Since we reported on the story of Genevieve Murray stepping in to help her neighbour, Redfern resident, Roslyn, renovate her Sydney housing commission home, the architect has been inundated by support, offers of more help and even second-hand shoes to pass to her stolen generations friend. Here, Murray, 33, describes what drove her to rally a team to give their time, expertise and skills to makeover the inner-city terrace - and change Roslyn's life for the better.
I am lucky.
I was raised and educated on the northern side of Sydney’s Inner Harbour. It was quiet and we had access to waterfront and bush. I went to school with kids from solid families. My family have an interest in the world and community and social causes. I have a large and supportive extended family and network of friends. All educated and of reasonably good mental health – suffice to say we are Irish Catholics with a penchant for drink, singing and the softer ebb and flow of feeling and thought.
I am still lucky. I now live in a terraced house close to the city owned by family that is close to public transport and a short walk or ride gets me most places I need to go. My neighbourhood of Redfern is a world away from where I grew up. It has a polarity of backgrounds, life experience, opportunity and wealth. The disparity between those who can afford to live here as private owners or as paying tenants, and those who live in Public or Community Housing, is palpable.
The place has an edge, but it is an active and vibrant place. People don’t have driveways and cars here – there’s no room and there’s no need. They walk out their front door, sit on their step, stroll to the shop, stop for a chat, call the council if they find needles in the alleyway and sweep their front yards when the council doesn’t. It’s a good neighbourhood.
The intimacy of the community and the nature of its residents – open, friendly, caring, generous – has kept me happy here.
The other week, while walking back from the shop opposite the park, I found myself walking in pace with an old neighbour, Roslyn. We got talking about an empty cottage that sits at the end of my street ahead of us.
Through the open door, we could see two Chinese cleaners, wiping the walls. We slowed. Roslyn told me the story of the previous tenant of 34 years. She was a quiet lady with a tough wiry family who passed away recently after three years battling cancer.
Roslyn had been offered the cottage by the Department of Housing but they hadn’t let her have a look. She is the matriarch of a big family and a one-bedder was making life hard. Roslyn had turned down their first offer. Her neighbours would have been ice addicts. I get the feeling she was a bit over that kind of thing.
This was their last offer. She was wary. She’d heard the stories of rising damp and filthy walls from more than three decades of smoking.
I said we should go and have a look. Roslyn was a little hesitant. The cleaner put his hand up to say no. I kept approaching, confident, persuasive. "Ok, ok", he said with a smile.
The stench hit us first. Damp, smoke residue, rot. The walls were stained brown. The carpet was stained and smelly. There were rotting skirting boards and someone had lazily spray-painted the wall.
The place was otherwise good. The kitchen was in reasonable shape and the bathroom was too. The bedrooms were small but sufficient. The old fireplaces were still in place and although they were blocked up they made the place feel homely.
The bones of a good house were there.
But, where I saw opportunity, with the support, resources, contacts, skills and knowledge I have, Roslyn only saw problems. She didn’t have resources or skills to get the place fixed up. She lives on a pension. She may have family who could find the money and time but I doubt she’d be comfortable asking them. Heck, I wouldn’t unless my family offered. I’m a proud person, too.
I could see that with a repaired floor, new carpet and a lick of paint this could be a great little place.
So… on the spot, I offered to get the place fixed up for her. She looked me in the eyes and asked if I was sure. I gave her my word. With a tear in her eye she said this was the first time in her life someone had done something kind for her.
I stayed up late to pen an email to family and friends. With the right information, people would be happy to help… and they were. Everyone responded with offers. An old family friend, Sandy Lynch, offered to cover the cost of paint.
My Dad offered advice and experience.
"Genevieve", he said, "Roslyn is going to be in this place till she dies and this is the last lick of paint it’s going to get. Do it properly, kiddo".
And we did. We took up the floor where it was sagging to investigate the problem. We found rotting bearers and joists. We got new ones, put them in and replaced the chip board flooring ready for new carpet.
We paid attention to the detail, we taped all the edges and glass window panes. My friends bought tile glue (out of their own pocket), to re-fix tiles that were falling away.
I literally had a tear in my eye on the first day. Every room had at least two of my family and friends in it, cleaning and chatting, getting to know each other, having a laugh. There was the sound of the swoosh of the rags against the walls in all the rooms.
I don’t have money to throw at a problem, but I have expertise and know-how and contacts and this, I’ve learnt, counts for far more than money.
I would love to keep helping more people in a similar situation but life is busy. Hopefully, people get the idea and realise it’s not too hard, wherever they may live. Just be sensitive to people's needs... and don’t be scared to offer help.