On My Watch: The Last Resident of Sirius, Myra Demetriou
Every place has a person. "On My Watch" explores the cultural heritage sites of the 2018 World Monuments Watch and the people who are fighting for their protection.
We sat down with Myra Demetriou, the last remaining resident of the iconic Sirius Building, to discuss her life, her home, and her ongoing fight for public housing.
When Myra Demetriou moved into the Sirius Building in 2008, it wasn’t the iconic Brutalist architecture that attracted her.
“I liked it even before I came into it because there are no steps,” laughed Myra during a recent phone interview from her tenth floor apartment in Sydney, Australia. “It was built purposefully for people like myself.”
Today, at 91 years old and with eyes and knees that have witnessed better days, Myra Demetriou is the last remaining tenant in the Sirius Building. After a public battle to protect the structure that served as social housing for more than 30 years, the New South Wales government placed it on the market last month. Myra must now relocate.
Her life in The Rocks neighborhood of Sydney has spanned six decades, during which time she raised a family and watched a community change – from shipyard workers to millionaires seeking drop-dead views. She was living in Millers Point in the 1970s when the legendary Green Bans took place in response to an unpopular development proposal that would demolish historic nineteenth century buildings and replace them with office towers. Though the campaign was successful, the neighborhood’s working-class residents were still pressured to move, and Sirius was subsequently built to house them.
“The government forgets the importance of the past,” said Myra. “All we can do is tell the story of this place and the people and hope people listen. I suppose this is the same as the activism of fifty years ago. We are capturing the imagination of people.”
Following the death of her husband and a macular degeneration diagnosis in the 1990s, Myra kept going. She took on volunteer and civic roles, and stayed busy with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Eventually, Myra would make her way to Sirius, where mobility was easier.
Over her decade at Sirius, Myra’s neighbors became friends – and mouths to joyfully feed. During the 2016 holidays, even with nearly zero eyesight, Myra purchased 88 pounds of dried fruits and nuts and spent weeks baking Christmas cakes for her fellow residents and friends.
When asked for her most cherished memory from her life at Sirius, the answer came quick. “It's the people around me. All of them. And now they have all been taken from me.”
In 2014, the New South Wales government announced intentions to sell Sirius in order to fund more social housing elsewhere. They believed it would attract a hefty price tag from private developers eyeing its views of Sydney Harbor.
When heritage experts, government officials, and community groups cried foul, Myra was right there with them.
“There has to be room in the city for everyone,” said Myra. “Nobody wants a city just for rich people. Public housing gives people with less money a chance to live close to jobs and people they have known.”
As her neighbors were relocated one by one, Myra refused to move. She became a sort of celebrity, the face of a determined Sirius, calling for government to recognize the building’s architectural and social significance. Myra joined forces with local advocacy group Save Our Sirius, spoke at State Parliament, gave interviews to the press, and opened her home to 2,000 Sirius enthusiasts eager to show their solidarity.
“They have come from all over and they tell me how much they love Sirius. There are so many young people I have met, and they give me hope for the future.”
In an effort to quite literally illuminate the campaign, she taped an “S.O.S.” sign composed of bright red blinking bulbs to her living room window. It can be seen as far as the Sydney Opera House. “The week it went up the government told me it had to come down,” Myra recalled. “But I said no.”
In October 2017, the New South Wales government rejected the recommendation of the state’s Heritage Council to landmark Sirius, a designation that could have limited the ability for developers to alter or demolish the structure. Shortly thereafter, the building was officially put up for sale.
Eventually, Myra was the only one left among 79 purpose-built residential units. “Nearly everyone I know has been forced to leave the city. It's terrible.”
As she prepares to move from her apartment to new housing in a suburb of Sydney, Myra says the battle – and her contribution to it – is not over.
“I will continue to fight. Are we to be the only major city in the world without public housing? It's ridiculous. We should have a say in what sort of city we are living in. The government has not been very good at it. They forget and they don't listen. We have to keep telling them.”
And as for those S.O.S. lights? “I will take them with me.”