A Modern Squattocracy

sayarsan's picture

Being descended from people who came late to this place and prospering from the dispossession of the original inhabitants is not a very proud heritage. This is utterly contrary to the popular wisdom and I won't deny the courage, tenacity, desperation, hope and strength that Australians have displayed since colonisation but the cloud still remains and the dispossession continues just like the tobacco industry while common sense and justice declare it should be dead fifty years ago. My Grandfather bemoaned the clearing of bush even while he was doing well out of shearing the sheep which grazed the clearings and for a couple of generations and more a hugely prosperous type of person was the rural squatter, especially in the western districts of Victoria. They form the closest thing to a ruling class this country ever had except for the English and later American capital. Now overshadowed by mining and agribusiness they still have an image of established influence. By the latter half of the century, the 1970's-80's to be precise there existed in Sydney at least and in Melbourne to a greater or lesser degree a movement of  generally young people who occupied dwellings in the inner city and established homes where many managed to settle and prosper. The fact that the land was already the property of landlords or the state who dispossessed the original owners, now departed, made it a palatable thing to do, although I feel certain now that many of our ancestors would have perceived the land they occupied as empty and up for grabs. They were wrong, we weren't.
 From memory I first became aware of this practice around '75, not happening when I was there in '73, people I knew were now entering and occupying houses in and around Woolloomoolloo, Kings Cross, Glebe, Ultimo, Pyrmont, and more. At first there was more availability and people could occupy several houses together which conveyed a feeling of security and community. The involvement of older, more mainstream anarchists established a precedent for certain principles, not enforced but stated at least and often shared. This milieu was responsible for establishing some excellent examples of low cost, inner city housing for themselves and others at a fraction of the cost the state could, while at the same time providing a network for people, especially the young, where certain needs like health, social services, legal aid and informal employment legal or otherwise could be met. I last went to Sydney in the early 90's and some houses were still being squatted down the hill at Pyrmont, mainly it seems because they are protected by a heritage listing.
In retrospect it was like an attempt, of sorts and successful too, at rehab after spending over five years secluded with Maggie in a rented flat or house operating a cottage industry that failed to realise much capital but secured a very cosy lifestyle that could have been terminal. Life as a full time student without the family support that generally goes with it is quite hard at the best of times. Some squatters had done their degrees while receiving Austudy, Unemployement or Sickness Benefit and Rent Assistance while squatting all the while but the tax file number put an abrupt end to all that in the late 80's. I was caught but not punished which strikes me as fair but only just, and so got part time work as a wardsman in a swank private hospital. The electricity and gas were never paid for because traditional methods had been employed to bypass such nonsense and life on the reservation was cosy indeed, helped along with Paracodin, valium and hoota, gear was there but only on holidays for me.
It will help to describe the layout of the properties we were squatting, two blocks of houses were divided into 'down the hill' and 'up the hill' with an upstairs downstairs complex that seemed to be in the heads of those swampies who lived down the hill. The swampies were distinguished by an inability to perceive any value in anything which didn't yield a short term reward, particularly intoxication and their perception that anybody who has more than them doesn't really deserve it laid the foundation for a fundamental human divide that has plagued our history.  Down the hill was a corner block comprising 10 houses and bounded by a main road and three small roads, two of which were split level so traffic wasn't too hectic except for the main road, Harris Street. The dwellings down the hill housed twenty or more people on an adhoc basis, the person coming in usually was bequeathed their place and there was little or no effort on the part of existing squatters over the nature or identity of new squatters. This facilitated the inclusion of  a number of young immigrants from Eastern Europe at a time when the Iron Curtain still stood. They were distinguished by their inventiveness and skill in most cases and some maintained contact with Europe. It was during this time that the dole was stopped for New Zealand citizens unless they had already been resident for six months and this constituted another migrant intake.  There were artists and stage workers, a few bikes but no gangs, young unemployed is a good description of most. Up the hill was a row of  six houses one of which was a workshop. The block faced a cul de sac and a 4-5m perpendicular stone cliff ran along the back and one side with a vacant lot on the second side. As things were it was like a natural fortification which had been supplemented with a high chainlink and barbed wire fence along the cliff top and side and the same height in corrugated iron and barbed wire at the front. Down the hill had fences but not the natural aspect that gave an air of invulnerability especially to outsiders and most swampies. The fifteen or so squatters up the hill comprised students, a professional or two, tradesmen, workers at public service, labouring, catering, small business, and health as well as the more usual unemployed, drug using punks who were tolerated as long as they kept it clean.
