Brooks Crescent: How North Fitzroy residents defeated Goliath
By Charlie Gill
This is the second instalment in The Rotunda’s ongoing series of articles highlighting the community activism of North Fitzroy residents throughout its history. The story of Brunswick Street Oval (as told in the September issue); the freeway planned to cut through Alexandra Parade; the state government’s efforts to close Fitzroy High School and the Fitzroy Pool... Over the last five decades, the efforts of activists have completely shaped what North Fitzroy is today.
Imagine a hi-tech satellite was placed in our night sky with its eye trained on North Fitzroy, recording its movements over time. It would capture an urban environment incessantly shifting in its seat: pause at Winter 2020 and you’ll see an eerily quiet Edinburgh Gardens, fast-forward to Spring 2021 and you’ll see a contrastingly busy one. But should you rewind 50 or so years – and divert your gaze ever-so-slightly westward – you’ll bear witness to arguably the most consequential event in North Fitzroy history.
In the backstreets of North Fitzroy lies a tiny bit of parkland named Brookes Crescent (then spelt Brooks Crescent), in the middle of an area bordered by Nicholson Street, Rae Street, Church Street and Reid Street. In 1969, an ordinary-looking letter from the government was delivered to every residence on the block. It carried extraordinary news: The Housing Commission was assuming control of every home in the area – no ifs, buts or maybes.
Conscious of Brooks Crescent’s significant Italian population, the Commission was considerate enough to include a translation but not competent enough to make it comprehensible. “Fare buon viso a Cattivo Sorte” it said, translating as: “Smile to your bad luck”.
The Housing Commission was seizing control of every home in the area - no ifs, buts or maybes.
To the residents, the monumental decision may have seemed sudden. But this letter first began writing itself many decades earlier when the government adopted a policy of ‘slum reclamation’ in the 1930s. In the first half of the twentieth century, pockets of inner-city Melbourne were defined by their poor housing and living conditions, viewed by many as unfit for human habitation. The Housing Commission embarked on a plan to clear the blocks of these slums and erect highrise public housing towers in their place.
This is the origin of the Atherton Gardens estate in Fitzroy, where everything inbetween Brunswick Street, Gertrude Street, Napier Street and King William street was demolished in the mid-1960s. The estate has since become one of the suburb’s most recognisable landmarks with huge cultural significance (last year, residents prepared a bid to have the estate listed on the Victorian Heritage Register). But its construction came at a cost: the pain of working-class residents in the Fitzroy ‘Narrows’ who were forced to watch their community be bulldozed.
Those bulldozers were ominously making their way up Brunswick Street. In 1967, the Commission approved plans to clear the block in North Fitzroy and in 1969 they sent that infamous letter. So begins the story of Brooks Crescent: the struggle of North Fitzroy residents to keep their homes in the face of a powerful Commission determined to bury them. At first, the battle lines were not fully drawn out – the Commission was, of course, simply wanting to construct cheap flats for people who needed them.
In the transcription of Social Justice Walk of North Fitzroy (a walk organised by the Fitzroy History Society in 2002), civil engineer and key organiser Barry Pullen (who later became the State Minister for Housing) explains the thinking of some at the time:
“We thought that maybe some of the houses weren’t too good. People also felt that the Commission wasn’t so bad in that there was a need for affordable housing and that maybe, in providing more modern dwellings, they were doing good for people.”
But a survey of the houses’ occupants in August 1969 elucidated some important information.
Around 60% of the people were working-class migrants, who “appreciated the quality of the dwellings long before the Australian middle class did”, as Barry says.
In his inaugural speech to the Victorian parliament, he describes how “the very people who were meant to be assisted by the Commission were the sorts of people who were living in those houses at the time”.
This was not a case of NIMBYism. The residents who lived on the designated block weren’t protesting development in their backyard, they were protesting development on it. The Commission had decided their houses – “occupied by people were trying to make them into decent homes” – were headed for oblivion.
But it was always going to be difficult to thwart the Housing Commission, which had begun using dodgy tactics before the reclamation was even announced. As a young man, Methodist minister-cum-Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe became involved in the struggle, having recently returned from Chicago. Brian, who lived in North Fitzroy from 1969 to 1996, told The Rotunda that “there was something fundamentally dishonest about the way they operated”.
"A lot of the housing that they were calling a slum wasn’t in appalling shape. They were eminently fixable.”
Barry explains that the Commission had been buying homes “by private treaty” that “often fell into neglect, as they weren’t tenanted, and they were demolished”.
