Where is the line between community history and community action? And is this distinction ultimately important, or does it create a false dichotomy between academia and community organisations?
I ask these questions because of an issue that has come up in the course of my research. My topic area is the White Bay area and the maritime related industries that form an important part of the history of this traditionally working class area, at least until the loss of the port facilities in the 1970s as a result of containerisation and the resulting gentrification of the area. The state government has been pushing a plan to redevelop the White Bay foreshore, along with that of the neighbouring Johnston, Jones, Blackwattle, and Rozelle Bays, in what will be the largest waterfront, and possible even the largest urban development project in the world.
The impact this will have on the southern end of the Balmain peninsula will be staggering, on the businesses that currently operate that will be displaced, and the people whose low-medium density neighbourhoods will be transformed by high density residential and commercial real estate projects that will accompany the foreshore development. If previous urban redevelopment projects are any guide, for instance the redevelopment of Darling Harbour in the 1980s, or the more recent Barangaroo development, then the damage to heritage and local historical landmarks will be immense.
Part of the rationale for the topic I chose, in consultation with the members of the archive committee of the Balmain Association, the organisation I have been working with, was to provide, in a small way, some historical context to the area before it’s swept away by massive construction projects.
The question I continually have to ask myself is, if this project is defined in some part by the current needs of my organisation in their advocacy work, then in what ways could it colour my research, and if it does indeed represent a bias, how should I approach the project with that in mind?