”Clean” varied depending on the people, two who were tradesmen disliked illegal drugs of any sort and especially heroin and speed. I.v. Drug use for them was a negation of one's humanity, fit only for animals or worse, and did little to hide their animosity at times. Their animosity was aggravated by instances of theft, especially tools from the workshop which were communal property and generally of good quality. Theft seemed to escalate with the amount of dealing going on so it was the dealing more than personal use that was disallowed. People violated the strict rule about i.v. Drugs discreetly and were tolerated  but this tolerance was dependant on their perceived contribution to the upkeep of the place both in goods and services so a contribution of a good quality tool fresh from a shop every month or so was generally sufficient baksheesh to keep them off one's case especially when participation in work like clearing rubbish, maintaining and extending the facilities could not be disputed. The final arbiter was the general meeting so it was important to attend if it seemed you might be under attack. There was a monthly levy of $5 which covered the cost of materials we couldn't steal and there was enough in the kitty to ensure plentiful quality food and drink for the two major feasts at the spring equinox and summer solstice. These events attracted up to a hundred people over two or three days, until the booze ran out sufficient was the fare, a dead animal from the meat works on the corner, seafood from the fish markets around the corner and the booze when not brewed came from the pub next door and was brought by many guests, plundered by others. The impoverishment of life on the dole often seemed like a winning battle and we were often happy.
It was a situation where friction was least when there was a project under way which could be something complex and prolonged or something quick and simple. The bath house was started before I got there but wasn't completed until more than a year after I arrived, a large room free standing on brick and beer bottle foundations with heavy timber cladding from the Navy wharves being demolished down the road. Perspex from the same site provided a safe see through roof especially wonderful on crisp, sunny, winter days and facilitated luxuriant plant growth while an enormous old cast iron bath tub enabled anyone to stretch out, the gas storage heater provided ample hot water and it attracted users from afar. The workshop had been a burnt out hulk and an undeclared rubbish dump until it was cleaned out and rebuilt with a new roof, three floors, loads of shelf and bench space and a place to lock the tools, all houses had been equipped with a sink and running water often hot and cold, gas stove, free electricity and gas, and glass windows where they hadn't been bricked in. An industrious and competent squatter when obsessed can clean a house of the century of filth and dust built up from inner Sydney and refurbish it with good floors, new roof screwed, glazing, security, plumbing, electricity, working fireplace, stove and hot water. There was nothing substandard although we didn't bother with inspectors or permits there was an electrician and two chippies plus a choice of labourers with varying degrees of expertise and people with children especially were accommodated far more satisfactorily than they could afford from the rental market or the housing commission.
The abundance of like minded people made for a cross pollination of knowledge, skills, and ideas. When I moved in I was living with an acquaintance who was a gun nut and pyromaniac with a good library gathered while doing his demolitions ticket at TAFE whether blowing up a fridge, playing with detonators, darts, blow pipes, air guns, fireworks, bikes and/or cars we amused ourselves without drugs which is atypical of the popular vision of squatters. Drugs were something most of us had some interest in even if only a few joints at night and were always available for money while efforts at growing pot were generally discouraged even by straight pot smokers afraid of police, most efforts failed due to theft. It wasn't perfect but it was close under the circumstances.  The mortality rate seemed a steady 1/yr and they were all accidents however tragic; a young man jumped off a railway bridge, another hanged himself and a third died of respiratory embarrassment after taking palfium, valium and booze  were the most I remember over four years but there may have been one or two more. General health was as good as the outside world and apart from a period of detox, mine was never better.
Eviction or the threat of it had inspired the fortification of the properties and was something always over our heads but usually easy to ignore. It was more urgent when the council who originally owned the properties threatened but they sold the places to the state Department of Housing (DoH) and for the duration of the Labor government under Wran they were quite secure, or so it seemed. The 15 years since the squats were established were a period of increasing value in the property market and by 1988 the land we occupied was a gem waiting to be cut. From the early 70's development was something which early squatters were resisting alongside a radical builders union and events in Victoria Street Kings Cross proved the developers to be dirty fighters indeed but by the late 80's the developers were more entrenched and influence on the government and courts was more systematic, in the end the Liberals got in and sold to private developers and the police did their dirty work. The developers are terribly greedy by inclination and wanted a lot more than our little piece of paradise.
Darling Harbour is massive and just across the train line, Ultimo/Pyrmont became terribly attractive to harbourside development and it wasn't just the squatters who resisted their incursions, the long term residents who weren't interested in profit from a quick sale began to dig in their heels and squatters were their natural ally. A local residents action group had been formed and found support in Frank Sartor, then on the Sydney City Council and there was always at least several squatters at the residents meetings, upwards of a dozen at particular council meetings. The squatters' ability to generate an instant block of loud, unkempt and often quite obnoxious support changed the tone of the debate away from the rubber stamp developers preferred. To argue coherently and effectively in a meeting gave some credibility to the noise of the crowd.
Generating support amongst our neighbours wasn't conditional on council meetings and was something that required constant attention. This constant attention was rewarded with support in different ways. There was a vacant block next door at the base of a cliff and it had become a site for dumped cars where inner city joy riders could dump and burn a car after they had gotten the joy out of it. Worse, it was thoroughly infested with castor oil bushes that also grew in the railway cutting alongside. Removing the hulks could only be achieved with the help of heavy equipment and across the road was an imposing block of apartments occupied largely by council employees. One of these organised a council truck to remove the derelict cars and provided a large load of topsoil and teams of squatters spent some weeks removing smaller rubbish and noxious weeds then planted grass to reclaim the land and create a park which was enough to impress anybody who has ever encountered an infestation of castor oil bush which has a lethal fruit. The park was in ways symbolic of the 'build' initiative which was echoed in the way the houses and facilities were put in place. Initiative like this establish a presence or claim to a place which is respected by people as a  whole and can only be understood after it has been achieved over a period of years, decades and longer. A group that lives together, works on and secures the property it occupies, eats and to a lesser extent sleeps together can establish sound relationships while the outside world offers little more than a secure dwelling in return for the capacity to pay rent.
