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Fiona’s story

Memories of hope

These memories are a moving personal account of a childhood growing in Airds in the 1970s and 1980s.

This story from former Airds’ resident Fiona Woods acts a counterpoint to stories of despair and loss from these suburbs. In many ways, Airds was a suburb on the fringe of the world. Many residents were living on the edge and faced many challenges.

Airds Fiona Woods School sisters
Airds Fiona Woods School sisters (F Woods)

 

At the moment many Australian’s have felt a heightened sense of anxiety and need a little hope. Since the bushfires on Australia’s East Coast from September 2019 there are many grim stories.

The uncertainty and lack of control have continued into the Covid crisis, and many feel despair and at a loss.  Fiona’s story provides a ray of sunshine in today’s shadows.

Fiona uses memory as a way of explaining the meaning of past events and peoples involvement in them. She has not created a meaningless collection of unrelated facts.

There are linkages between memory and storytelling.  Each is full of meaning.

Fiona says, ‘Everyone has a story. It’s easy to think of our ancestors as names on a page or a black and white photograph of well-dressed, ‘serious people’.

‘But behind those images is a life that has been lived through both adversity and celebration. With love and pain and all that goes with being human. So many stories that have been untold’.

Fiona’s memories are about a suburb where some residents succeeded and others did not.

This is Fiona’s story and how hope can win through in the end.

Growing up in Airds

Fiona Woods

Growing up in a housing commission estate is not something that traditionally elicits feelings of pride and success. But for me, it does just that. I moved into Airds in 1977, when I was three years old.

My dad had suffered a traumatising work accident, one that would leave him with debilitating, lifelong injuries. My parents already had three small children and were expecting a fourth.

Airds Fiona Woods and brother
Fiona Woods and brother (F Woods)

 

I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for them – Dad was in and out of the hospital, and Mum didn’t drive. Here was where their neighbours stepped in, and my earliest memories of the community began.

Back then, neighbours weren’t just people you waved to from the driveway. They were people you could count on, whether it be for food or childcare or even a simple chat over a cup of tea.

I grew up as part of a village, where a lady in my street took my sisters and me to our first gymnastics lessons.  I developed friendships that have stood the test of time. I have even taught alongside my closest childhood friend, an experience that is something I treasure.

Airds Fiona Woods Kids Airds
Fiona Woods Kids Airds (F Woods)

 

I laugh with my siblings that we can never shop with Mum in Campbelltown – she remembers everyone who lived remotely near us. But for her, it was the friendship she struck up with her new neighbour the day they both moved in that is the most special.

A friendship that has lasted for over 43 years. It still involves daily coffee catch-ups and phone calls.

I started Kindergarten at John Warby Public School, where I learned more than just academics. It was during this time that I experienced how the love of a teacher extends beyond the classroom.

I truly believe it was these experiences that led me to join the profession. I had so much to give back. I remember some of these teachers visiting our home to check in on our parents and even drive them to appointments.

They really took the home-school connection to a new level! I will be forever grateful for the investment they made in us and their belief that we would all succeed.

Living in Airds during the late 70s and early 80s was a time where friendships were built, and people stuck together. It was the freedom of riding bikes with friends until the street lights came on, building makeshift cubbies and performing concerts for the neighbours.

I can still remember the excitement of walking to the local shops with my sisters to buy a few groceries for Mum. The constant search for ‘bargains’ in the hope there would be twenty cents leftover to buy some mixed lollies.

To this day, I still can’t resist a markdown and resent paying full price for anything. Lollies aside, the mere act walking to the shops was an adventure. Teetering along with the giant concrete snake and pretending we were on a secret journey.

Our simple life ensured we had opportunities to use our imagination and explore the world around us, creating memories with our neighbours and friends.

Airds Shopping Centre Interior3 2020 Aust247
Airds Shopping Centre 2020 (I Willis)

 

But life wasn’t always easy. I remember eating dinner and seeing my parents eat toast because there wasn’t enough to go around.

By this stage, they were raising five children, including my youngest brother, who rarely slept for more than an hour each night. He became a case study for professors looking into hyperactivity disorders.

