The sun is intense as I drive back to Miller, a suburb of some repute in Sydney’s sprawling south-west. I’ve been visiting for a year or more, but my picture of the area is still full of contradictions and unanswered questions. This time, I hope, I’ll finally see the place in a clear light.

On this Friday morning, the car park outside the rundown shopping centre is packed. People are hanging around the entrance to the Green Valley Hotel. Nearby, the pawnbroker’s doors are open, and a sign on the window lists the “10 top wanted goods”. (At the top of the list are PlayStations, Xboxes and mobile phones.) I make my way past the two-dollar shops and across the road to Miller Square, where a few people are sitting on a brick wall by the library, drinking. They seem out of place, sitting in front of the metres and metres of murals and mosaics that brighten the walls and distract from the faded brick flats nearby. Beyond is the patchwork of public housing that dominates the area.

The artwork seems to be saying — in a voice that’s not entirely convincing, perhaps because it knows you can never entirely escape your past — that this is a friendly place where anyone is welcome. The bright paintwork on the exterior of the community health centre spells it out more explicitly: “Welcome to The Hub”. And as I push open the door another sign gives a different message, warning that offensive or aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that visits to Miller usually leave me confused; it is a place of such mixed messages, of hope and pride as well as despair, frustration and anger. But the story of this suburb is worth trying to understand because it says much about the connections between where people live and their prospects, their well-being and their health. It also says something about how government policies and programs can help to create and to ameliorate the problems of people living in suburbs such as Miller.

In the jargon, this area of “locational disadvantage” matches all the usual indicators: low education levels, unemployment, poverty, family dysfunction, and mental health and drug and alcohol problems. But this is also a place where an unusual project has brought together local residents with government and community agencies to work for change.

The Community 2168 project — a reference to the local postcode — began in 1999 with three agencies, the Liverpool City Council, the state Department of Housing and the local health service, pitching in $30,000 each. Described as a “major community renewal and capacity building partnership”, it began in response to a crisis in public safety alongside the closure of the bank, the police station and other local services, which left residents feeling abandoned.

Read the full post at Inside Story.

Peter Fray

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