It would be interesting to know what the bureaucrats from the Department of Housing thought when they came to negotiate with us, the mere fact that we were being negotiated with set us apart from those squats where the police could dislodge and evict, and the mess on the footpath cleared by the next day. Apart from the fortifications the attitude of “the only rent we pay is the fight we put up to keep the place” meant that the bad publicity generated by evictions from Glebe and Darlinghurst was mild compared with a campaign lasting days or longer. After initial introductions were made they inspected the places which by 1989 were housing a selection of tradesmen, students, nurses, small business people, even a couple of professional people which must have made them feel amongst their equals at least, one might say. A well spoken spectral figure looking like an inmate of Auschwitz was about as scary as it got for them and since they weren't financially committed an objective appraisal could be hoped for. We all, squatters and bureaucrats, endured long meetings where a rapport seemed to emerge, the bureaucrats had done their research and were acquainted with efforts to provide public housing in imaginative ways overseas and may have been surprised and interested by what they saw. A lengthy period of negotiations lasting months ensued where we established an arrangement so that the DoH could rebuild a site down the hill to accommodate low income tenants which the tenants would administer themselves, something like a limited autonomy in return for long term legal tenure. The process of preparing the articles of association was hard to endure for a collective like this but it was done in time for a changer of government which left the bureaucrats out of a job. The bottom line eventually emerged that our houses were going to be demolished while those down the hill could stay in the places protected by a National Trust listing. In no time at all, a couple of weeks it seemed, the houses had been picked over by those who had land to build on these were very few but at least some were long term squatters who had contributed much over the years. Those with no land had the option of DoH accommodation which some accepted at least for a time, some went to rent, and others went on to continue squatting in other places.
The factors that led to the emergence of this practice of squatting are not so different from those contributing to the emergence of the squatters early in Australia's history. The people who took the original decision to squat in Sydney did so from a position of strength. One couple I knew, original Darlinghurst squatters, were professionals he a vet she a teacher but this wasn't the source of strength. The initiative of those squatting from a stated political/philosophical perspective, those who could and did state their case eloquently and convincingly lent strength to a movement made largely from ranks of the disadvantaged including students, unemployed, artists, new arrivals, single mothers and eccentrics. By the end Pyrmont was able to provide accommodation even for a useless drunk evicted from his flop house until his nature exposed him as worse than any junky and it was a nursing mother who unilaterally gave him is marching orders not a general meeting, her action was endorsed by all. The lack of available low income housing became more evident during the 70's in Sydney and Melbourne while Brisbane and Adelaide are still quiet and parochial. Squatting emerged in Brisbane during Expo 88 which caused a huge influx of short term tenants but was only ever a token effort on the part of those who emulated contemporaries in the South. An availability of places is always a prerequisite for squatting and in Sydney at least this was provided by Main Roads which had bought up extensive tracts of Woolloomoolloo, Darlinghurst and Surrey Hills, Sydney Council owned the properties at Pyrmont and elsewhere, in Glebe the Anglican Church had owned many houses which had been left vacant and a growing number of places were being bought and left vacant by speculators in the real estate market all over. Rural squatting early in our history set a certain precedent and British Law also had allowances for squatting dating back to the early English commons. It may have been something of an urban legend but I heard of a man who had squatted in Woolloomoolloo long enough to claim the property (eleven years?) but the law was changed before he could establish his claim. Regardless of the veracity of the myth this provision did in fact exist in law up to that period. The precedent for squatting also existed in the modern British squatting movement and more than a few in Sydney travelled to and squatted in London and Europe where squatting reached its height and is done with an elan and savoire that makes it fashionable. Unlike the early rural squatters we were never endorsed by the government but there was some popular support which could be generated in different ways. Popular sentiment opposing development gave squatting unlikely allies such as Frank Sartor who went on to become Lord Mayor of Sydney. Legal loopholes are gone now and so has squatting of this type at least for now, the squats these days are dispersed and cannot develop the strength of a large occupation but I am sure there are a large number doing it with varying degrees of flair. Australia models itself more on the Pacific than on England now and the tradition of squatting is far different. Asian cities have something of a tradition where growing congestion in major cities has produced extensive slums something like in South America and to a lesser degree North America, different from the traditions in Europe and probably the future of squatting more and more around the world. Squatting requires a broad range of skills which is why a cohesive group of sensible and adaptable people usually have the most success. Some of the skills will require special tools of course but be warned that possession of many of these tools is an offence in some States of Australia and having them on your person while on the street after 9:00pm will likely  get you a trip to the nearest lock-up.

Toby Zoates, one of the original Pyrmont squatters did many murals including this one in Darlinghurst which Paul Kelly borrowed for his song.