That was little comfort to my mum, who was also Dad’s primary carer, living on minimal sleep and a frugal budget. Yet she showed up every day, always reminding us about the power of education and instilling a true love of learning in us all.

What we lacked for in material possessions was made up by so much more. We learned to be resilient and grateful, and we learned to be kind. We continue to work hard in our chosen fields, always considering how we can help others.

One of the proudest moments for our parents was seeing all five children graduate from university. That and the ongoing pride they feel for their thirteen grandchildren, who love their Nan and Pop like no one else.

Airds Fiona Woods Family pic
Airds Fiona Woods Family pic (F Woods)

 

The roots that were planted back in those early days have been tended with such love and care.

Those trees continue to flourish, branching out into wonderful opportunities. I am forever grateful for the foundations my childhood was built upon.

And I proudly tell everyone about where it is I came from.


Comments to re-publication of the post on South West Voice Facebook page  5 May 2020

  • Daniel Draper Fantastic story Eric Kontos, I am also a Proud Airds Boy moving their in 1977. My mother still lives in the same house. I always said growing up in Airds built character. We had a fantastic childhood and explored every part of the George’s River bushland. They where great days!
  • Frank Ward What a great story and I have come across so many great similar accounts of growing up in Campbelltown and the estates.
    Noting Fiona’s record that she and all her siblings got to go to University makes me particularly proud of the work my late sister Joan M Bielski AO AM who was a teacher but she devoted her life to the promotion of equal opportunity for women in education, politics and society. Her main work was to change the education system so that women got access as when she started at Uni only 25% of women got to Uni and then mainly in teaching now ove 56% of all graduates are women and more women are in political powerful positions This pandemic has been another example of the value of an educated female workforce as they have been on the frontline of this war on the virus so we can only hope that the government will give them equal pay instead of empty words that usually flow from the PM
  • Sam Egan Love this, my family moved to airds in the late 70s, I started at John warby public, we moved when I was 7 or 8 to St Helens park, changed schools. 30+ years later after ending a long relationship i was set up on a date, who just so happened to be the boy who lived across the road from us at airds, who I used to walk to school with every day. His mom still lives in the same street. 15 years later and our own little boy we love going to visit, after all those years you realize how strong that little community is.
    1 reply
  • Leonie Chapman What a fabulous article and account of the old days.
    I grew up there from about 1978 and went to Briar Rd PS and then St Pats.
    I have so many fond memories and close bonds that I made back then and still am lucky to have today

Comments on Fiona’s Facebook page

Fiona Woods  writes

30 April

I have always been proud of my roots, especially the early beginnings of growing up in housing commission. You don’t need riches to be surrounded by love, hope and a desire to succeed.

I am honoured that my story was shared on the blog of local historian, Dr Ian Willis. I thought I’d share it with you all 

Comments

Tracey Seal Wagstaff Thank you for sharing this beautiful story Fiona Woods. I also grew up in Airds in the 70’s & 80’s I can honestly say that your story is just the same as many of us. Your words reflect the same community spirit of my upbringing in Airds where everyone had each others back. My mums house was like a halfway house everyone was welcome and the front door was always open to all. Those where the days. Riding in the streets, building jumps, having dance concerts, this was the way of life. We still have longtime friends from our neighbourhood that we still have contact with today after 40 years…

Wilfred J Pink Great story and well deserved recognition Fi. Congratulations mate.

Linda Hunt Oh Fiona. This bought a tear to my eye. Beautiful words that ring so true. Life growing up in this neighbourhood is truly one to remember. Thank you. I’m happy I was able to read this on this day.
Congratulations. X

