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Eleanor Gibbs - The life and times of Juanita Nielsen, 2009

Lee Rhiannon 1 Jun 2009

El is a Greens Councillor in the Blue Mountains who has worked for over a decade for not-for-profit and community organisations, with a particular focus on young people and housing. She spoke about the life and times of Juanita Nielsen at the 2009 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture on 1 June 2009.

The story of Juanita Nielsen is one of a passionate, independent, and dedicated journalist, who took on this craft to serve and save her community of Victoria Street, Kings Cross. It is also the story of other journalists, who have worked in the decades since her disappearance to find out what happened to her, and to never give up on finding out the truth. It is a story about the importance of independent, local newspapers, who keep a watching eye on local government. It is about planning rules, and developer power; unlikely coalitions and the preservation of community.

Journalism is meant to be about the facts, the who, what, when, where and why of a story. Opinion is to be shunned, and reporters must be objective. At least that is the theory as I was taught at university. Juanita Nielson was upfront with her opinion, blatantly partisan about what side of the story she believed in and paid the ultimate price.

In an interview with the ABC in 1974, she described Kings Cross a fairytale wonderland, that was full of people, coffee shops - where everyone knew each other. She said that "When I came back to Australia, there was no question I would live anywhere else." Juanita loved her neighbourhood and used her journalism to work to preserve it. A stark reporting of events perhaps would not have had the same impact as her capitalised words, and unique commentary, on this fight against overdevelopment.

Juanita wrote passionately about her community. in the newspaper called NOW. She took over the paper in 1968 after working on it originally with the Reverend Ted Noffs from Wayside Chapel. At first, the paper featured stories about the local restaurants, bars and arts scene in her neighbourhood of Kings Cross. She blurred the lines between advertising and editorial, writing reviews of local business when paid for advertising. This is standard and often commonplace among small local newspapers, lacking a strong journalism team.

She wrote of the events and happenings of the area and in 1971 stated clearly that


"NOW is not, and has never been a crusading newspaper" (Rees p76).

However, this began to change in 1973 in response to the pressures being put on tenants in her street, Victoria St and soon after, Juanita had made up her mind to campaign fiercely against the destruction of the local community.

Juanita Nielsen was the granddaughter of the Sydney retailer, Mark Foy. The Foy department store is now the Downing Centre legal precinct. Her first foray into journalism came when she began a campaign to save the Foy store from a takeover by another retailer. She started a newspaper called foys-a-fairs. This campaign did not endear her to members of her family, but she did accept $50,000 from them which helped her buy her home at 202 Victoria St and finance the newspaper.

Victoria St at that time was a wide street, lined with plane trees and terrace houses, similar to many other inner city areas. In a 2JJ documentary, The Ballad of Victoria Street, aired in 1977, residents described the many older people who lived there as it was affordable, close to the city and had a strong sense of community.

By 1970, developers had begun to buy up large sections of Victoria St, with plans for 3 multi-story unit blocks and a 15 story office building. The local council at the time approved the plans, only to have them knocked back by the State Government. The developer, Frank Theeman, was not dissuaded, and submitted more plans to the local council. His company also began to evict tenants, some who had lived there for decades, issuing 400 eviction notices in 1973.

These evictions provided the catalyst for the formation of the Victoria St Residents Action Group, who opposed the development plans. The first sign of the intimidation to come also happened at this time, with the convener of the Action Group, Arthur King, abducted and held for three days, because of his outspoken opposition. Mr King withdrew from the campaign after this terrifying ordeal, but afterwards worked for many years to find out what had happened to Juanita.

The Residents Action Group approached Jack Mundey, from the Builders and Labourers Federation (the BLF) who had already created unlikely coalitions in Hunters Hill, the Rocks and Wolloomoolloo to save the environmental and built heritage areas of Sydney. By 1973, there were over 40 Green Bans by the BLF across Sydney. The BLF put such a ban on Victoria St, stopping work on the proposed development.

