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Jenny Leong - The Life of Juanita Nielsen 2014

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Lee Rhiannon 2 Jul 2014

On the life and times of Juanita Nielsen and the Green Bans movement

As a matter of protocol and a mark of respect I begin by acknowledging the original owners of the land, the gadigal people of the eora nation, and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future. 

On a night when we come together to discuss the ability for activists and communities to stand up and defend their rights - whether that be to housing or self-determination - against the efforts of capitalist power, big business profiteers, and conservative vested-interest-led politicians - it is crucial to keep the ongoing struggle our aboriginal brothers and sisters are fighting for country, land and recognition. Right now, just down the road in Redfern an aboriginal tent embassy has been established in response to serious community concerns that there will be no longer be aboriginal housing in the re-development of the Block. This whole country is aboriginal land, it always was and always will be, and within that the Block is a special place - where aboriginal housing needs to be a given.

Tonight I have been invited to speak to you about the life and times of Juanita Nielsen and the Green Bans.

 

[JUANITA - THE EARLY YEARS]

Juanita Joan Nielsen was born on 22 April 1937 in Newcastle - she was the great grand daughter of Mark Foy (for those of you who don’t know - perhaps because like me you moved to Sydney later or were born after Mark Foy’s ceased trading in 1980 - Mark Foy’s was a Sydney department store, a fashion/style institution - the city store was located in the building which is now the Downing Centre court.)

In her early twenties (1959), having completed her Intermediate certificate and worked for a time at Mark Foy’s,  Juanita left Australia to travel - during this time abroad she lived in Denmark and Morocco.  On her return to Sydney in 1965 (aged 28) she opened a fashion boutique in the Mark Foy’s city store. It was after this time, and some family disputes over money, that Juanita was able to access the funds to purchase a terrace house on Victoria St and a local newspaper, Now, which she published from her home. 

It is this terrace house on Victoria St and this local publication NOW that sit at the heart of why almost forty years after her death (1975) we come together once a year to pay tribute to this woman.

 

[HER-STORY - A SHARED SPACE ACROSS TIME]

But before I go any further, I’d like to take a slight detour, to reflect on us, as women, standing up here tonight - and you being a part of this memorial lecture.

 Being asked by Lee Rhiannon to make this speech - I considered and contemplated those who had made it before - each year a different person is asked to recount the life and times of JN for this memorial lecture…

As I started reading the versions of Juanita’s story that had gone before...and doing my own research into JN life and began to see small intersections of JN life in Sydney with my own experiences - the personal connections our birthdays both being near anzac day in April  and the first flat I stayed in when I moved to Sydney being on victoria st almost directly across the road from where Juanita’s terrace was - I realised that the act of inviting women to tell this story was a way of Lee introducing us to this important part of Sydney’s history...almost like inviting us to a cafe on victoria st to meet up with Juanita, to hear her story and to learn from her actions...and in doing so share this “meeting” across time - but sharing a common geographic and political space.

To me the act of telling a woman’s story, a story of a woman’s life - in this case Juanita Nielson’s we should not be burdened or constrained by the singular, authoritative voice... and this feminist approach to the telling of Juanita’s story each year takes on this perspective. Lee could stand up here and present - probably with a lot more authority than any of us that have taken on this role Juanita’s story and the story of the green bans, but instead, she creates a space for us as women to share their perspective on this important woman - who through her own passion, dedication and commitment to stand up for community control and against vested-profit-driven motives…

So, it is with this larger relevance and broader context in mind, that I share with you my perspective on this story today - through my personal lens - bringing out the values which I take from my encounter (in a shared space of inner city living, but across the distance of time) with Juanita Nielsen.

 

[THE SIEGE OF VICTORIA ST - JUANITA, THE COMMUNITY AND GREENS BANS]

The Chapter “The Siege of Victoria St Kings Cross” in Radical Sydney begins: “In April 1973, on a tranquil residential street, a struggle that bridged the new middle-class activism and the older radicalism of working-class militancy began. It was a struggle that starkly revealed the violence at the heart of capitalist power. On one side of the conflict were crooks, stand over merchants, property developers, dodgy politicians and police; on the other side, working-class residents, middle-class squatters and a militant trade union…”

Juanita, through her independent newspaper NOW - used the publication to be the voice of opposition, criticism and dissent from the planned development in Victoria St - where she lived.

The planned redevelopment by developer Frank Theeman, under the name of Victoria Point Proprietary Limited proposed to erect three 45 storey towers - and in the process require the eviction of 300 working class tenants from the existing dwellings on Victoria st.

Juanita refused to sell her home to the developers and joined with neighbour and trade unionist Jack Fowler (known as Mick) in mobilising and supporting residents against the proposed demolition and eviction. Mick was a member of the Seaman’s Union of Australia - which later became the Maritime Union of Australia.

This community action and opposition to the proposed development was given voice through the fearless editorial and coverage Juanita’s newspaper gave the issue.

Another crucial element to the strength of this campaign was the imposition of Green Bans on the Victoria St development

In one of the most significant, principled and visionary actions undertaken by a trade union - the Builders Labourers Federation - while Jack Mundey was the Secretary began to impose Green Bans - which are probably best described as the union taking a position that “the union had a right to determine how the labour of its members was used” and  “a responsibility to use its industrial power to defend working-class interests in the community.”

In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1972, Jack Mundey articulated the union's principles:

Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently-required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally-bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices… 

…we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment…

…Progressive unions, like ours, therefore have a very useful social role to play in the citizens' interest, and we intend to play it.

