Scott St backyard, 1980s

Housing in Pyrmont attracted landlords and tenants through the era of heavy industry. The main tensions were between expanding industries, working class tenants, and landlords.

The decline of industries brought new players. Developers planned redevelopment, and the Department of Main Roads (DMR) bulldozed houses to make way for freeways. But the authorities were no longer dealing only with working class families. A new phenomenon was squatting. Many squatters were poor but resourceful, and some had the attitudes and resources of middle class families.

The squatters ridiculed authority. They could tap electricity from power lines and repair toilets when DMR sabotaged them: Toby Zoates created brilliant anarchic posters, and ad hoc bands – Foghorn and Leghorn, Chainsaw Rock – celebrated drugs, sex and rebellion.

They also delayed the destruction of old Pyrmont long enough to attract a new wave of urban environmentalists. In 1983 the University of New South Wales student paper Tharunka reported an alliance of heritage enthusiasts, unionists and squatters. The focus was a group of cottages in Scott and Cross Streets: 40 squatters denounced “the consumer death trap… We align ourselves with the feminists, gays, and land rights groups and all other organisations which are involved in the struggle. We don’t see ourselves as being just victims…” An editorial praised the squatters for resisting the City Council’s project of gentrification, and their allies – Resident Action Groups, property developers and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Wendy Thorp’s analysis is more nuanced. She records decades of pressure to raze the houses until “the community came to appreciate the vernacular architecture and began to consider them as having heritage value”. When a high-rise development was proposed in 1983, objectors included the National Trust and Royal Australian Institute of Architects, who sought the buildings’ inclusion in the Register of National Estate (which eventuated in 1989). Tenants had been evicted by 1978, but squatters remained until 1998 despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1984 upholding their eviction. In that case the judge “found it distasteful to find against the squatters!”

Thorp concludes that “the block… has become a place of some local importance and its retention has local support for a variety of reasons; including a level of affection just because it has managed to survive for so long despite enormous pressures for redevelopment.”