One resident narrowly escaped a mass murderer, another prefers parrots over people for company and a third is a a retired conman who just wants to be left alone to enjoy some of the best inner-city views in Sydney.
Welcome to Northcott towers, Sydney’s most notorious housing commission complex tucked away in what has become one of Australia’s trendiest and most exclusive suburbs.
About 1,200 residents pay as little as $80 a week for one- or two-bedroom units in the 14-story buildings in Surry Hills, just a stone’s throw from the CBD where average rents for a two-bedroom home run to more than $900 a week.
Known as the ‘suicide towers,’ the complex is Australia’s largest single block of public housing units and has a notorious reputation involving with drug abuse, mental health and unemployment.
Invited by members of the tight-knit community of residents, Daily Mail Australia spent a day in the towers to ‘meet the family’ and explore the colourful neighbourhood.
Sydney’s Northcott towers and surrounding housing commission apartment blocks sit in the middle of Surry Hills, one of the city’s most sought-after suburbs. Pictured here is Pierre, one of the residents
Pierre watching over his five birds as they play together in front of his front window
‘People want us to go somewhere else but where can we go? They will never be able to close Northcott down, because it was opened by the queen,’ resident Jack Franco (pictured) said
Nola, pictured with her cat Nova, is a resident of ‘The Pottery’ which is the building opposite Northcott towers and part of the greater Northcott community
Nestled among the hip bars, restaurants and pubs of Surry Hills, Greater Northcott includes the infamous tower blocks on Belvoir Street to the south, Devonshire Street to the north and Clisdell Street to the west.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO LIVE THERE?
Residents say the housing commission charges them 25 per cent of their income for rent.
Most of the occupants don’t work and are on government benefits.
People on Newstart pay between $80 and $90 for their one or two bedroom apartments.
People on the pension pay $110.
The market value of the inner-city pads is between $420 and $460.
Tenants who work can pay up to the market value for a space.
Utility bills are paid on top.
On the eastern boundary is Ward Park, a popular place for charities to set up food stalls for the Northcott community and others among the inner-city’s poor.
Northcott residents are worried developers have their eye on the prime real estate location and want them moved out because of the huge potential of their inner-city block.
‘People want us to go somewhere else but where can we go? They will never be able to close Northcott down, because it was opened by the queen,’ resident Jack Franco said.
The recent winter’s day Daily Mail Australia visited the complex was cool but bright, and sunlight dappled the tree-lined gardens on the grounds are the tan-coloured brick and concrete buildings.
During the visit, the quiet was punctuated by chaotic screams and the clashing noise of a bicycle thrown from the third-storey veranda during a heated dispute between neighbours.
Sara Adey, who has lived in the towers for three years, said many of the towers’ residents did not have jobs – but blamed the way the unemployment welfare system for this.
‘If you are on Newstart you only pay $80-$90 every week, $110 if you are on a pension. Because I work I have to pay $250,’ she said.
Sara Adey, pictured, claims unemployment is so high because of the way the rent is structured – with 25 per cent of each resident’s income paid as rent
The stunning city view from the 14th floor of the towers which sit a short walk away from the city centre
Milenko Duranovic, pictured left, has lived in the building for 27 years. He has no voice box but still enjoys socialising with some of the other residents, like Barry Faulkner, pictured right
‘It keeps going up until you are paying market value which is between $420 and $460 a week.
‘People don’t want to look for jobs because they don’t want to pay more,’ she said.
One of the residents, who would only speak to Daily Mail Australia through a closed door, claims she hasn’t left the towers in over 22 years. The woman is known as ‘The Recluse’ by her neighbours.
She claimed to be interested in the history of the towers and believes the current structure is much better than the terraces ‘with the toilets out the back’ that had once been in the same spot.
‘I haven’t done my hair I can’t have a photo,’ she said.
Daily Mail Australia met several of the residents of Northcott towers. Here are their stories:
Grant, ‘The Commissioner’, Northcott resident towers for 27 years
Grant ‘The Commissioner’ has lived in greater Northcott for 36 years, and moved into the suicide towers in 1990
‘They call me the commissioner because I am always talking to the police and showing them around,’ Grant told Daily Mail Australia.
