Sasha is a teenager living with her mother, Charmaine, in the public housing multi-storey estate of Northcott. Charmaine says that it is safer for her daughter playing nearby because many people know her and she is nearby.
Northcott, in Surry Hills, Sydney has a bad name for social problems. It is called ‘death flats’ but Charmaine and Sasha are happy to live there.
This clip shows a mother, Charmaine, and her teenage daughter, Sasha, talking about the positive aspects of living on the Northcott public housing estate in Surry Hills in Sydney, New South Wales. It opens with a shot of John Northcott Place, a high-rise tower on the estate. Sasha then describes the games she and her friends played as children in and around the high-rise building. Her mother arrives and describes the comparative safety of the Northcott estate and its surrounds, where ‘everybody knows who Sasha is’, and compares it with the anonymity of more traditional housing.
Educational value points
- In this clip from 900 Neighbours Sasha suggests that the negative image of Northcott estate has been fed by sensationalist media coverage of public housing estates that focuses on crime and mental illness. Northcott estate and its buildings have been described in the media as ‘suicide towers’, ‘vertical slums’ and ‘housing commission hell’.
- Charmaine suggests that the Northcott estate is a secure environment in which to bring up a child because a large community of neighbours know her daughter. Charmaine’s experience contradicts the widely held view that high-rise housing estates may be harmful or risky places for children and suggests that, despite the social problems that exist at these estates, some residents can develop a sense of community.
- While Charmaine and Sasha give a positive account of life at the Northcott estate, other residents of high-rise housing estates find that supervising children playing in the streets from many floors up is difficult, and unlike children, older residents often feel a sense of isolation and alienation. This isolation was underlined in 2006 by the discovery in a unit at the Northcott estate of the skeleton of a 62-year-old man who had died 6 months earlier.
- Since the 1980s high-rise public housing has been increasingly associated with social problems that stem in part from the inhabitants’ higher levels of unemployment and the decision by the NSW Government to integrate people with mental illnesses into the community by accommodating them in public housing. Public housing provides accommodation for people on low incomes, single parents, unemployed people, frail elderly people, people with a mental illness or a physical disability and former prisoners.
- The Northcott estate in Surry Hills includes the first high-rise apartment block built by the New South Wales Housing Commission (which became the NSW Department of Housing in 1986). The 14-storey John Northcott Place, which was officially opened by the Queen in 1963, is the largest single block of public housing apartments in Australia and has 428 units. The estate also includes 163 walk-up flats and is home to about 900 residents. Twenty streets of mainly terrace housing were demolished to make way for the estate.
- The Northcott public housing estate was built as part of the NSW Housing Commission’s slum clearance program and to meet the housing needs of low-income earners. In the 1940s the newly created NSW Housing Commission identified inner-city suburbs in Sydney such as Surry Hills and Redfern as slums and began to demolish substandard housing and build high-density dwellings. The slums were often a result of overcrowding, caused by a housing shortage that pushed up rents and forced many working-class families to share accommodation.
- In the 1950s high-rise flats were promoted by politicians and the media as a solution to the slum housing problem. For example, in 1955 Picture Post ran an article entitled ‘Build high to clear the slums’. The high-rise flats built in the following decades were, however, frequently criticised for their box-like appearance, which many residents found alienating. Some residents also felt isolated and missed the community of the street, although at the time the flats provided modern amenities that were lacking in slum dwellings.
- The film 900 Neighbours was produced by Big hART, a community group that uses art to bring about social change and that began working with Northcott residents in 2001. With projects such as the highly successful play Stickybricks, Big hART fostered a sense of connectedness and belonging among residents, as well as promoting a more positive image of the estate in the wider community. Big hART worked in partnership with the NSW Department of Housing and agencies such as the police.
- In 2006 the World Health Organization recognised the Northcott estate as a ‘safe community’. Since Big hART came to Northcott, crime rates have dropped and some residents feel that the estate is a safer environment. This may be due to an emphasis on preventing social isolation among residents, who now feel empowered to respond to issues of crime and safety as a community.
Sasha shows the filmmaker around the estate.
Sasha, Northcott estate resident I think lots of people have this kind of really, really bad connotation with it, especially because of the media. If you read anything about this place in the media, it’s like ‘Death flats – oh, everyone that lives there is insane and evil and…’ Oh, God, I don’t know – whatever else they’ve said. We used to spend hours down here on our rollarblades, going from the top of the driveway down on – we had a skateboard and we used to lay on it and then try and get it around here. My favourite place to hide was in the laundry ‘cause if someone was running down the stairs and you stood like this on the side of the wall, they couldn’t see you so they’d be running up and down the stairs, not – like, couldn’t find you. You’d just be like, ‘Doot, doo, doo…’ When I forget things I just kind of ring my mum on the intercom and go, ‘Oh, Mum, can you throw it off the balcony?’ And I stand down the bottom, wait for it to drop and, ‘Oh, thank you.’ I’ve done that several times.
A car toots its horn as it approaches.
Sasha Ooh, my mum’s home.
Sasha gestures towards her mum walking towards them.
Sasha This is my mum, Charmaine.
Charmaine waves at the camera.
Sasha She lives here with me.
Charmaine, Sasha’s mother Just glad you didn’t film me parking that thing.
Charmaine gestures towards the ute she was driving.
Charmaine looks out onto the estate from a balcony, speaking to the filmmaker.
Charmaine I actually had a girlfriend come here from Hurstville one day who had a son the same age as Sasha and, when they were about 11, I sent them down to the shop from our place and she didn’t want them going in the lift by themselves and I said, ‘But at your place you let your son ride his bike miles away from home.’ And I said, ‘He could get around the corner from his place and no-one would know who he was and if someone came along and tried to snatch him, they wouldn’t know if that was his father or anything.’ I said, ‘Here, probably for about a 500 metre radius around Northcott, everybody knows who Sasha is and if some guy came up and tried to snatch her, they would know that that’s not her father.’ And I said, ‘So they’re probably actually safer here, in the middle of Surry Hills, than they are out at Hurstville.’