Narelle Clarke: Surry Hills devotee

I moved into Surry Hills when I was 18 months old. Mum and dad lived here and this was the family home. The house was built in the late 1800s. Mum wanted stability and I remember her saying “I’m going to be carried out of here in a box”. She has always been the centre of the family. She stayed here, so we always gravitated back for family gatherings. I came back to Surry Hills because mum started getting sick in the last six years. It’s hard when you are in your 80s. So it made sense that we moved in with her to make it easy.

We lived on the Northern beaches for a while and I missed Surry Hills. I missed the eclectic society. I grew up and went to school here. There were Greeks, Italians and Chinese, whereas the Northern beaches was very Anglo. I missed the kid of naturalism of Surry Hills. You don’t have to look amazing everyday. Things are a bit grubby and dirty and houses need renovation. I don’t like perfectionism anyway.

When I grew up here in the 70s everyone was moving out. Public housing just across the road from me was full of migrant families. They all moved out because they thought Surry Hills was getting really bad. I noticed a change myself about 10 years after that. A lot of actors moved in, trendy shops popped up, you’d bump into famous people at Redfern Mall, now Surry Hills Shopping centre.

There was a change in the public housing as well. People needed a lot more support so the area got a bit difficult.

I feel like there is not enough help for some people in public housing. I want to get involved in helping now that my kids are grown up and my mum’s not here anymore.

There’s not enough attention to detail about those who need help in Surry Hills. I’m sad about the fact that there is neglect here. People need better help. How do I change that?

My great aunt (Kate Leigh) made some positive changes in Surry Hills in the 50s, she did some crazy things too, but she made positive changes. I barely knew her as I was only 3 when she died but I vaguely remember her. She was known as a criminal, she was in gaol. Once someone tried to get into her house at 212 Devonshire. She said, “If you walk in any further I’ll shoot you” Well he did walk in, and so she shot him. That’s why she went to gaol. But she was just protecting herself. However, then there is this other side to her and you think “Oh my God what a beautiful woman”. She threw house parties and looked after the street kids and the poor people. If someone didn’t have any money she’d give them some. Back then the pubs shut at 6pm, so after that she was open for business. She never judged. I wish I had known her. She would have been a total character, rough but great. She was recognised by the Catholic church because of her work with the poor.

I teach Pilates here in Surry Hills. I love people having the satisfaction of doing something really good for their bodies and knowing they can get better. I love seeing people who are sore or having trouble and then I get hold of them and then they feel good. That makes me feel good. I love that. I’m not there to flog them like they have to do a Cirque du Soleil exercise, or thrash them at the gym. I like making them think about themselves in a more gentle way. There is nothing worse than someone walking out of a gym class thinking “I couldn’t do any of that” and going home thinking they are hopeless and useless. No, I don’t like that.

Family is important to me, but so is community. I would love to be able to say when I am in my 80s, that I tried to make Surry Hills a better place. I want to make change on a community level.

I would say to my younger self, stop stressing about the future. Enjoy the journey
and don’t worry.

12th May 2018

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