Homes in the Sky

Men push carts along the street filled with alcohol and food goods. On the porch, leaning against the gate, a grandmother watches the goings-on.

Between the terrace houses in the cobblestoned maze of alleys and streets, children can be heard laughing and playing.

They were the decades following WWII. Australia was experiencing an influx of migration in an attempt to boost the population by one percent each year. The hope was to meet labour demands, ensure a strong defence force and promote prosperity.

The puzzle of houses in the crowded suburb of Fitzroy were their homes.

For the time being.

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Before too long, the area would become known for the four twenty-storey commission flats. Over the following five decades Melbourne's oldest suburb would house a curious combination of cultures and ethnicities.

The flats were a result of an urban renewal plan by The Housing Commission of Australia. A 4.8 hectare block of over 250 homes and buildings were to be cleared as part of a controversial "slum reclamation" project.

From Brunswick Street to Napier and Gertrude to King William, the government-proposed estate would provide 800 homes for low income families by the 1970's.

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Some resistance had formed with the current residents putting paint to paper, displaying posters out the front of their homes against the proposals.

The development would not be deterred.

As Fitzroy was experiencing these rapid changes a young man from Brighton, Chris Lermanis, began visiting the suburb and documenting the "goings on".

Inspired by humanist photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, Chris would wander the stone laneways of the area known as "the narrows", photographing the people.

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Photo by Chris Lermanis

It "was a totally different place to the bayside area [he] grew up in." Chris was infatuated by the street life; kids playing cricket, the lights, Bottle-O's and the insides of cafes.

"It was interesting... I was drawn to it, to go back several times over a year or two."

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Aside from the inner suburbs of Sydney, the high-rise residential apartments being built in Melbourne were the first of their kind in Australia.

From the planning period all the way through to the construction and settlement, the homes on the skyline were surrounded by controversy.

The Courier, 26\/5\/1960

The Courier, 26/5/1960

Film by Peter Dodds

Opposition to high-rise living continued years after construction. Australians weren't culturally inclined to the apartment lifestyle; preferring a house, a yard and a front fence.

Without public support, the approach to tackling the housing shortages -despite the practicality of the pre-cast concrete structures- would eventually lose all momentum.

But in the case of the Atherton Gardens flats in Fitzroy, a new kind of community had already been shaped, for better or for worse.

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Writer and expert in urban cultures and histories, Dr Tony Birch, found living in the flats to be an “amazing experience”.

He was just a teenager when his home was demolished to make way for the Housing Commission flats. For a lot of residents the destruction of their homes was traumatic, but he's grateful for having ended up living in such a unique community.

Dr. Birch suggests the high rise estates have fallen victim to the dramatised world of pop culture and television, with film producers portraying the areas as grim, crime lairs and full of poverty.

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Photo by Chris Lermanis

Using his time growing up on the Fitzroy block, Tony draws inspiration from the strong sense of community and “evocative landscape” for his short stories.

He says “kids who grew up in the 60s and 70's" benefitted greatly from being able to mix with kids from all different backgrounds.

“There were so many kids around and parents had less control because you weren’t confined to a back yard, you could go where you wanted.”

The flats are one of the most culturally unique places in all of Australia. When considering the context of Atherton gardens almost nowhere else houses such a diverse array of ethnicities.

"I think people would actually have a greater sense of community in housing commission estates than on any of the streets that surround them."
- Dr. Tony Birch

Living in public housing is a privilege and necessity for most of the residents. In Melbourne a shortage of affordable housing has seen some renters put more than three quarters of their income towards having a roof over their head.

It was a Monday morning when a Vietnamese lady came into the Department of Human Services office at Atherton Gardens to check on the status of an application she had filed.

Speaking to the person behind the counter the lady asked whether she'd been successful, after a few clicks and taps on the keyboard she was told the application had been received and processed.

The hopeful future resident continued, asking when she might be able to move. She was then told some people had been on the waiting list for several years.

In 2015 the state government's Early Housing Category received over 10,000 applications. In emergency cases of violence, mental or physical health, applicants can be placed at the top of the list.

To be eligible for public housing, income, assets, household members and previous living situations need to be evaluated.

For a single person to qualify and register they need an income of less than $959 per week. The average income for a full time worker in Australia is $1,575 according to the ABS.

To be eligible for 'priority housing' weekly income has to be below $537. Most tenants are on a Rebated Rent contract, meaning the government subsidises the overall rent cost.

The most prevalent age group in the homes - making up almost 11 percent of the population - are those aged zero to four, followed by 10 percent for five to nine year-olds.