Grant, who asked that his surname not be made public, has moved from one apartment to another during his years time in the huge block.
‘One time I had to move because people kept setting my door on fire,’ he said.
In 1990, Grant had a lucky escape from Northcott’s most notorious resident Paul Anthony Evers, a paranoid schizophrenic who shot and killed five people during a rampage in the Clisdell Street apartments on the western side of greater Northcott.
‘I was at my mail box when it all happened,’ Grant said. ‘I didn’t know I was going to be next until the coppers came and told me I was lucky to be alive.
‘It was pretty shocking, some idiot had snapped and shot five people dead then decided not to shoot me because I had never done anything to him.
‘He had lined me up and everything but then just decided not to shoot.’
He later moved to another part of the complex, where he experience more death.
‘I will never forget the first body I saw. It really stunk, like when a mouse or rat has died and is rotting in the walls,’ he said.
‘The police went up to the towers and asked if I knew where this person lived. I showed them to the flat and we all went inside. His body was under a tipped-over lounge, the smell was so bad that I had to go outside.’
He doesn’t know what caused the man’s death, or why police came looking for him.
Grant, pictured at his dining table, claims the suicide rate has gone down but will never forget the bodies he has found
He claims he was just metres away from where one body dropped – and it has put him off eating watermelon
Then there were the suicides that plagued the building’s community for years.
‘I have seen a lot of the bodies,’ he said.
‘One day about two years ago I was walking under the tunnel and stopped for some reason. Then I heard a big bang.
‘It sounded like someone had thrown a desk of the balcony or something.
It was the gruesome scene after someone apparently threw themselves off one of the tower’s high balconies.
‘If I hadn’t stopped they would have landed on me,’ he said.
These days, he says, ‘I try to keep a low profile and have a pretty nice life.’
Mr Grant lived in the Clisdell Street apartments in greater Northcott when Paul Anthony Evers shot and killed five people
Jack Franco, ‘The artist’, Northcott resident for eight years
Jack Franco, pictured, is known as Jacko at Northcott. he has lived there for eight years and is an artist
Jack Franco is an artist who has been living in his two bedroom flat for eight years – moving there to get away from his dirty drug habit.
He relishes his stunning city views, and feeding the wild parrots that live in the tree outside his lounge room.
‘Before I moved into Northcott I was pretty messed up, I was a heroin addict, my art was dark and twisted and I was always looking around for more drugs. Most of my mates from back then are dead or really f***ed up,’ he said.
He spends most of his time inside, developing new techniques to express himself.
‘I am working with the idea that the universe is 90 per cent nothing at the moment,’ he said.
‘So I paint this string and make this half-sculpture, half-painting work that is bright and different but, you know, made 90 per cent from nothing.’
The small flat resembles a art gallery or studio more than a home, with retro blue vinyl lounges and big, bold, bright artworks on the walls.
The brightness of the eclectic space is in stark contrast to the dirty, dreary, rabbit warren of pathways and balconies that connect the complex’s flats to each other and to the outside world.
‘The problem with this place is that there is a lot of vulnerable people here and they get the wrong kind of help.
‘You have people with mental health issues mixing with drug addicts and being led in that direction,’ he said.
The artist looks up to Picasso and Van Gogh – their influence can be seen in much of his work, pictured here in his studio
The artist said when he started out he wanted to do his own version of the Mona Lisa, pictured here, it was created with baby oil mixed with colour
‘Then you have the do-gooders in the park who give out lunches, which just means people have more money for drugs because they don’t have to pay for food.’
‘It is all in here, but ice is the worst. It is even worse than heroin.’
The former addict, who wears long sleeves to hide the track marks caused by years of injecting drugs, said Northcott’s community could not be described in simple terms such as ‘good and bad’.
‘They were the first friends I made here’. Jacko feeds some of the wild birds, they can be seen here on his window
‘It is easy to say there are some good people here and some that are really, really bad. But it isn’t that black and white. Drawing a line between good and bad just divides us and then things get worse.’
Jacko says he has ‘seen three people jump’ and has also witnessed a shooting at the complex but believes these incidents happen because of how vulnerable people in the community are.
