The economic depression of the 1930s saw mass unemployment across Australia with working class areas hit hardest. These depredations did not go unopposed as across the city pickets, occupations and protests were organised to demand jobs and welfare as well as disrupt and prevent the evictions of unemployed people. A history walk visiting some of the sites of some of Melbourne’s fiercest unemployed and anti-eviction battles in the northern suburb of Brunswick was originally held in 2009 as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. A version was recorded and edited by Nicole Hurtubise, produced by Jane Curtis and Community Radio 3CR, and funded by the Office of Public Records Local History grant program. It was originally hosted on the People’s Tours website. To listen to tales of the Barkly Street Commune, Phoenix Street Free Speech fight and more click here.
The following article by Elliot Lamb discusses the squatting of a 20 room mansion in Kings Cross in 1946 and the campaign that grew around this action. It is available here as a fully footnoted PDF: The Squatting of Maramanah.
The Squatting of Maramanah
Less than a year after the end of WWII, a group of returned servicemen and their families began squatting in Maramanah, a 20-roomed mansion in Kings Cross, Sydney. The house had been bought two years earlier by the City Council, who had imminent plans to demolish it at the time of the occupation. For three months the squatters successfully lived there rent-free, before being charged hostel rates as a result of fierce campaigning by local politicians. Examining newspaper reports and letters to the editor from the time, the story of the Maramanah squat can be pieced together. In its first week it was subject to national media coverage, with the inhabitants often being portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic light. Reports of donations and working bees as well public expressions of admiration for the squatters’ controversial response to the very real problem of a lack of housing in postwar Australia reflect a high level of public support. However, their actions were largely condemned by politicians, some of who sought to paint the squatters as lawless communists and vandals. When two more squats started up in Sydney during the week following the seizure of Maramanah, fears of a squatting “epidemic” were expressed by politicians and real estate agents, followed quickly by reports of communist activity in the squat, the veracity of which was dubitable. Media coverage of Maramanah petered out soon after and it is uncertain who lived there during the eight years that it functioned as a hostel before being demolished in 1954.
On Wednesday 20 March 1946, between eight and ten people began squatting in Maramanah, a council-owned mansion of 20 rooms in King’s Cross, Sydney, which was in danger of being demolished to expand the neighbouring Fitzroy Gardens. The occupation of the building was not without precedent, as Australia had seen extensive anti-eviction campaigns as well as instances of people squatting new houses during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. The original squatters of Maramanah, at times referred to as the “invasion force” by the media, were described by The Argus as “two young married couples, with two other men, all carrying hurricane lamps, stretchers, blankets, and candles” as well as “four other homeless people.” The Argus’ sympathetic portrayal of the squatters revealed that they were two law students, a chemical worker, an airman, an ex-soldier, and an ex-RAAF serviceman. One of the law students, 21-year-old Alexander Dunlop, explained that “We have done everything to find a home, but it is hopeless, so we decided that this was the only way out [...] We can sleep here. We cannot sleep in parks,” probably referring to the City Council’s plans to demolish the building to make more room for the park next door. Other reports do not pay much attention to the voices of the squatters, but still reflect the necessity behind their actions, describing them as “house-hungry,” “home-hungry,” or “homeless,” and lent them a level of legitimacy by stating that among the squatters are returned soldiers, such as Ted Loughran, an ex-RAAF member, who was widely reported to have promptly begun an application for legal tenancy at the mansion. These same reports from the first days of the squat quoted Lord Mayor Bartley as saying “the city has not yet been given over to jungle law,” an unwavering censure of the squatters’ actions.
The following pieces concerning the Sydney Broadway Squats and actions by the Sydney Housing Action Collective (SHAC) originally appeared in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) newspaper Direct Action in 2000 and 2001. For plenty more on SHAC just click on the tag Sydney below.
The following story about the 1980s squatting scene is by Rohan Wightman. It first appeared on Radio National’s 360 Documentary website in 2014.
A Stranger Changed My Life
I fled the suburbs to the city with my mates, Paris and Stoffy. They were fleeing the cops. I was fleeing boredom. We opened a squat on Hoddle Street, a thin terrace house wedged between two empty houses. The traffic never stopped and trains shrieked into the station behind us.
Friends came around, bongs were shared, beers drained and conversations flared. They were yobs, loyal and loving to each other, nasty and brutal to outsiders. I was lost, and in them found an alternative to the pre-ordained career and marriage path of suburbia.
It was a quiet night, Bowie on the stereo, a cloud of pot in the air. A knock on the door startled us from our reverie. Two punks stood there, one with a two foot bright red mohawk, his companion, young and thin, peered down the corridor.
Taken aback by this pair of exotic wonderment, ‘hello’ stumbled from my lips, ‘think you’ve got the wrong place.’
‘No,’ smiled red Mohawk. ‘I’m Nick, this is Crissie,’ the woman next to him smiled. ‘Cops just kicked us out of our squat. Hoping we could move next door.
I invited them in, offered bongs while Paris glared and Stoffy’s desiring eyes undressed Crissie.
The houses were soon filled with colourful ragged strangers who became friends. Most days they sat in our lounge-room, joined me in market expeditions and I them in protest actions.
My suburban friends, frequent visitors still, were unsettled by these newcomers with their radical ideas and queer politics. Anger seethed in the grimy air.
