I get an eerie feeling reading profiles of Morris Iemma as a 'son of Riverwood'. I spent my first 19 years living at 16 Weemala Avenue, Riverwood until my parents moved to Cronulla and I never really went back to Riverwood, though occasionally I drive around to see how the old place is coming along.
Riverwood has an interesting history but not one that people like to boast about:
About 30km south-west of Sydney’s CBD, Riverwood evolved from a market
gardening and small farming community into a residential area when the
NSW Housing Commission took over 236ac in the 1950s. In 1942, the
$1million 118th General Hospital was built for the US Army - the
largest military hospital in Australia. There were 490 timber
barracks-type buildings know as ’huts’ built at the site, accommodating
1250 patients and 3500 staff in segregated, black and white quarters.
Immediately after the war, when the hospital reverted to the NSW
Housing Commission, the huts were used to ease the chronic housing
Easing the shortage, of course, meant dumping lots of the city's social problems in the one area with predictable results:
The name of Riverwood came into use in 1958 to replace the earlier
name of Herne Bay, which derived from an 1880s subdivisions on the bank
of Salt Pan Creek at Peakhurst. Herne Bay Railway Station opened in
1931. In the 1950s, local
businessmen said that the Housing Settlement had made the name Herne
"Infamous", indeed, it was the "Green Valley" or "Macquarie Fields" of its day. If you came from Herne Bay, getting a loan or a job was much more difficult. And here's the wikipedia take on it, a bit more frank then the local government history version above:
The suburb developed an unsavoury reputation for poverty,
overcrowding and violence, and its name was later changed to Riverwood
in 1957, in large part to remove the stigma associated with living
there. This helped to change the reputation of the area. From the 1950s
onwards, purpose-built utilitarian public housing apartment blocks and
freestanding bungalows replaced most of the former military buildings
on the northern side of the railway line, while the southern part of
the suburb was mostly privately developed.
Despite actions made to correct this suburb's reputation, negative
ideas of this suburb exist. Some may think of Riverwood as a poor,
backward, relatively unsafe suburb.
So when I was 4 years old I became a resident of the much more salubrious, Riverwood. Not that many people were fooled of course and it took awhile for the stain of "Herne Bay" to become a memory.
Riverwood was selected to replace it. The wartime
buildings were demolished and replaced with permanent buildings in the
"Permanent buildings" hardly tells the story. They were a group of high rise buildings filled with another influx of the city's socially disadvantaged living on streets with weird names like "Pennsylvania Road, Kentucky Road, Wyoming Place, Idaho Place, Michigan
Road, Montana Crescent, Roosevelt Avenue and Truman Avenue".
Despite its less than grand start, Riverwood was an OK place to grow up. My end of Weemala Ave on the southside of the railway line was privately owned and the rest was public housing but freestanding bungalows rather than high-rise. The population was very stable most of the families were there throughout my childhood. Their surnames were Williams, White, Wilson, Roberts, Padman, Freeman, Dransfield, Nagle, Savage and Roach.
In other words, white, english ancestry and mostly Protestant. We had parks to play rugby league and cricket in, plenty of places to ride bikes and a creek down the road to 'explore'. We were the children of blue collar workers and few of us aspired to university; our parents encouraged us to get jobs in places like banks and the public service because employment among the great armies of clerks was thought to be a job for life. We were an insular little community.
Petty crime seemed to be something of a way of life, stolen cigarettes were always availbale for sale at the pub, petrol was siphoned out of parked cars and 'tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree' was popular on the jukebox.
While I was still living there the Italians were only just starting to become evident. They were a strange new breed to us. Women dressed in black and huge empty olive oil cans put out with the garbage were evidence of a life lived differently. They came to Riverwood for the same reason that everyone else did - affordable housing.
My first job (apart from selling newspapers) was at Roselands (where David Marr interviewed Iemma for today's piece) Australia's first shopping mall, in the "Four Corners' food court (again Australia's first). It was pretty limited in its selection of ethnic choices. I worked in the 'Chuck Wagon' which sold american food namely hamburgers and hot dogs. Apparently, the owner was unaware that chuck has a different meaning in Australian slang. Still, this linguistic confusion only seemed to add to the place's appeal. Bizarrely, there was also a place selling english food and another, the Whistling Oyster, selling fish and chips. In fact, hamburgers, fish and chips, and roast beef were the most popular options at the Four Corners food court in those days.
Nevertheless, it was as a 16 year old cutting burger buns at the Chuck Wagon that I got to know some european migrants who laughed loudly when they found out that I had never eaten spaghetti except out of a tin and was not aware that there were other types of pasta. That was 1970, not so long ago really.
Although, Riverwood was a reasonable place to grow up and quickly became an almost inner suburb as Sydney sprawled ever westward, it was always a place my family and I were going to leave when we could afford to. And I've never had any desire to live there again or even to maintain a connection with it.
You almost never hear anything about Riverwood in the media. Its as if the old Herne Bay stain is still there in some unspoken way.
And so, I have to admit, I do feel a little tingle of pride that someone from Riverwood is actually Premier of NSW. I still have to pinch myself.