The next highest is 35 to 39 year-olds making up almost eight percent of the Atherton Gardens population. Compared to the rest of Fitzroy, the homes comprise a relatively high amount of households with children.

The flats are known for more than just their slightly obtrusive design. They are also considered a hub of multiculturalism. Given that 68 percent of residents were born overseas and a large amount of those are refugees, the buildings are inherently diverse.

Stepping off the number 11 tram onto the foot path of gentrified Brunswick street there's an abundance of cafes and cool twenty-somethings.

Crossing over the tram tracks to the opposite side of the road is quite a contrast.

A low metal fence borders the parks of the commission homes with native plants and the occasional flower spilling over the top.

Walking onto the property, paved tracks crisscross between the four buildings, causing the paths of neighbours and friends to meet in small polite moments between the days' errands.

On a Wednesday afternoon a woman loaded with three green bags of groceries, smiles and exchanges an enthusiastic greeting in Mandarin with an older women on the way back from an english class.

The paths almost seem as if their function is to connect people rather than places.

Further along there’s a faded and tired looking play equipment. A mother in a bright green hijab sits at the edge of the tanbark watching her child try to run up the slide from the bottom.

About 30 meters away some boys are casually shooting hoops at a little basketball court surrounded by a black chainlink fence.

On the bench beside the court two old men sit, occasionally taking sips of their VBs. Intently watching people go by and waiting for something to complain to the other about.

Later in the afternoon children would flock along the path, running and yelling about what they'd done at school, heading home to one of the four housing commission buildings.

On the third floor of one of them a young Sudanese boy does his math homework. In an apartment across the hall a family from Afghanistan prepares dinner. On the floor above, an elderly lady from China is watching TV.

Li Quỳnh Ha
70 years old

Ho Chi Minh City
Li Quỳnh sees communication with people
as an important way to prevent dementia.

Having a two-dollar lunch at the community activity
room on 140 Brunswick street with a few other residents
and then learning English at the local retirement home
is a common routine for Li Quỳnh.

Li Quỳnh says the chairman of the Tenants Association
prepares the meals every Monday to Wednesday. Residents
will often "gather together" before lunch.

“My doctor asks me to talk to others, I can’t
always stay at home.”

Meysera Khiaw
27 years old

Meysera came to Australia in 2014 after

spending seven years in Egypt.

He's currently in his final year of VCE studying
biology, chemistry, english, maths and is starting to
feel the stress of exam period setting in.

He knows it's going "to be a long way" to achieve his
goal, but his dream job is to become a dentist. Meysera
says "it's okay" if he doesn't get in, he's happy to try
a few different things.

"For now, for my future, I prefer to be here.
Especially Melbourne, it's the place to be."

الان و في المستقبل. نعم انا افضل انو اكون هنا. خصوصا ملبورن، انه المكان الافضل لتكون فيه.
Chi Ming Ho
71 years old

Mong Kok
Hong Kong
Chi Ming has been living in Melbourne for
25 years, but since since his wife passed away,
he has been living in Atherton Gardens by himself.

Hong Kong‘s delicious food and warm
weather are the things he misses most,
noting his frustration at having cold lunch
food like sandwiches.

But he says he doesn't "really have a choice"
other than staying.

“What can you do? How can you survive
when you go back to Hong Kong?
I don’t have a place to live in Hong Kong,
and would have to face many problems.”

Aguek Mawien
33 years old

South Sudan
Before arriving in Australia 12 years earlier
Aguek says she "grew up in war".

She misses her family in South Sudan but has
several brothers and aunties in Australia as well as
having had her children while living here.

On warm days when the kids are at school, Aguek comes
to the grassy area between the buildings to "chat and joke"
with the other parents. Some days you might find 50 to 70
parents all sitting and talking with each other.

"We live in these big buildings and there's so many nationalities; Asians, Africans, Arabic speakers and Australians. When the kids are here they meet all their friends who they play with... Everyone gets along."

Story by:
Nathan Brown, Nga Yu Law, Nicole Zurcas

Photography by:
Jake Coombes -
Eden Row -
Nathan Brown

Graphics and Video by:
Nathan Brown

Historical photos by:
Chris Lermanis

Historical Videos by:
Peter Dodds

A special thanks to those who gave up some of their time to speak to us and help inform our story, the people at shorthand for generously sponsoring our usage of the tool, and the RMIT journalism staff who - over the period of several years - have taught, encouraged and pushed us to approach our craft in new and exciting ways, in particular Tito Ambyo and Janak Rogers for their invaluable guidance over the course of this story.

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