Jowen Hillyer How clever are you? Gorgeous words xx
Patricia O’Brien Absolutely gorgeous. What an outstanding view of the many children grew up in Airds. Two of my own children were brought up in Airds and also went to John Warby and they are both school teachers. So proud of how all my children grew up to be people who respect their families and friends.
Stephen Chomicz Inspiring
Jen Nay Beautiful story Fiona Woods
Jowen Hillyer Aww lovely. Great job xxx
Deborah Littlewood Oh Fiona, what an amazing story. Brings back so many wonderful memories with your beautiful family. I love so much that our friendship is as close as it was all those years ago. Us ‘Airds chicks’ certainly did ok for ourselves.
Deborah Littlewood Fiona Woods my favourite part of your story ❤️.
I always remember your mum did so much for everyone else and now you and your daughters are exactly the same. Always putting everyone else before yourselves.
Raylene Neville Naw, that was beautiful x
I was a housing commission kid too! I remember that we had a blue fridge!
Merrideth McGregor Beautifully written ❤️ love it x
Jeff Williams Pretty good writing for a teacher! 🙂 I love waiting for people bagging out housing commission and then letting it be known I grew up there!
Valeska Spratford Jeff Williams the classic old John Warby PS uniform. Little do people know that this low-socioeconomic school gave us free dental and some of the best memories of our lives. C’town represents. . . . .Airds 4Eva 😉
Judi Wood Wonderful story; thanks for sharing 🏆
Ann Hawkins Beautiful Fiona
Cass Bien Beautiful! I also grew up in Housing Commission, we had great neighbours too and I met my best friend at 8 yrs old, still besties today. So grateful for these times. xx Your story is lovely. 😊
Caf Airs Great story showing what family, community and education can achieve.
Melissa Salter Beautiful words Fiona, it is a true depiction of many of us “Airds” kids of that era, great community and John Warby was definitely a major part of all of our success
Jeffrey R Williams Well done. Mum and I are so proud 😤 of you. Love 😍 ya heaps.
Fiona Woods Jeffrey R Williams thanks Dad. And thanks for always believing in us and for never giving up on us, even when we made mistakes and stupid decisions in our lives.
We knew we could always count on you and Mum.
I can even laugh now about how you joked about karma when I cried to you about the horror of having 3 teenage girls 😂
Kim Pike Inspiring and great story 🏅👏
Noleen Spencer Great job , we also came from humble beginnings, not much money but plenty of love to go around , we appreciated every little blessing and was always taught it cost nothing to smile and to lend a helping hand. I’ve always said to my children , you don’t have to be the best , you just have to try your best .
Christine Quensell Loved reading your story Fiona. Thank you for sharing.
Shane Campbell Great story and great family …
Bec Brown This is wonderful Fi. Beautifully told and very inspiring. Love you my friend x
Kristy Sorouni Awesome. 👏
Very powerful and inspiring, love you xx
Cam Maber Beautiful story Fiona. Thankyou so much for sharing..♥️
Julie Douglas Love this, Fiona ❤️
Louise Counsell That was moving. Your family was so rich in the things that mattered
Cathy Harle Fiona, you had the very great privilege of growing up in a home full of love and values with your sisters and brothers, and each one of you have instilled those values in your own children – you can all be very proud of yourselves 💕
Harder Karen Ian Beautiful and well written Fiona and as auntie Noleen said, we also come from a large family, one income earner, little money and a lot of bad health issues but there was also plenty of love and we always appreciated what little we had. I am so grateful for everything and for how all of our beautiful children turned out, I am I only very sad our dear mum and dad didn’t live long enough to see how all their beautiful grandchildren turned out. Your mum and dad did such a good job raising such a beautiful family and I can clearly see you are all doing the same with your own families. Much love 😘😘
Salome Mariner Borg I love this so much! 💙
So well articulated that I could just feel the love and could picture everything as if it were a movie..actually, why not turn it into a movie ☺️👌
Thanks for sharing xx
JoJo Axe Will always be thankful for our humble beginnings and everything our families have done for each other. That beautiful special friendship like no other that our Mum’s have, the joy and support they give to one another is amazing. Something to be very grateful for 😘
Amy Lou Thank you for sharing this. An inspiring story with some aspects that remind me of my own childhood. ❤️
Michelle Halloran Love your story Fiona. Thank you so much for sharing! Eplains why you are such an amazing teacher and person 🤗 We moved into a housing commission place at Ambarvale in 1981 when I was 6, the neighbours were awesome their too! So many great memories growing up there. Freedom to roam the neighbourhood on our bikes, visiting 5 or 6 friends on a Saturday, Mum and Dad having no idea where I was until I arrived home before dark! Sadly it’s a different world now.
Stephanie Compton That story is beautifully written. I can really feel your heat’s journey and the feel of family and community… which has helped make you the amazing woman and mother you are today! xoxo
Fiona Maureen That was such a nice read. Good to get to know you more. ☺️
Yvette Underwood Torr That is wonderful. Your parents did an amazing job.

