When I first moved to Darwin, the old slogan ‘You’re on Aboriginal Land’ took on a meaning that was absent when I lived in Melbourne. In Melbourne, it was more of a theoretical statement, an acknowledgement of history.
As I sit on my veranda in Parap, an inner suburb of Darwin, the balmy night caresses me, the sweet smell of Frangipani and Jasmine lace the air. A mob of Aboriginal people walk past, talking in language; they speak quickly, the words intonated and modulated in a fashion I’m not used to.
The next morning, as I ride my rickshaw to the market with my daughter, there’s over one hundred Aboriginal people sitting in a long line on the footpath. They smile and wave as I ride past.
Once, as I was riding along the Vesteys beach bike path, I saw an Aboriginal man wading waist deep through the water, spear high in his hand, poised to throw. It was a timeless moment in a contemporary setting.
Every night I hear different dialects, sometimes mixed with English, often not. It’s easy to understand the slogan ‘You’re on Aboriginal Land’ when you see it and hear it every day.
The suburb I live in, Parap (named after the sound of cockatoos, parap parap parap) is an old suburb. It’s a mix of high-end old elevated houses, commission flats and boarding houses. More recently modern apartments have been creeping in like lesions. It’s prime location, Parap. The famous markets, with their local crafts and exotic food bring in tourists and locals alike every Saturday morning. It’s a fifteen minute walk to the ski, yacht and trailer boat clubs, which are spread out along the shore, where you can enjoy a drink with the waves lapping at your feet while the sun goes down. The city centre is five kilometres away and East Point reserve, a rocky headland that jots out into the harbour, is a short bike ride.
It’s prime real estate. 800m2 blocks of land in a development enclave were sold for $800,000 each – minus the dwelling the buyers had to build or buy themselves.
The commission flats that line Parap road started getting bad press a few years ago. There was a murder there, people drank and yelled late into the night. People from out of town came into Parap, found there was no room at the flats so long-grassed (itinerants who sleep out are called Long-grassers in the NT) it in reserves and verges all around the place. Often a mob would end up out the front of my house, drinking, fighting, crying and collapsing well into the night.
So the good burghers of Parap began to complain. How the noise and drunkenness was destroying the suburb, how people were scared to go out at night in case long-grassers accosted them.
It didn’t take long for the government to announce that the commission flats would be pulled down as the tenants and their streams of visitors were creating problems all around Parap. Of course, most of the tenants of the commission flats were Aboriginal people. Towards the end of last year the first, and most high-profile block, Wirrina, was pulled down. The community of tenants split up and moved to other commission properties, many in Palmerston on the outskirts of Darwin.
The older woman who had a magnificent potted garden out the back of her flat and could be found selling plants to supplement her income at the market, across the road from her flat, is no longer there. The older man who, leaning on his walking stick, would push a mower and weed the gardens of the pub and some of the apartments is no longer doing that job. A community has been destroyed, income diminished, lives derailed.
The government says: ‘Wirrina will be the first redevelopment done in partnership between Government, the private sector and the new Affordable Housing Rental Company and will be a mix of public/private and private housing – 15% Territory Housing, 15% Affordable Housing Rental and 70% private.’ Looks like there’ll be fewer poor people living in Parap in the future, and fewer Aboriginal people too.
Of course not much has changed in Parap. The land where Wirrina complex was is now a dirty plain. The place is still full of drunks. I live opposite the local pub; a pub owned by a legendary family whose association with public houses goes back to the post-war era.
Every night – all night – cars do burnouts from the pub and bottle shop, sometimes crashing their cars into fences down the road. Three nights a week during the dry season a double-decker bus parks out the front of my house and offloads tourists as part of pub-crawls. Between 10 and 10.30 at night, they stumble back to the bus, fighting each other or the regular pub patrons on the street, throwing glasses and signs over my fence and departing to booming techno with the driver encouraging ‘make some noise’ over the PA system. Every weekday I see cars and trucks parked on the gutter next to my house at lunchtime, the drivers stumble back at 8 pm, legless, pissing on the street, and drive off. People sit in the backs of their utes in the pub car park and drink on all night, letting off the odd round of firecrackers. Every morning there’s blood on the footpath in front of the pub.
The cops don’t come near the place. (The cops were always pretty quick to pounce on any Aboriginal mob drinking a cask out the front of my place, bundling them into the paddy van and tipping the wine out because it’s illegal to drink alcohol in public so close to the pub.)
The pub is frequented by a majority of white patrons – the long-grassers are almost exclusively Aboriginal. No one complains about the pub patrons, no one’s knocking their houses down because they cause disruption to the community. No one’s taking away their little earner on the side to supplement their pension or wage. No one gives a shit what they do.
The Pitscheneder housing complex is demolition target, apparently to build a complex for seniors. And on it will go until every commission complex in Parap and every community within those commission complexes is obliterated.
I wonder if I’ll be hearing a variety of Aboriginal dialects spoken as I sit on my veranda in years to come, I wonder if I’ll still feel like I’m on Aboriginal land.