‘I couldn’t be your friend if you were gay,’ declared my best friend Stoffy. Our friendship is no more than a dandelion in the breeze I thought, as I walked away. I didn’t know what I was and didn’t really care.
That night my new found mates and I piled into my car. My parents were away. With a hidden key the house was ours. We watched videos and shared all we had.
Late morning’s light revealed a burnt out car in the lane behind our squat. ‘My car,’ moaned Steve, ‘what the hell happened?’ We stumbled from my car into the house. Paris, wild eyed on speed screamed, ‘you took those stinking punks away and left us here.
‘They’ve got names, this is Nick, and Crissy, that’s Steve and Billy, there’s Liz and Troy. Don’t call them punks.’
Paris speared a metal pole into the wall near Nick’s head. ‘They’re just stinking punks to me.’
My suburban friends left soon after, shaking their heads as I chose to stay.
‘This is for you,’ said Nick, as the last of them walked away. He pressed a tape into my hand. ‘Side one’s Crass, the other is Zounds. It’s not quiet Bowie but I think you’ll like it.’ His red Mohawk fluttered as he smiled at me.
I opened the door to him, a stranger, only two months before, and my life was changed evermore.
In June 1993 squatters from the group Direct Action Against Homelessness (DAAH) took over properties located between 76-80 Catherine St, Forest Lodge. The University of Sydney had left these empty for three years after evicting the former residents who had lived there for decades. With around 30 people taking part the group began repairing the houses with the aim of creating a community living space featuring a bike workshop, tool library, kids rumpus room, communal garden and rehearsal space. Running a high profile media campaign DAAH were evicted after 8 days, but went on to squat two more empty properties owned by the university in July. News articles about the squats can be found here. A day by day account of the occupation can follows via the press releases below.
Although BLF Green Bans and concerted resident campaigns during the first half of the 1970s saved much of the historic Rocks area from demolition tourism related gentrification and speculation saw developers and the state government continue to move working class Sydneysiders out of the suburb. On July 19th 1981 members of the The Rocks Push and Squatters Support Group barricaded themselves into an empty building at 138 Cumberland St to highlight the fact that 59 properties in the area were sitting empty, including one from which squatters had recently been prevented from using as a community centre. The following photos and articles appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and Telegraph.
An attempt at humour on behalf of the Telegraph… Read more
The following text is an excerpt from Jeremy Kay’s Honours thesis, entitled “Politics of Appropriating Social Space: The Balloon Factory and Beyond”, which was completed in 2004. The thesis is a study of how social movements view and use appropriated space. It drew on the author’s experiences with the 2003 Balloon Factory squat and can be downloaded from here.
Photos by Moz. More images of the Balloon Factory can be viewed here.
Prologue: The Balloon Factory
Walk up King Street today and you can still catch glimpses of Newtown’s radical counterculture and working class history – if you look hard. On the walls in between the ultra-trendy music shops, designer hair salons and overpriced cafes, political posters and graffiti appear every now and again (although on closer inspection some of those stencils are actually viral marketing for the latest ‘urban’ clothing brand). And when ‘Gloria Jeans’ opened up on King Street (the first of the multinational coffee chains to appear in Newtown), it got plastered with anti-corporate stickers. The winding rows of leafy terraces behind King Street are home to quite a few students, punks, greenies, socialists and unemployed – the people whose lives ‘don’t add up’ as Howard warned in his antiterrorism kit. Of course it seems like these households are always getting evicted to make way for renovation and resale to some yuppie who loves the Newtown ‘bohemian village feel’. Every now and again a whole row of terraces gets knocked down and ‘developed’ into yet another block of apartments – an efficient way to raise and multiply the number of rents collected. Like hundreds of similar neighbourhoods in cities around the world Newtown is going through a furious (and extremely profitable) process of gentrification; its working-class roots and subversive culture are being sterilized and repackaged, commodified and co-opted in a bourgeois re-territorialisation of the inner-city.
If you keep walking up King Street past the police sniffer dogs at Newtown station and towards St Peters, you’ll see one of the aforementioned apartment blocks being built. 622 King Street will be as square and bland as the others. But if you’d been standing outside 622 King Street on the evening of Thursday 11th September 2003, you would have seen instead a slightly run-down two storey building, painted with hundreds of coloured balloons on an electric blue background. A vast sign advertising ‘Balloon Inflation’ would loom above you but a smaller notice on one of the shop’s windows reads ‘We have moved to Enmore’. In fact, the building you’re looking at has been empty for over a year – the previous tenants (a balloon decoration company and a fruit shop) were evicted to make way for a ‘development’ which has not yet arrived. Curiously, in spite of this fact, the door to the building is open.
After being squatted for 13 years the Hat Factory was evicted on 31st July. Around 50 police cordoned off half of Wilson St, Newtown from 3.30pm, but due to extensive barricading took three hours to get through a door with a circular saw and then secure the building. Originally used for housing, in recent years the space had also served as a social centre hosting a free library, bicycle workshop, gig space and an open kitchen. No one was in the building at the time of the eviction. Squatters had thwarted two previous attempts by council health and safety officers to inspect the property before the owner sent in the police. They are planning to appeal their eviction to the Tenancy Tribunal as the owner had previously given them permission to use the site. An interview with a former resident can be heard here.
More chronologies from Squat It! outlining the SUV’s activities during 1988 and 1989. Unfortunately the chronologies for September-October 1988 are missing as we do not have a copy of issue #16. If anyone can help out then please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org