Our house: histories of Australian homes
8 - A small house in a migrant suburb
26 Lake Avenue, Cringila, New South Wales
The house in Lake Avenue in 1997.
A small house in a migrant suburb in an industrial city, an unremarkable place. Weatherboard, wooden frame, three bedrooms, corrugated iron roof. It could be one of a million such cottages anywhere in Australia. But there is more to this house than meets the eye. And while it is in the city of Wollongong on the South Coast of NSW, the federal government in nearby Canberra has played a significant but largely unrecognised role in its life.
It began life as a family home in the late 1930s, one of the first to be built in the new southern Wollongong suburb of Cringila. This location is the first of many reasons to make this house different. Real estate agents produced cartoon-like advertisements asserting that the purchase of a home in Cringila would bring health and family happiness. The Broken Hill Proprietary Limited (BHP) had taken over the Port Kembla steelworks and a promising future for the works beckoned. BHP's post-World War Two expansion plans and Canberra's decision to welcome thousands of European migrants to help with these industrial objectives, established the future of the works and the suburb.
However, health and family happiness were difficult to find. Cringila is a working-class suburb. It runs along the western boundary of the steelworks with many streets named after other steel towns or steelworks - Lackawanna, Birmingham, Newcastle, Steel and Bethlehem. In the 1950s, measurements of air pollution taken by the NSW Department of Public Health made this one of the most polluted areas in the Southern Hemisphere.
In the 1980s, the internal space between the roof and the ceiling collected many kilograms of dirt and dust and evidence presented to a Commission of Inquiry showed the suburb had continued to experience unacceptable levels of environmental injustice.
In the 1950s, the house became home for a succession of European migrant families. Fathers worked shiftwork in the steelworks, while mothers struggled to defeat the loneliness of many newly-arrived migrants. These families presented two images - a public one which most Wollongong residents cruelly misread and a private one inside the house with laughing children, the smell of freshly-cooked food from a wood-fired stove and the sounds of many languages.
For a succession of families, this house was the beginning of a cycle. It allowed families to accumulate sufficient wealth so they could move to another suburb. Then another family would arrive and the cycle would begin again. Mr and Mrs Campana and their daughter were typical occupants. They bought the house in the mid-1960s - they would have preferred a new house but could not afford one - and sold it in 1975. While it was a 'nice old house', their next house in a newer suburb was 'a better one'.
The old health centre sign and rear car park can be seen at Lake Avenue, 1997.
The house then witnessed changes in ownership and function. With Canberra's decision to fund a national community health program, the Wollongong office of the NSW Health Commission identified Cringila as a suburb requiring attention. 26 Lake Avenue became an important part of Wollongong's community health services.
Cringila had high levels of pollution, was next to a steelworks, experienced the racism of a multicultural population, with newspaper articles describing it as the 'heartbreak suburb', 'the neglected suburb', having conditions worse than the slums of Rome or Malta and was defined in a damning report in 1972 by Wollongong's Health Surveyor as lacking basic facilities. More recently, it has attracted similar descriptions - Lenore Nicklin's 'the worst address in Australia', 'a transition camp', 'worst suburb in Australia', 'a jail without bars' and a 'steelworks suburb'.
After renovations costing $42,000, the house began another life in 1976 as a community health centre. In 1988 it became a migrant health centre for the Illawarra Region. Migrants thronged through its doors and saw it also as a base from which the suburb's many social, ethnic, equity and justice issues could be addressed. In 1991, the centre closed when a new purpose-built centre opened five doors away.
The Illawarra Area Health Service sold the house to a Cringila resident in 1994. Apart from the renovations which changed the dwelling from a house to a public office, it is largely the same building as the one built in the late 1930s. The brick foundations on the north-east corner at the front, which tilted at an alarming angle, have been replaced by new ones which gleam in contrast to the old faded porous fillings and bricks.
Ornate plaster ceilings in the bedrooms and the loungeroom, the legacy of its builder trying to create a look which might separate it from other houses in Cringila, are still there. Wooden window frames, which stuck after rainy weather, have been replaced by colour co-ordinated aluminum frames. The old hearth remains in the lounge room and also the recess for the wood stove in the kitchen. The chimney and the large keys used to open old-style mortice locks did not sit well with the health bureaucracy and were replaced in the renovations.
A sunroom along the northern side, once used to dry clothes and pasta, looks onto the centre's asphalt carpark. Before its conversion to a parking space, the backyard was host to trellis which supported wine grape vines.
The fate of the house remains uncertain. Whatever its future, this is a house with a history of significant utility and social service.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Mr John Marciniak, Capital Works Unit, Illawarra Area Health Service and Mrs S Campana, former resident. Photographs: Glenn Mitchell.
'Cringila, Wollongong's forgotten suburb', Advertiser, 11 March 1987.
Cringila Task Force, Proposal for construction of a new community centre in Cringila, October 1987.
'Cringila, the neglected township', Illawarra Mercury, 10 July 1976.
'Heartbreak suburb where dignity goes', Illawarra Mercury, 1 June 1972.
Mitchell G & Seniuk S, Investigation of proposed sites for local washery and industrial waste disposal within the Wollongong Plain subregion, including Cringila and Wongawilli (Submission to Commission of Inquiry, NSW Department of Health and Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW, Sydney, 1984).
Mulligan E, 'Auntie films Cringila: worst suburb in Australia', Advertiser, 27 August 1986.
Nicklin, L, 'Wollongong the not-so-brave', Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1977.
Willis K, 'Alan heads struggle to free jail without bars', Advertiser, 12 November 1986.
Dr Glenn Mitchell is the Sub-Dean in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Wollongong. He teaches courses on the history of printing, Australian film, the politics of medicine and health and the social aspects of biotechnology. He was the recipient of the Vice Chancellor's Excellence in Teaching Award in 1997. From 1982-1989 he was Director of Migrant Health Services for the NSW Department of Health in the Illawarra. Recent publications include 'The industry time forgot', in Troy's A history of European housing in Australia (Melbourne 2000).