'HOMES': An exhibition About Public Housing / Celeste de Clario Davis

'HOMES': An exhibition About Public Housing / Celeste de Clario Davis

‘HOMES’: An exhibition about Public Housing.
Exhibited at Collingwood Gallery in August 2017.

The catalyst for this exhibition was the Victorian Government’s decision to “renew” the public housing “walk-ups” in the Inner North of Melbourne.

In May 2017, the residents of the Walker St estate in Northcote learned that their homes would be demolished. Immediately afterwards, I was a witness to the confusion, distress, and fear of the people who lived there.

The term “Walk-up” seems unique to public housing. The ubiquitous flats have lifts but low-rise public housing doesn’t. To access them you must walk up! More people (in total) live in walk-ups than in the flats. But the estates are smaller and spread throughout Melbourne. The Walker estate sits at the intersection of Merri Creek and High St.  

There are around 85 homes at Walker st, mostly housing families. Designed in the 1950s and built into the early 1960s, they evoke the ideals and imperatives of that era: as if built to withstand a nuclear bomb. Decades of neglect seem to echo the broader societal attitude to the underclasses. According to audit reports, DHS lacks any meaningful records of maintenance.

There is little dispute that these estates should be renewed. Neglect has occurred over decades and cannot continue forever. Fires at Grenfell (UK) and Napier St (Fitzroy) highlight the risk of poorly-maintained public homes.

In spite of this, the government’s plans are not the “renewal” of public estates. Instead, the Walk-ups will be demolished and the land sold to developers. New developments will be private with a social component. The public estate will no longer exist and there will be no public housing, even though there may be some public tenants. Existing tenants will still have somewhere to live. However, their new homes will be in the outer suburbs.

The Merri Creek has grown around the Walker Estate, comparable to 1950s bomb shelters behind a small forest. Westgarth is otherwise a heritage area, and the estate “fits” in a curious way. The new development will be 8 stories-high, likely just any other modern apartment complex. The Merri's identity will lose one of its essential components and the public - all of us - will have given away another asset.

Public housing remains integral in the Yarra area whilst buildings dominate the skyline and residences are woven into the fabric of our community. Yet, public housing is becoming invisible, and this invisibility allows the State and Federal governments to push for policies that diminish and might one day eradicate the richness of public housing in our community. The plan of developing these 'prime location' public housing units into private homes is unfair.

Public housing is so important to our community and reducing the presence of public homes in this area will create a loss of culture and diversity. This is why the northern parts of Melbourne are so attractive as they have a history of cultural diversity.

It would be incredibly interesting to see the Victorian Government instigate plans to combine and integrate Public & Private housing in locations that are not quite as of a catch as the Inner North.

Rebuild the flats! Make them safe for residents! But in the process of doing so avoid the cunning hypocrisy of selling the land off to developers who will sell those apartments for a ridiculous amount and in doing so leave behind and forget the people who once lived here and will never be able to again.  

I hope to raise awareness of this issue through my photography and encapsulate the importance and history of these homes before our world changes. This is a pivotal time in Melbourne and I believe it's important that it is documented.

Every person deserves a home. Public housing is an essential part of our society. I hope to make people more aware of this transformation. To have a home, a sanctuary, a place of familiarity, safety – this is an essential part of the human experience.

This should be acknowledged, nurtured and given to all.

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