Originally posted 30 April 2020

Updated 19 June 2020
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The mall hope forgot

The Airds Shopping Centre

Recently I came across an article about the future of the Airds shopping mall in the Macarthur Chronicle headed ‘Dilapidated centre set to be transformed’. It stated:

A wrecking ball could be swinging towards a dilapidated shopping village. The grand plans propose to demolish Airds Village shopping centre, on Riverside Drive, and replace it with a $21 million centre.

Airds Shopping Centre redevelopment Macarthur Chroncile 2020Apr1

A sad story of decay and neglect

The imminent demolition of the decaying and neglected Airds shopping mall is a sad indictment of the dreams of many and the ultimate demise of the 1970s Macarthur Growth Centre.

The shopping mall is an example of urban decay in the middle of our local suburbia. It is a failure of modernism and the town planning utopia of city-based decision-makers.

The decay at Airds is not unusual and is symbolic of larger trends in global retailing where shopping malls are in decline.

The current dismal state of affairs hides the fact that in the mid-20th century there was great hope and optimism by Campbelltown’s civic leaders for the area’s development and progress.

Airds Shopping Centre Frontage from Walkway underpass 2020 IW lowres
The front view of the Airds Shopping Centre framed by  the underpass at Riverside Drive Airds 2020 (IW)

 

Progress, development, and modernism

There grand plans for Campbelltown as a satellite city within the New South Wales state government’s County of Cumberland Plan.

Local confidence saw the construction of the 1964 modernist council chambers and in 1968 the declaration of city status, electrification of the railway and the announcement of  Sydney Region Outline Plan by the state government.

Influenced by the British New Town movement the city was incorporated in the State Planning Authority of NSW’s 1973 New Cities of Campbelltown Camden Appin Structure Plan.  This later became the Macarthur Growth Centre administered by the Macarthur Development Board.

Airds Shopping Centre Front from footpath with grass 2020 IW lowres
The unkempt state of the surrounds at the Airds Shopping Centre in Riverside Drive Airds 2020 (IW)

 

Radburn – a ‘foreign country’

Airds was one of several ‘corridor’ suburbs of public housing that following the American Radburn principles.  The Airds shopping centre was built as part of the 1975 Housing Commission of New South Wales subdivision of ‘Kentlyn’ which was renamed Airds in 1976.

The Radburn principles were applied to five public housing estates that were developed by the Housing Commission of New South Wales in the Campbelltown area between 1972 and 1989. The other four estates were Macquarie Fields, Claymore, Minto and Ambervale.

The design concept originated from the town of Radburn in New Jersey in 1928 and reflected the optimism of American modernism around the motor car and consumerism.

Houses were developed ‘back-to-front’ with the front of the house facing a walkway or green open space and the back door facing the street. This meant that there was a separation of pedestrians and cars, with a large communal open area centred on the walkways between the rows of houses. This resulted in a streetscape consisting of rows of high blank fences enclosing backyards.

Travis Collins from the University of New South Wales argues that the Radburn principles were initially designed for aspirational upper-middle-class areas and their desire for a garden suburb, where pedestrian walkways and common areas linked across the estate. These areas were expected to be the centre of neighborhood life without the need for a car.

Airds Shopping Centre Interior Signage 2020 IW lowres
The interior walkway into the middle of the Airds Shopping Centre 2020 (IW)

 

Radburn watered down

The suburb of Airds, and other Campbelltown public housing estates, started off with grand plans that evaporated over time due to: changes of government; cost-cutting; abolition of government instrumentalities; and neglect. This resulted in a ‘watered down’ Radburn vision.

The public housing estates did have extensive open space which was true to Radburn principles. Yet there were compromises and the Housing Commission built townhouses that were counter to the  Radburn concept.

