A short history of the Glebe Squats 1972 to 1987
By Bill Holliday.
In 1948, associated with the County of Cumberland plan, the Department of Main Roads (DMR) drew up plans for radial city expressways two of which were the Western Expressway and the North Western Expressway.
Both expressways were to leave the city at Fig Street Ultimo, the flyovers over Darling Harbour are the first stage. The Western was to carry on through Glebe and then through Leichhardt and west towards Parramatta, much the same route as the M4. The North Western was to arch through northern Glebe and then lay waste to Rozelle west of Victoria Road, heading towards Hunters hill and Ryde. At that time the inner city terraces were considered slums and the road was slum clearance.
These expressways would have divided Glebe into three parts. When the DMR got around to actually starting them in the early 1970’s, people were starting to realise the value of living in the inner city and opposition was forthcoming from locals and university students for whom Glebe was home.
The Glebe Anti-Expressway Committee was formed by students and demonstrations such as marches down Glebe Point Road were held. Meanwhile the DMR was buying up the houses it needed to demolish (many forced sales at undervalued prices) and had left them empty. These houses had been broken into and everything of value had been stripped out of them: marble fireplaces, doors, skirting boards, plumbing, wiring, stoves and water heaters. Even houses which had not yet settled with the DMR, had this treatment.
The Glebe Anti-Expressway Committee managed to get the Builders Labourers Federation to put a Green Ban on any demolition for the expressways in late 1972 and in 1973 instigated the first squat of one of the empty houses in order to prevent further deterioration and an excuse for the DMR to call in the bulldozers. These squatters were evicted and charged but got off. Subsequent squats were not challenged except for two in the original stately home of the area, Lyndhurst in Darghan Street, where the squatters were twice evicted by the cops but not charged as the media was calling it an attempt to save the historic building.
The Glebe Society, the local residents group, were supportive but their support did not extend to squatting.
In 1974, the DMR brought in the bulldozers to demolish houses in Fig Street Ultimo and the Glebe Anti-Expressway Committee got wind of it the day before and organised a blockade to prevent demolition. Thirteen demonstrators were arrested on the roofs of the houses and from the path of the bulldozers and there was extensive coverage in the media. This Whitlam Labor government was in power in Canberra and Tom Uren’s department told the DMR that they would not get any more federal roads grants if they went ahead with the expressways.
As demolitions had been halted, squatting from 1974 onwards was low profile but hectic. It was not unknown for would-be squatters to select a house in the morning only to come back with their stuff in the afternoon to find another group had beaten them to it. In most cases the services had been disconnected so squatters used garden hoses and extension cords from still connected houses. Others dug up the street to reconnect to the water main or dug down to the sewer line to remove concrete tipped there by the DMR. Very soon every house was being lived in.
The houses remained in squatters’ hands for 13 years until 1987 when the DMR finally acknowledged that the expressways were never going to be built in that location and handed the houses over to the NSW Housing Commission. The squatters then became Housing Commission tenants and were moved to other houses nearby while the Commission did total renovations on the structurally sound houses or built new infill housing. These houses still stand today.
Over 13 years, babies were born, children grew up and people started and finished university courses, got jobs and generally got their lives together. A notable success story is Karl Kruszelnicki, originally known as Chevy Karl, for the car that he drove.