Among the palatial wool stores and a few mansions, most housing in Pyrmont and Ultimo was cheap and unhealthy. This was demonstrated in the 1870s, during the 1900 bubonic plague panic and in Mayor John Harris’s publicised tours, and it remained true until at least the 1980s. Advocates of “slum clearance” (such as John Harris and Allen Taylor) were unable to say where the evicted families should go, or how workers could get to their work.
A rare exception to miserable housing was Ways Terrace, a set of apartments built by the City of Sydney in 1925, and designed imaginatively for working people. Almost everyone else rented cottages from private landlords who had no incentive to repair or improve their properties. The poor quality of the housing reinforced Pyrmont’s reputation as one of the poorest suburbs in inner Sydney.
The rapid expansion of car ownership after the Second World War intensified pressure on housing, as freeways and car parks replaced cottages and social facilities. In the 1980s the area began to attract developers who were keen to gentrify the area for well-to-do families who valued Pyrmont’s proximity to the city. The old tensions between landlords and tenants gave way to conflict between developers and their opponents – tenants who had lived here for generations, and informal tenants (including university students) often dismissed as “squatters”. It was not clear that working class Pyrmont would survive at all. A critical site of this conflict was the Scott Street cottages.
The outcome, “urban renewal”, was predictable. However, these battles prompted the emergence of resident action groups, allied to the state-wide heritage protection movement. In the process the previously dominant Labor Party branch crumbled and was displaced by Independents such as Michael Matthews who better represented the needs of residents.