The tracts of open space became wastelands of neglect and vandalism that were poorly provisioned and maintained by the Housing Commission with a lack of privacy and security. The back lanes and streets were isolated, lacked security and resident surveillance and were sites characterised by dumped rubbish and graffiti.

The estates were populated with high numbers of single-parent families who suffered from high levels of social exclusion, unemployment, and low incomes.

Airds Shopping Centre Interior2 2020 IW lowres
The interior space of the Airds Shopping Centre 2020 (IW)

 

Radburn failures

Collins argues that the Radburn principles were a failure and contributing factors included: poor surveillance of the street by residents because of high rear fences fronting the street; anti-social behaviour along the walkways and open space areas; and the low socio-economic status of residents.

The failure of the Radburn scheme was finally recognised by the authorities in the early 2000s. They acknowledged that: the design was unsuitable for concentrated public housing estates; they created confusing neighborhoods with unsafe walkways, poor car access, and poor surveillance of areas of open space; the poorly constructed housing stock became run down and dilapidated; the housing stock was infested with termites. Some of these issues were reflected in Airds and the shopping mall from the mid-1970s.

Airds Shopping Centre Frontage from Walkway 2020 IW lowres
Approaching the front of the Airds Shopping Centre from the underpass at Riverside Drive Airds 2020 (IW)

 

Memories of hope

In the 1970s I taught at Airds High School adjacent to the shopping mall and my memories are mixed. Young people who came from disfunctional backgrounds, yet their resilience allowed them to rise above it, grow and mature into sensible young adults. This process is supported by the life experience of former Airds resident Fiona Woods (Facebook, April 2020) who grew up in Airds in the 1970s and 1980s. She says:

I have the best memories of Airds, especially that shopping centre. Riding our bikes to buy lollies.  Growing up in Airds in the 70s was very communal. I loved it. I arrived at Airds in 1977 when I was 3 and lived there until 1984. I went to John Warby [Public School]. There was such a strong sense of community. My mum met her best friend when they moved into their new houses in Airds. They have been friends for over 40 years and still speak daily.

Fiona tells the story of her sister who taught at Airds High School in the 1990s. She found the teaching experience challenging, as I did 20 years earlier, yet the youngsters were confident, grounded and without airs and graces.

Similarly I found Airds school children had a refreshing unsophisticated innocence that was generated by difficult circumstances. They were unpretentious and you quickly knew where you stood with them teaching in a classroom that was always full of unconfined energy. You always had classroom ‘war stories’ and I said that this is where I did my ‘missionary work’.

Bogans galore and more

The Airds shopping mall is a metaphor for what happened to Campbelltown between the 1970s and the present. It represents the collision of modernism and neoliberalism in place. The optimism of the 1960s contrasting with the despair of the 1980s.

The shopping mall is a metaphor for the stereotypes that are bandied around over the geographical term ‘Western Sydney’ and the use of terms like ‘bogan’ and ‘westie’. Typified by Sydney’s latte line where city-based decision-makers dealt with suburbs west of the latte line as a foreign country. In 2013 Campbelltown journalist Jeff McGill took exception to ‘bogan’ characterisation of the Campbelltown area by the Sydney media.

Gabrielle Gwyther put it this way:

Derogatory labeling of residents of western Sydney was aided by the social problems and cheap aesthetic of large-scale, public housing estates developed in the 1950s at Seven Hills, followed by Green Valley and Mount Druitt in the 1960s, and the Radburn estates of Bonnyrigg, Villawood, Claymore, Minto, Airds and Macquarie Fields in the 1970s.

Airds Shopping Centre Gate Entry 2020 IW lowres
The side security gates at the Airds Shopping Centre Riverside Drive Airds 2020 (IW)

 

De-Radburnisation

These failures were acknowledged in 1995 with the state government’s public housing renewal projects and their de-Radburnisation through the Neighbourhood Improvement Program.

At Airds this is partly responsible for the re-development of the shopping centre as outlined in the Macarthur Chronicle.

Updated 17 April 2020; Originally posted 11 April 2020