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Loving life – Community Profile: Laura Banning

Laura Banning is happy in her life and in her own skin. “I always have been, you know, just happy with everything. I have been an entertainer, I’ve worked on movies, I have met lots of people and I have had a really fulfilling life. I have had to make speeches as a tenants’ rep and co-hosting things in the park and being MC. It’s wonderful, it’s exciting. And I am very grateful that as a pensioner I have somewhere to live.”

Laura Banning, Tenant Rep. McKell Building, Redfern Photo: Suganthi Singarayar
Laura Banning, Tenant Rep. McKell Building, Redfern Photo: Suganthi Singarayar

After living for 12 years in a unit in the Watertower (the old McMurtie’s shoe factory) which you can see from the train as you pass Redfern station, Laura moved into the McKell building, one of four public housing high-rises in Redfern in 2008. She lost her job at the South Sydney Leagues Club, when it was facing difficulties, and she found that after 22 years of doing everything from Keno to Bar to TAB, to pokies, the restaurant and the door at the club she could not find a new job or pay her rent.

When she contacted Centrelink, they acknowledged that she had never been out of work since leaving school and helped to find her emergency accommodation in a studio apartment in one of the public housing high-rises in Waterloo. For the nine months till she got her apartment she said, “I went down every week to Housing and said, ‘When am I going to get a proper unit?’ and then all of a sudden I was given the keys to have a look at this and I saw the potential.”

The unit had recently been painted and she spent her own money getting the carpet pulled up and putting up blinds, then she moved in. The unit reflects her love of decorating and painting. Two of her paintings featured on her main wall are of Japanese Geisha girls. To the casual observer they seem finished, but to Laura it is a work in progress, and a fan and cherry blossom are items to consider adding.

As we talk, Kevin the rainbow lorikeet discretely knocks on her window to check whether Laura has any grapes available. He and his friend Therese are very particular – they have refused offerings of blueberries and chopped strawberries. Bird seed attracts cockatoos with their fights and squabbles, so Kevin will have to wait till grapes are back in season.

Does she like living here? “Love it”, she says.

Why? “Well, I think because I had been so long in Redfern and because I knew a lot of people from the building and the area because they used to go and drink at the club because it was a senior’s club, it was an older person’s club.”

In 2013 she became a volunteer tenant representative for McKell but even before that she had seen so much need in the building. “It was total neglect, areas needed new carpet down the steps, doors that needed fixing and then there was the big garden down the end, there was so much rubbish in it, you could not believe.”

Being a rep helps her to get things done in the building. People know who she is and will come to her with problems, and often that’s when she is working in her other love, the garden.

She says that since she moved into McKell the area has become quieter. She remembers walking down Redfern Street to work at the club on Chalmers Street (where Woolies is now) and the shops were all boarded up. She puts the changes in Redfern down to gentrification. The changes to McKell itself she puts down to the arrest of Harriet Wran, the daughter of former NSW Premier Neville Wran, who was charged over her role in the robbery and murder of Daniel McNulty in McKell in 2014. The resultant media focus and publicity caused the then Minister for Housing, Brad Hazzard, and the Department of Housing to step up to the plate.

By October 2015, when SBS’s The Feed did a story on Redfern’s towers, Brad Hazzard told the program that $3 million had been spent on the high-rise towers, with McKell itself receiving new security arrangements, paint, carpets and an onsite welfare centre – Redlink.

Laura believes it is inevitable that a large block of land like that on which McKell is sited with its 300 units close to the city and services will be redeveloped at some point. She also believes it’s long overdue for some sort of redevelopment given that it was built in 1964 and needs so much work done to it.

She rattles off the bus numbers that you can catch into the city and Bondi Junction from Elizabeth and Crown streets, she cites the train station, the shopping malls, Woolies and Bourke Street, a 20-minute walk to the city, and the coffee shops as all things that make living in this part of Redfern great.

In 1962, drawn by the bright lights, Laura moved to Sydney to work in the head offices of the insurance company that she had worked at in Rockhampton where she was born. Within nine months she was working as a dancer for the all-male revue Les Girls, where she continued for 13 years till that particular show closed. Then she came back as a floor manager and she went with the show when it moved to Souths Leagues Club in Redfern, and when it closed she stayed on as a casual with the club.

She has managed to keep in touch with her roots in entertainment through her work as an extra on the movies and on TV. She loves her gardening, cooking and decorating and her work as a tenant rep and she continues to love her life.

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