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Australia Most of Melbourne's slum pockets were demolished, but a few survived

00:05  18 january  2021
00:05  18 january  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a car parked on a city street: A composite image showing David St, Carlton in the 1930s and in 2020. (Supplied: State Library of Victoria / ABC News: Tim Callanan) © Provided by ABC News A composite image showing David St, Carlton in the 1930s and in 2020. (Supplied: State Library of Victoria / ABC News: Tim Callanan)

The only reason a photo of Ward's Lane exists is because the street was considered a good example of a terrible place to live.

Social reformer F Oswald Barnett came to take a photo of it in the early 1930s as part of his campaign to rid Melbourne of its slums.

It was a grim, tough-looking little street behind St Vincent's Hospital in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.

In Barnett's photo, everything seems to lean — the fences, the walls, the telegraph poles — nothing looks even.

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You can make out strips of barbed wire on top of a fence along the length of the right-hand side of the photo, parallel to a nasty-looking gutter that runs down the centre of the lane.

At the end of the lane stands a battered and crooked wooden gate on which you can read 'BEWAR of DOG' in white paint.

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Ward's Lane is long gone now, absorbed into the medical precinct around the hospital.

Doctors are now trained in the building on the left, which has replaced the dank brick houses in Barnett's photo.

It's hard to imagine this used to be someone's home.

Barnett photographed dozens of these slum pockets in Melbourne's inner suburbs, and his images provide an opportunity to see not only what the city has lost, but what it's managed to keep.

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The 'holy war' to rid Melbourne of its slums

"The slums are prisons in which many of our young lives are damned from birth, with very little hope of escape," Barnett wrote in one of his typically emotive columns in Melbourne's The Herald in 1934.

A devout Methodist, Barnett did more to highlight conditions in Melbourne's poorest suburbs than any other person of his time.

In his mind, poor-quality housing and social decay were linked, and it was vital that one be destroyed before it led to the other.

"We have a great and holy war ahead of us, and it should arouse within us no less a flame than burned in the hearts of Englishmen who determined to abolish slavery," he wrote.

Barnett's pamphlet The Unsuspected Slums was essential reading for those who desired to see Melbourne's slums replaced by the kind of housing befitting a city hoping to rise again from the horrors of the Depression.

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To hammer home his point, Barnett took dozens of photographs to show just how dreadful conditions were.

He took detailed notes with each photograph, often using the opportunity to engage in some pointed moralising.

"Both were under the influence of liquor," he wrote beneath a photograph of two women holding their infants in a doorway in Carlton.

"It is stated that there is at least one child in every house in this street who has had diphtheria," he wrote beneath another.

Barnett's photos are held in the State Library of Victoria.

They are a comprehensive visual record of life in Melbourne's poorest suburbs in the wake of the toughest economic period the city has known.

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Some of the areas photographed by Barnett are unrecognisable, with their buildings knocked down and replaced, but some have barely changed.

The buildings, lanes, chimneys, gutters and telephone poles in many of the photos are still there.

It's a reminder that the great project of urban renewal to get rid of Melbourne's slums was never really finished.

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In Barnett's mind, density meant disorder and disease

Barnett's campaign to rid Melbourne of its slums led directly to the establishment of the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, which in turn led to the creation of the Housing Commission.

Emeritus Professor of History at Monash University Graeme Davison believes Barnett was ahead of his time in recognising the need for better housing, even if he was approaching the issue from a socially conservative point of view.

"He inherited a set of ideas from the 19th century that often equated density with disorder and disease and general moral breakdown, and he carried those ideas into it," Professor Davison said.

"He's studying [the slums] at the end of the Great Depression when there were indeed a lot of people in severe destitution and where epidemic diseases of all kinds were also rife, so they were pretty tough areas."

"A lot of it was fairly cheaply-constructed timber housing which was, in terms of its construction, pretty poor."

Thousands of homes in the areas photographed by Barnett were condemned, but World War II combined with the slow wheels of bureaucracy meant that many of them escaped demolition.

Post-war migration meant there was no shortage of people willing to move in to those areas close to the city that others may have wanted to abandon.

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Barnett's idea was to tear down the slum areas and move the people into housing estates further out of the city.

The plan was to improve the standard of living for the city's most vulnerable, while providing much-needed jobs in the wake of the Great Depression.

It's the same principle the State Government applied in 2020, with its plan to build 12,000 new homes for social housing while creating more than 40,000 jobs in the process.

"He's a bit of a hero in the sense that I think he vividly saw the need of people on very low incomes for better housing, but he also saw an opportunity to help lift the society as a whole out of the worst of the Depression," Professor Davison said.

Barnett's vision of low-level housing estates was largely overlooked, with the Housing Commission instead building the high-rise towers that dot the areas just outside the CBD.

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Professor Davison believes Barnett would have been very disappointed at how his social housing vision was ignored.

"The Housing Commission opted to go for high-rise towers at the very moment when around the rest of the world they were becoming subject to criticism," he said.

"Elsewhere in the world many of those high-rise towers have now been demolished, and it may well be that in the fullness of time that's what will happen here."

Once a slum, this is now a street of million-dollar houses

There are no trees, and no cars in the picture.

Two small figures in the distance appear to be dogs.

On the right-hand side, in an empty lot, broken bricks are strewn near a filthy gutter.

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On the left-hand side, draped over a grim and dirty timber fence, staring at the camera, is a girl.

The dogs would be long dead, and the girl — if she's still alive — would be in her nineties.

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The buildings, with their creaking verandahs and slanted fences, should be long demolished, but they're not.

Now, there are cars where the dogs were and the girl's been replaced by wheelie bins.

Everything else — the buildings, the road, the gutters — are all still there.

The great slum clearance that started in the 1930s took the people from David Street, but left the buildings behind.

The demand for houses in the inner suburbs is still strong

There are dozens of streets like David Street across Melbourne's inner suburbs, once home to some of the city's poorest people but now some of the most desirable real estate in the country.

Fitzroy, Carlton and Richmond all now boast median house prices well over a million dollars.

I bumped into Lucy Minshall as she was moving in to her new home in Little Charles Street, in Abbotsford.

Mentions of Little Charles Street appear regularly in newspapers from the 1920s and 1930s, but they are rarely complimentary.

Mostly it crops up in stories about petty crime or violence.

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In 1940, a couple tried to buy four terrace houses in the street, only to find that the properties had been condemned as "unfit for human habitation" by the Housing Commission.

Eighty years later, most of those old buildings have been replaced but a few remain.

Lucy moved to Melbourne from Sydney a few years ago and was drawn to the city's inner suburbs with their narrow streets and century-old houses.

"In Sydney, they seem to just knock everything down and build brand new buildings and I think it's really nice to keep that history and have some of the old Melbourne in amongst everything," she said.

"It gives it character and more of a presence, I think."

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