By 1974, after months of pressure from the developer, 250 police came to Victoria Street to evict the final group of residents. More than 50 people were arrested, with my former journalism lecturer, Wendy Bacon, among them.

When Juanita returned from overseas in March 1974, she took the NOW newspaper into a far more overt, campaigning style of journalism. No longer content to simply report on lifestyle issues, she poured out editorials such as this one, urging local residents to vote in the upcoming council elections.

"In the very real social, political and economical tug-o-war that is being carried out at present over the moribund body of Kings Cross, who is going to win?

Will a handful of greedy developers destroy the Cross for profits - HUGE profits or will the remaining residents fight for the right to retain their lifestyle at a price they can afford?

The former have a lot going for them, like money and all the powerful and influential friends and retainers it can buy.

But what can you do, just one of you, to assert your right to live in your chosen environment and lifestyle? Just what can you as a member of the Endangered Species of Singles DO to fight back?


She paid a financial price for this stance, with the local council withdrawing all advertising from her paper, as did many of the businesses in the Cross.

This editorial sums up a key part of Juanita's criticism of the developments planned for her street. That the powerful and the wealthy had access to more rights than local residents. But as a journalist, she also had access to power, and had wealth in her own right. She chose to use this to be part of her community, rather than to destroy it. But it also shows the cost of standing up to the powerful. Few small newspapers are in the position to risk the withdrawal of advertising, particularly from the local council. Does this restrict reporting on the activities of local councils? Does the financial imperative and the current concentrated ownership of local newspapers begin to endanger the ability of local papers to report on development?

The NOW editorial line continued, and by 1975, gave voice to activist and resistant views in the face of big money, political influence, crime and police corruption.

Juanita's partner, David Farrell, became increasingly concerned for her safety throughout 1975. She received strange phone calls and late night knocks on the door. Undeterred, she negotiated with another union, this time the Water and Sewerage Employees Union, to place bans on working on the proposed development.

Her final editorial praised the agreement to revitalise Woolloomoolloo to include affordable housing, but also continued her caustic attacks on the Victoria St development. Juanita disappeared 3 days later, in July 4, 1975. The case of her presumed murder has never been solved, and despite two men being convicted of abducting her, no one has ever been charged with her murder.

Juanita's disappearance shook the community, with a television report in 1976 showing residents still reluctant to discuss what had happened. The 2JJ documentary broadcast resident and activist concerns about the price she paid for standing up to powerful interests.

In 1979, new planning laws were introduced by the newly elected Labor Government that were a direct response to the stand taken by Juanita and many others, particularly to the green bans by unions. These new laws were to allow local communities much more say over development in their area, and to explicitly protect environmental and urban heritage. In 2008, the current Labor Government again gutted these laws, stripping powers from local councils and rushing through large developments despite community opposition. Again, residents are forming action groups around Sydney and NSW to fight the powerful and stop development their communities do not want. From the Hawkesbury, to Ku-ring-ai, to Penrith and the Shoalhaven, to my own Blue Mountains, there is again a rising level of anger about the loss of community control over their homes.

Now we need independent, partisan and passionate journalists, just like Juanita, who will stand up and publish voices of these local residents who feel marginalised and forgotten. In their 2004 book, Killing Juanita, journalist Peter Rees, and Victoria street resident Arthur King, detail both her life and the failures to solve her death. They end with a warning, that the lessons from Juanita Nielsen's life stay with us today in 2009.

"She died for one reason only - her strident and effective opposition to the redevelopment of Victoria Street. An air of inevitability surrounded the events leading up to her death, metamorphosing the drama into a tragedy that is now part of Sydney's folklore. Urban development battles continue to be played out against the background of her murder."

But as Juanita's campaign, the green bans and the eventual introduction of good planning laws in the 1970s shows, community action can and does affect political change. I can only hope that NSW will again see such change, without such cost, with citizens able to be heard above the noise of developer dollars.

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