One of the most shocking photoshoots in Australia’s history occurred in 1930s Melbourne in squalid neighbourhoods where multi-million-dollar houses now stand. A Methodist accountant, Frederick Oswald Barnett, had become a frequent visitor to the ramshackle laneways of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond since his first visit in the early 1920s, and he documented a tragic reality that would shame the city into action. The Great Depression had exacerbated the living conditions of Melbourne’s poor, who lived Dickensian conditions so appalling few could believe it was Australia. Families of ten or more huddled together in leaky and crumbling brick or corrugated iron shacks with no sewerage and often just one, shared outdoors tap. West of the city shanty-towns quivered on rubbish-strewn mudflats.

Barnett shone a glaring light on the slums and became a fierce campaigner for proper housing. He wrote a thesis on the subject, which was published as a booklet in 1933 called The Unsuspected Slums. Determined that good would come out of misery he dragged the Premier, Albert Dunstan, along to see the carnage for himself. Dunstan said afterwards he couldn’t sleep for days.

As the depression subsided a campaign for permanent improvements to shocking living conditions gathered momentum, leading to the creation in 1936 of the Slum Abolition Committee, and then in 1938 of the Housing Commission of Victoria. It set in motion a resolve to demolish the shameful slums and create affordable public housing for the city’s vulnerable. Dark as the Great Depression was, a silver lining flickered in the shadows.

In Sydney, at the same time as Barnett was fighting for proper housing for the poor, something much more eye-catching was under construction. A bridge between the north and south shores of Port Jackson had been talked about since settlement, but it took a major economic disruption for it to be realised. Sydney Harbour Bridge – the most ambitious infrastructure ever attempted in Australia – was built during the darkest days of the depression and became known as the state’s Iron Lung. NSW Premier Jack Lang rebelled against the Federal Government’s policy of not defaulting on loan repayments to Britain, in favour of expanding public works schemes. It gave NSW a deficit higher than every other state put together, but it also gave it the Sydney Harbour Bridge. When Lang cut the ribbon in 1932 unemployment in Australia had topped 30 percent, but the celebrations were immense. The bridge instantly became a symbol of Australia’s growing independence, modernisation and maturity. It was a remarkable landmark project, a nation-building achievement that owes its existence to times of unthinkable hardship.

We’ve seen it time and time again. After bust comes boom. Major disruptions and economic calamities have historically opened the doors for positive change and left lasting imprints on our built landscapes. Against the backdrop of Covid-19 we’re seeing it again, with the rediscovery of the local neighbourhood counterpointing the unignorable tragedies of unemployment, rising domestic violence, depression and suicide. We’ve started once again looking for a legacy, wondering how our country might visibly change for the better, seeking out that light in the gloom…

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