The artist looks up to Picasso and Van Gogh – their influence can be seen in much of his work.
The artist blames ‘do-gooder’ charities for some of the negative attitude in the towers and surrounding buildings
Nola, a resident of ‘The Pottery’ in greater Northcott for 36 years
Nola, pictured, has lived in ‘The Pottery’ for 36 years. Her building is opposite the towers on Belvoir Street
When Nola, 87, moved into ‘The Pottery’ – part of the Northcott complex near the towers – it was brand new. She has called it home for 36 years and says that when she leaves ‘it will be in a box out the front door’.
The widowed great-grandmother still fondly recalls the moment she was given the keys to her cosy one-bedroom flat with its own balcony and stunning city views.
‘I was so excited that I was coming in here and not over there in Northcott, I grabbed my keys and went inside and it was beautiful. There was still plastic on the washing machine and the cooker.’
Nola, who is affectionately known around the community for her love of the Sydney Rabbitohs NRL team and for being a ‘collector’ of ‘almost anything’, can’t imagine living anywhere else.
‘About ten years ago I asked for the carpet to be replaced but I ended up just putting rugs over the worn out bits and it doesn’t really matter. I am lucky to be here, I have a balcony for my plants and a beautiful city view.’
The apartment is filled with a lifetime of clutter, collected from grand tours overseas in her youth and her time with her husband. From 209 collectible spoons to books, magazines, dolls and Rabbitohs merchandise, the elderly widow ‘has it all’.
‘I don’t know who is going to want all this once I have gone, but I suppose someone will have to go through it.’
The proud great-grandmother loves being ‘close to everything’ so the inner-city apartment is perfect.
The 87-year-old great-grandmother is pictured here in front of her collectibles which include books and magazines
Nola moved into the one-bedroom apartment with her builder husband when it was brand new – but he died shortly after
Even though she is now part of the greater Northcott community she is glad she doesn’t live in the 14-storey towers which she says are frequented by police.
‘It is nothing to see them putting handcuffs on young people and getting them to take off their shoes before they hop in the back of the paddy wagon,’ she said.
‘My place is nice and quiet – over there you never know what might fly off the balcony.’
She is well-known in the greater Northcott community for her love of the Sydney Rabbitohs – she dresses in their colours every game day
She has traveled the world and her colourful apartment is filled with all of the souveneirs she has collected on the way
She says she sometimes has difficulty catching a taxi home because of the complex’s reputation among cab drivers for trouble.
‘They tell me they won’t take me to Northcott when I tell them my address – and I have to explain I am actually across the road,’ she said.
Nola moved into the home with her husband Manfred, a builder who lost all their money in a bad deal and died shortly afterwards of a ‘massive heart attack’. She now lives with her cat and best friend, Nova.
Her cat Nova, pictured, is her best friend and keeps her company throughout the day – barely leaving her side
Pierre ‘The Parrot Man’, Northcott resident for 15 years
Pierre is affectionately known as ‘The Parrot Man’ as he lives with five birds
Pierre ‘The Parrot Man’ lives in the Devonshire Street units in greater Northcott, just behind the suicide towers. He told Daily Mail Australia he prefers birds to human roommates because they ‘don’t tell lies’.
He shares his art-filled two-bedroom flat with five parrots he says provide ‘great company’. They ‘only cost $30 per week to feed’.
‘Their names are Cleopatra, Caesar, Mary Magdalena, Napoleon Bonaparte and Joan of Arc; so you can probably tell I like history as well,’ he said.
‘I also have a bush turkey but she has to stay outside,’ he said, ‘she is the backyard bird.’
When Pierre isn’t chatting with his birds or fixing up his old van he is making art, and says he prefers to steer clear of the greater Northcott community- he even goes to a different pub to most residents for happy hour.
He becomes animated and chatty when talking about his bird family.
‘You have Caeser the eclectus who is just loving and quiet and loves a cuddle,’ he said.
‘And Mary the lorikeet who is a bad girl’ – and who chirps in, on cue: ‘Bad girl!’ – ‘and she thinks she is the boss, but Cleopatra is.’
Cleopatra is a bright red eclectus with a shocking appearance because of a freshly plucked breast – the breed pulls its own feathers out to build their nests when breeding.