By recognising the broader role that the union could play - in the bigger, collective project of protecting the community’s interests - or perhaps in today’s language the 99% over the 1% - the BLF and the Green Bans movement had a powerful influence over the Sydney that we know today...

It was in the middle of this strong and visionary trade union action - supporting communities to defend themselves over vested-interests that Juanita Nielsen found herself in the middle of a vicious community battle which ultimately led to her murder.

In the 2012 address on Juanita’s life and times Debbie Gibson, teacher and active member of the Greens, describe Juanita as an “accidental activist” - and this resonated strongly with me, Debbie put it like this: 

Whilst reading about Juanita Nielson and writing this introduction for tonight, the phrase “accidental activist” kept popping into my head. I kept seeing Juanita as an accidental activist, a product of the circumstances she found herself in. But when I thought about this some more, I realised that that’s what we all are. When asked to write the obligatory “What do want to be when you grow up?” essay for my Year 3 teacher, I think it was something along the lines of “ballet dancer, or maybe a teacher…I don’t recall “activist” rating high up there. And yet I find myself standing here (somewhat reluctantly I admit), being just that and very proud to be in a room full of other “accidental activists”. I doubt whether any of you planned this life path at age 10, but for varied reasons, you find yourself, like Juanita, finding a courage and passion you may not have realised you possessed to fight for the cause you believe is right.

 Juanita found herself in the circumstances and with the resources to be able to step up and provide leadership and add her strength to a collective community campaign - she refused to sell her property and used her newspaper to advicacte on behalf of residents and expose the underhand, violent and corrupt tactics used by the developer and his mates.

Tragically in 1975 - in what now appears to be a clear “set up” - Juanita Nielsen attended a meeting at the Carousel Club, owned by Abe Saffron (a mate of developer Theeman) and was never seen again.

A coronial inquest into Juanita’s death in the 1980s concluded that she had been murdered, but the crime remains unsolved. And over the years - as those involved in this incident have past on - or others have spoken out - the details of the intersections between this development and criminal acts have become clearer - with reports and publications continually covering additional pieces of information…but the story of the investigations is perhaps one for another time...albeit an ongoing concern about the intertwined connections between the NSW police, NSW government, big business and vested interests and a generally toxic culture of greed and corruption.

 

[SYDNEY TODAY...]

Juanita Nielsen paid the ultimate price for taking a stand - for being willing to stand up in the face of power, violence and vested-interests for her community, for what she believed in.

Looking back at this community struggle, of the life and times of Juanita and the green bans - shouldn’t be a passive reflection - rather I see it as a  “call to action” for us to ensure we make sure step up, to not sit by, to resist, to fight, to take a stand.

And at no time has it perhaps been more relevant to take up that call…

The ICAC revelations we have seen about the state of politics and political wheeling and dealing in NSW state parliament...with the attacks we have seen by the NSW police on our student activists engaging in peaceful protests...with the ever-increasing influence that profit motives and big business agendas have on our public assets and services all show we need to continue this struggle.

I’d like to conclude by taking us to a present day struggle - which is closely linked to the values and the approach of the one fought by Juanita nearly 40 years ago on Victoria St - to highlight the ongoing relevance of us listening and learning about our activist past and building on the movements that have shaped the Sydney we live in today.

Juanita’s story - the battle’s fought by strong trade unions engaging in direct action with communities to defend our interests, isn’t a story of the past for Sydney. It is a story of now...And so in describing the life and times of Juanita Nielsen and the Green Bans I think it is crucial to share this current battle with you..

The sell-off of Millers Point sees the forced relocation of 293 households, many with multiple tenants.

A community is being split up

 The Sirius building (the icon of a building near the bridge) is a particular case, it was built to rehouse residents who were displaced by the redevlopment of The Rock in the 70's/80's, as part of the community plan coming out of the Greens bans. It is purpose built for social housing, does not have the maintenance issues of other properties.

The justifications given for the sales, that the land is too valuable for public housing, puts at risk every public housing property in inner Sydney.

The public housing residents are supported by the MuA and other unions (like the Seaman’s Union and BLF in earlier times) - with private residents (like Juanita in her day) have joined the campaign to stand against this sell-off. 

It’s always hard to know when you reflect back on the past - how significant or not the intersections are between those who have come before and your own sense of history...

Juanita lived in Kings Cross - on Victoria St, which was the first street I lived when I moved to Sydney from Adelaide as a 19 year old, in fact almost directly across the road from number 202 - I had no idea at the time that I would find myself, nearly 20 years later speaking about an amazingly strong, powerful community activist......but at the time I did feel the full possibility/intensity/extremes which make up inner city life...something that in many ways has shaped the person, activist and life I am leading today. 

Juanita Nielson found herself living in the middle of a potential campaign...injustice/battle of community v developers…

It’s this connection, between the happenstance of certain locations and times, between values and beliefs that promote community empowerment, fearless activism, a willingness to not sit silent against injustice that is in many ways at the centre of this event.

And that struggle is as relevant today as it was in the 70s - the need to expose the truth, to question power and to challenge greed - to have an understanding of the impact of our actions beyond our immediate self-interest - to stand up and speak out against corrupt powerbrokers  and the intertwined interests of big business/property developers/former NSW police/police corruption/conservative governments - and above all to continue to build on the powerful, inspiring radical activist foundations on which – thanks to people like Juanita Nielsen - Sydney stands.


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