The hungry mile

The current redevelopment of East Darling Harbour to create some of the most expensively mediocre real estate in Sydney also produced an attempted piece of culture history whitewashing, the renaming of Hickson Road. This roadway surrounded by cliffs and warehouses has always been colloquially known as The Hungry Mile in memory of the day labourers who once worked on the wharves under the notoriously humiliating “bull” system that exploited workers by forcing them to compete with each other every morning for that day’s work. The bull system only finally ended during the Second World War as a necessary concession to the wharfies legendary union leader “Big Jim” Healy.

With redevelopment looming, higher authorities decided that a new more appropriate image was needed and renaming Hickson Road something like We Love Real Estate Developers Road seemed a way of breaking from this embarassing history. Fortunately a public campaign by the Maritime Union eventually rescued this small bit of workers’ heritage and it will now officially proudly bear the name The Hungry Mile. However, I suspect that it will eventually become known as The Greedy Mile in honour of it’s new residents. Demonstrating how awful the alternatives may have been, the whole area of the redevelopment has been named Barangaroo, a bizarre bit of patronising “aboriginal kitsch”, as former PM Paul Keating called it, if only because it was not the aboriginal name for the area. But we digress. This is leading somewhere, stick with us.

Ever since the ending of the wharfies bull system there have been no day labourer pickup sites in Australia, no more hungry miles, but that may be about to change. Recent legislation that Americanises Australia’s industrial relations laws will now almost inevitably lead to the reintroduction of day labour and similar pick up sites for day labourers (and incidentally, don’t you love the way the extreme right adaptively reuses words, so that reform, which once implied “progressive improvement” now implies “reactionary return to long forgotten and barbaric forms of exploitation” hence Australian PM Howard’s constant weasely talk of “industrial relations reform”). As the link above shows, labourer pickup sites are usually not very pleasant places.

In the US, especially on the west coast, day labourers’ gathering spots are a regular and sad sight, impoverished men hanging around on certain street corners in hope of a few hours work. Public Architecture, who project managed the Scraphouse, have developed a trailer adapted for use at day labourer pick up sites.

It has two toilets and sheltered seating. It’s a great idea but despite its obvious practicality in some sense it is like an artwork that brings out into the open the barbarity of the system that it aims to ameliorate, and you can’t help feeling that it will be universally opposed by local authorities who would rather blame the victims of the system.

Public Architecture comments

While the contributions of day laborers typically go unseen, most cities’ inability to accommodate them within the urban infrastructure is highly visible. There exists an unmet need and role for design to significantly enhance informal gathering spots, organized centers, and general efforts. According to the 2006 National Day Labor Study, “Worker centers have emerged as the most comprehensive response to the challenges associated with the growth of day labor.” However, our analysis indicates that the costs and resistance associated with the construction and operation of a permanent worker center run high.

It’s an age old tactic, degrade people, then attack them for their degradation. Their solution attempts to return some dignity and control to the labourers

Our mobile centers will accommodate waiting day laborers, organizational meetings, classes, and sanitation facilities, without requiring staff. This unit will be built by day laborers themselves, and deployed at informal hiring sites. Day laborers will be instructed about its use and maintenance. Local organizations will be given the opportunity to schedule on-site classes including English, legal assistance, and civil rights workshops. All steps will be documented for the second phase—a multi-faceted public relations campaign.

Sometimes something as small as the adaptive reuse of a car trailer can do all that. We wish them all the best.

And incidentally, while we are talking about Public Architecture, check out their granny flat design, or Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) if you are a bureaucrat.

It makes extensive use of adaptively reused industrial materials:

The wall system is a prefab insulated aluminum panels developed for commercial refrigeration buildings. The primary fenestration are glazed garage doors that enable the small dwelling to open to the adjacent private garden. The planted roof offers low runoff, high insulation, and is a nod to the rear yard context.

Rear yard on the roof…hmmm…sounds like the casbah to me, but the casbah is moslem, and all moslems are terrorists, so that’s a terrorist backyard they’re talking about and a terrorist granny flat and if that’s a terrorist granny flat then it must house a terrorist granny….or….maybe I should stop reading the US media, it’s warping my thinking.

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