Resultingly, a broad coalition of young professionals, migrants, long-time residents and factory owners banded together to defeat the Commission. Various individuals became known for their effort and passion, such as panel beater Jack Strochi, resident Daisy Croft and shoe factory manager Norman Yarr.
Jack Strochi was a war-hero from Italy who constructed a crucifix with barbed wire, adorned with the words “they are crucifying us in Brooks Crescent” (pictured below). Meanwhile, there was no one who embodied the fight more than seventy-something Daisy Croft (and her shotgun). She refused to sell out to the Commission. A woman’s home is her castle.
Doncaster resident Norman Yarr, who worked at Porter’s shoe factory in the area, was essential to what Brian calls “a symbiotic relationship” between the factories and the residents. After the Commission ignored a proposal for an alternative plan, Norman convinced factory owners to work together with the residents to take the Commission to court.
Their first trip to court was in 1971. The judge ruled that the Commission hadn’t adequately explained why every house had to be destroyed, so a hearing was scheduled, giving the Commission time to present a better argument.
But that wouldn’t be for another couple of years. In the meantime, the Commission continued buying houses, neglecting them and destroying them. The union put a ban on demolition, but workers ignoring the strike stealthily entered Brooks Crescent at the break of dawn. Some would rise in the early hours and try to scare off the workers as they started demolition on the houses.
Norman and Barry had created an inventory of each home in Brookes Crescent that revealed the Commission’s dishonesty. Houses that the Commission said had peeling paint and faulty weatherboards were, in actuality, brick houses. In the period after the first hearing, the Commission relentlessly weakened both the roofs of homes and the spirits of those who lived around them. The area was in a greater decline than it had been when the judge ruled the injunction, and thus the chances of victory were decreased. Subsequently, none of this information would ever go to court. The second court hearing rolled around, but as Barry says, “the residents risked losing everything” (forced to pay for their own legal fees and the Commission’s). In September 1973 they withdrew their case.
But all was not lost. As Barry says, “they had been a David beaten by a Goliath with all the resources”, and it was only a lack of funds that had forced them to withdraw. Meanwhile, public awareness continued to grow and in December of 1973, the residents and activists were invited to form a deputation to Premier Dick Hamer. A compromise was forged – the Fitzroy Council and Housing Commission would work together to repair and rebuild the area. There would be no high-rise. The Commission, no doubt, were certainly not smiling about their bad luck.
It was a long and arduous campaign, but the residents had won. As Brian Stagoll, organiser of the Social Justice Walk of North Fitzroy puts it: “I have a view that a community needs a sort of shit fight every few years. Just to remind them where they’re from”.
The pride of Jack Strochi, the fortitude of “Aussie Battler” Daisy Croft, the smarts of Norman Yarr and the leadership of those such as Barry and Brian – together, these individuals (among many others) forced a landmark decision with reverberations that would be felt throughout the entire country for decades. Paul Madden, a housing researcher involved in the campaign, told The Rotunda that Brookes Crescent was the “trailblazer” that led to “a pretty major turnaround in housing policy”. In the lead up to the 1973 state election, Premier Hamer put out a press release – slum clearance was over.
"A community needs a sort of shit fight every few years. Just to remind them where they're from."
Meanwhile, Brian’s sphere of influence soon grew to encompass not just the back streets of North Fitzroy but the nation’s halls of power. As Minister of Housing, Minister for Social Security, Deputy P.M to both Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and senior member of the Labour Left, he pioneered reform in many areas.
“There were good motives for the slum reclamation policy in the 1930s, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s it was totally inappropriate”, he told The Rotunda. “I thought we needed a different model of public housing. Essentially if you concentrate low-income people in large estates, you tend to concentrate poverty, and you tend to isolate and marginalise people who are less advantaged.”
“I was working towards a concept of social housing, that was much more universal if you like, that gave people a choice to rent, in circumstances where the housing was a reasonable quality and was located in areas of people’s choice.”
Indeed, the majority of people living in the Brookes Crescent block today are in low-rise social housing (as of the 2016 census, 54 percent of households), which is by far the highest percentage in North Fitzroy and one of the highest in the entire City of Yarra.
“I was certainly much more driven by equity than ensuring we didn’t knock down old houses”, Brian said.
An article in The Canberra Times from 1995, after he resigned as Deputy Prime Minister, asserted that “no one has ever doubted his commitment to social justice” but that “the party was looking for a new face”. It ends with the following:
“He has the consolation of knowing that not many members of his party can claim to have made so much difference to the lives of people like those he once served in another capacity in Fitzroy.”