I did want to live in Paddington or Balmain, but I couldn’t afford it. Surry Hills was the next one down, to be honest. I didn’t exactly know much about Surry Hills but it was close, it was in the Eastern Suburbs, and close to everything, and my friends.
Claudette Roy (McElhorne Place): Eccentric
I was born in Montreal and I’m French Canadian. I came here in the late 60’s. I ran away from home, to get away from everything. I didn’t plan to stay. It wasn’t easy to go to England but Australia was easy to come to. I came by boat and I paid my fare. I couldn’t talk English very much but you learn when you have to. Then I got a job in David Jones in the jewellery section. Sydney was so small compared to Montreal I was amazed. I wanted to learn English so I kept away from the French here. I badly miss the seasons. The trees are always green, but this is winter!
I have been in my home here since 1976. Surry Hills has changed. I used to call it a “fashionable slum”. When I first came to live here there was a drunken man standing near my house drinking wine and I thought, “Oh no Claudette you’ve done it”. I thought the area maybe was not very nice.
I used to leave my front door open all the time. Now my windows have bars on them. That’s one thing that has changed. But I feel secure here. I think there seems to be a lot more young people with babies in Surry Hills today. I think that is a good change. People complain that it’s a gentrified area. There’s nothing wrong with gentrification. You want to get better not worse and people are friendly.
The new library is nice but there’s not much for us, only Tai chi and it’s not really my thing. I wouldn’t mind Zumba though!
One day me and one of my neighbours got a window box then a couple of plants and now the laneway is full of plants. Sydney had a lot of gardening awards so we entered the competitions. We won awards every year except for one. We bought more plants with the money we won. People take care of the plants. Once one of my plants got stolen. I reported that and told the police but he said “What do you expect, it’s Surry Hills.” And I was so angry.
It’s a good place for cats. At one stage there were about 12 or fourteen cats but they got old and died like all of us do. We have two dogs too. At Christmas we have small parties on the laneway. There haven’t been conflicts here lately but once there was a couple who were drunk all the time. They would scream at each other. We had a few colourful characters. Everyone looks out for each other here and we loan each other the things we need. Sometimes I feel like I’m the concierge.
When one of the houses here was being sold recently my friend and I sat on the bench outside to watch the people and one person said “Oh this must be where the hobbits live”. We laughed about that. All the ladies from the North Shore love our gardens but they must have beautiful gardens on the North Shore themselves.
Angel my cat is the most important thing to me today. I also want to stay healthy. I’m 81. My friends tell me to move to Brisbane but I have so much stuff I don’t know how I’d move. When I moved in here and didn’t have anything in the home, someone offered to give me something for the house for free and I chose an antique painting. I didn’t want a toaster or a fry pan, just that painting. So I lay on my mattress here in the empty living room and looked at my painting. Someone gave me a couch and another table, I just got things, but now it’s a bit crowded.
I would say to my younger self, travel more. I used to have a book when I was young and travelling called, “How to live on $5 a day”. I stayed in grotty places back then, but it was good.