The unemployed animal lover divides his time between the birds, fixing his car and creating artworks
‘Their names are Cleopatra (pictured second from left), Caesar (pictured far right), Mary Magdalena (pictured front), Napoleon Bonaparte (not pictured) and Joan of Arc (pictured far left); so you can probably tell I like history as well’
‘She will lay an egg soon,’ says Pierre.
Cleopatra is the only bird the unemployed animal lover has bought – the rest have been rescued.
‘Joany is just lovely she is a BFG and just loves a snuggle, and Napoleon has only been here for a few months so he is still working it out – but he’s really smart and can say all the words Mary can. It took her five years to learn what he can say in five months.’
The small home is decorated with the parrots in mind: there is newspaper on the floor, washable covers on the lounge, a nesting draw in the kitchen and rope toys hanging from the ceiling.
The smell of incense covers the smell of the birds and classical music plays from the radio to help keep the peace and disguise their squawking.
Every wall is covered from floor to ceiling with Pierre’s artwork which includes photography and paintings in neat frames.
Pierre goes on daily walks with some of his birds and says ‘it isn’t unusual to hear someone talking to trees on the footpath’, a problem he blames on heroin and ice.
‘It is never dull here,’ he said.
He is pictured here enticing one of his birds, Caeser the eclectus, to fly. Behind Pierre is artwork he has created including a self-portrait with the bird
Barry Faulkner, ‘The Impersonator’, Northcott towers resident for three years
Barry Faulkner is ‘The Impersonator’ he has lived in the towers for three years
Barry Faulkner was a conman for 60 years before ‘going into retirement’ and settling down to ‘live a life within the law’.
Faulkner has lived in Northcott towers for three years. He moved in to the first-floor flat with his girlfriend Louise, who has called it home for 13 years.
‘It is an eclectic place. Sometimes it is buzzing with community spirit and everyone loves each other,’ he said. ‘But at other times he ‘wouldn’t give this place’ to his worst enemy, he said.
He claims the building is not kept clean enough and believes the building’s past drama continues to give it a bad name.
‘Overall it isn’t a bad place to live but we do get forgotten about – by everyone except by the police. They are in and out of here every bloody hour.’
Mr Faulkner likes the community barbecues and food donation services held at Ward Park on the eastern side of the housing estate – but fears the ‘blow ins’ make it hard for everyone.
The 70-year-old has a long criminal history as a conman and says he gets upset if he sees a bad con job
He believes the trouble in the housing commission complex is brought on by outsiders as well as the previous reputation as ‘suicide towers’
‘People from here have stopped going because it has been ruined by people that don’t live here – they are nothing but haemorrhoids and should be treated as such.’
The former conman said he feels proud to be living inside the law after a colourful past of posing as somebody else.
‘I was a pilot, I was part of the CIA, I was a surgeon – I have been a lot of things,’ he said.
‘It takes a lot of work but I did it because people said it was impossible, and it was exciting.
‘I was a pilot, I was part of the CIA, I was a surgeon – I have been a lot of things’
He now lives with his girlfriend Louise, who has lived in the home for 13 years, and claims he now abides by the law
‘Nothing upsets me more than seeing a c**p scam, someone who hasn’t put the work in but is getting away with it,’ he said.
He said he also hates when young people won’t learn from his mistakes.
‘They just don’t listen when you tell them what it will cost them long term, that it isn’t worth it.’
Mr Faulkner believes the main issue with Northcott is that it’s a ‘bloody landmark’ with sweeping city views, ‘surrounded by rich people and perfect for developers’.
‘The problems here are no worse than the problems in any other high-density building,’ he said.
Barry Faulkner has lived in the towers for three years and is concerned with the bad reputation it has as the ‘suicide towers’
The Northcott towers, pictured, sit in the centre of Surry Hills with the front on Belvoir Street
The huge red-brick complex has different ‘blocks’ and is sometimes described as looking like a jail or hospital
The entrance way is barred and security passes are needed to get inside. There are signs pointing out cameras and a phone booth to contact Housing New South Wales
The sheer size of the suicide towers appear to dwarf other buildings nearby and have a full view of the escarpment