas and string the beans for the meals, the men would be in the pub and having a laugh and they'd dutifully come back to their wives and have the evening meal," he recalls.

Image copyright Getty Images

As each week passes and another elderly resident is relocated or dies, the chances of saving this area for public housing becomes less likely.

"Here's this little village sitting there like a pimple in the middle of all this concrete, steel and glass and they're saying 'They shouldn't be living there'."

For the residents who remain, the fight goes on and at the forefront will be Barney Gardner, adamant he is going nowhere. He just might be the last man standing.

"Here is where I was born. Here is where I've lived and feel that I've contributed to this community, to this state, to this country.

"Because it's been gentrified, why am I not good enough to live here now?"

Image copyright Sahlan Hayes

Sahlan Hayes is a Sydney photo journalist.

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