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Whiteout

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rohan Wightman is a Darwin-based writer & teacher. He’s been shortlisted for the NT literary awards four times, including this year. He has been published in Going Down Swinging and has been shortlisted in a few other writing comps and won a few less well-known comps. He started writing when he was young but really hit his stride when writing for Squat It, the magazine of the Squatters Union of Victoria, in the late 80s. He has piles of manuscripts but no publisher. His under construction website is www.rohanwightman.com

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  1. What a sad beautifully told story Rohan. Something similar is going on up the road from me in Redfern, I didn’t realise it was also happening in Darwin. We’re so in thrall to private property and real estate we let ourselves be governed by developers. And of course as you say, it’s all Aboriginal land anyway.
    As for the drunks – if the federal government’s thinking about doubling the price of cigarettes, it might also consider doubling the price of the fourth drink. I’d say excessive drinking puts at least as much if not more strain on the health system as smoking. Not to mention its many social costs.

  2. interesting read rohan. it makes me wonder what’s gonna happen to the commission flats in carlton and fitzroy that have been earmarked for demolition sometime soon. it also reminded me of Tony Birch’s shadowboxing- a series of short stories set in the gentrification period of the 60’s in fitzroy when the aboriginal population were pushed out of town.

  3. I lived in Darwin for a couple of years back in the mid eighties when I was a idealistic slip of a thing, wandering about with a head full of Melbourne ideals and a non-pig-hunting bull terrier I loved like a baby. Drunk white ‘men’ in the NT are the scariest, most threatening people I have yet encountered, though perhaps maturity has made me less prone to blundering into vulnerable situations with the assumption that all you need is love. They weren’t seen as ‘the problem’ then, either. But say they are: what to do? So sad to read about changes for the worst in a situation that sounds pretty dire. Such examples of the white-supremist paradigm make me ashamed.

  4. Thanks everyone, yep Jane it’s all about money, I’ve spent a lot of time in Redfern and seen it change over the years, all the poor people being forced out, the bad press given to the indig mob there justifying the changes in many people’s minds. Sad state of affairs. Makes me wonder too Scott about the commission flats in Carlton & Fitzroy, know them well having spent years squatting in the area. Prime real estate these days. And Claire, you’re so right about drunk whitemen in Darwin. I spent years driving taxi’s in Melb and I’ve seen nothing worse or scarier than the drunk white men who inhabit Darwin’s streets, especially Mithchell St, and their behaviour is always justified coz it’s ‘territory lifestyle’, of course being indig and camping out in a park is never considered territory lifestyle by the powers than be.

  5. Great post, Rohan. How sad. It’s amazing how such selective interpretations of what “the problem” is in any given situation can lead to such heartbreaking results.

  6. Thanks Romi, it is a heartbreaking result and I got a letter in the mail on friday from my local member, updating me on the situation with the housing commission flats on Parap Rd-all of which will be knocked down. Apparently the make-up of the new flats, how many public housing, how many private, will be released once the developer’s on board. No doubt the private dwellings will have increased and the public one’s decreased by the time the information is released and the government will hope the public will have forgotten the original promise. Anyway by the time they get round to building the new flats the useless Labor government up here will have been replaced by the nasty and intolerant CLP and the whole thing will change. Sadly the victims in all the political bullshit will be the most vulnerable people in society, who are seen as collatoral damage in the war between political egos.

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