Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Nella Keenan
Interviewer: Clara Weibers
Interview Date: 28 March 2017
Clara Welcome to Warrawong Library Oral Histories project. We’re with Nella Keenan who is here to speak with us about her time here in the area. Welcome Nella.
Nella Thank you Clara.
Clara So Nella you were born in Port Kembla?
Nella Ah, yes. Born in Wollongong, but I’ve lived in Port Kembla all my life 54 years.
Clara Okay, so you were the daughter of Italian immigrants, when did they first come out?
Nella Yes my father came out in about 1955-56 and he was engaged to my mother who then came out a few years later after he located himself with a home and a job and then when he was ready to marry, um and he was set up he called for her and she came out a couple years later and they were married at St. Patrick’s Church Parish at Port Kembla also.
Clara And, were do you have any other brothers and sisters?
Nella I’ve got an older brother, 3 years [older] and a younger sister also 3, well 2 and a half, 3 years younger, I’m the middle child.
Clara And ah, you grew up in Port Kembla in the same house.
Nella Ah, I think the house that my dad built in Perth Road, I grew up there. Ah, he lived in Cowper Street and rented accommodation with his cousins to save some money and then when he had enough money for the deposit for land he purchased a block of land in Perth Road where he built his house and they were married and that’s where they started their family. So yeah but, he’s still there and I’ve only moved up the road, so I didn’t venture very far.
Clara And so what did your parents like do that like for occupations. Did they work? Was it a time of, you know, was your mum a stay at home mum or did she look after the kids? What was…
Nella Well Dad was obviously a farmer and he came out with those farming skills. Um, but obviously coming to the Illawarra was industry, so he got a job at the steelworks as a labourer, um, and he worked there for 30 odd years. Um, and then Mum was a stay-at-home Mum, she raised us, she never worked, but she provided very good meals and did the garden.
Clara And it was all possible, much more possible too back then too, wasn’t it?
Nella Yes, yes. She was the stable one at home, she was always at home. She showed us the love of the beach, because she loved swimming, so in her spare time she took us down to the pool, and she loved to swim too, so she got used to being near the ocean.
Clara Fantastic. So do you, do, what are some of your most, sort of like fond childhood memories of growing up in Port Kembla, and attending Port Kembla primary school.?
Nella Well I was well aware that we were very different to Aussies, just from the food that we used to bring [laughs] to school – salami and olives and, um, which now it’s all very…
Clara Yes, very Mediterranean now!
Nella Yeah. And also that we spoke another language. I was a little bit ashamed that I spoke another language back then. But now, to my benefit it’s made my life richer, and I feel better, much – I’m very grateful for it. And so slowly we integrated into school, always aware that it was a little bit different, but people then learnt to accept us as part of a group of friends that, sort of, didn’t matter after primary school and into high school.
Clara Because Port Kembla was a very multicultural place already back then, because there were a lot of, ah, Europeans who had moved out here to work. So did you find that there was also a bonding thing happening with other European kids?
Nella Um, yes, probably more so in high school, because in high school then there was a group of us that hung out. There was Greek, Italians, um, a Macedonian, ah, or Macedonians, so we were – and Spanish – so actually at one point, was, there was hardly any Aussies, it was all Europeans. But then it was sort of just was a melting pot. It didn’t matter as I got older, but, yeah.
Clara Just back to like any other, like, childhood memories that you may have that, you know, like, that some, of some changes, perhaps, that you may have seen throughout your 50, over 50 years here in Port Kembla.
Nella Well I think the food, the food was a really important thing, because my parents, um, grew olives and made their own olives, we had chickens, we used to, you know, raise and slaughter our own chickens and salsa used to make salsa. We used to make wine and sausages, they were all things that you couldn’t buy in the shops in the 1960s and 70s until Contarino opened up in Port Kembla [laughter], and then you could buy all those things [laughs] and, you know…
Clara Just for the people listening Contarino in Port Kembla was…?
Nella An Italian delicatessen that served all the Italians of the Illawarra with imported food that you couldn’t buy in Australia so they had to import it – olive oil, um, the salamis, [unclear] um, maybe the salamis, no, they couldn’t have been imported, but anyway, you could buy all different types of salamis, cheeses, um, condiments, um, you know, all pastas. So, so food was a one of, probably the most memorable things, you know, as a child.
Clara What about sort of like just playing, you know, in, you know, as a kid on the streets, you know, um…
Nella I think by the time I went to school we just integrated and played the games that everyone else played, hopscotch, yo-yo’s, swimming, skateboarding. There wasn’t anything specifically Italian that I did, um, that was different. So I think by the time I went to school, um, I was pretty much integrated in what they used to play. But what was interesting was up until I went to school we used to have for breakfast, um, dried bread and coffee and milk with our breakfast. So then when T.V. came out, western cereals, like “Mum, buy the Cornflakes! Buy the Weetbix!” you know, because we didn’t have that sort of thing. So T.V. then opened up a whole different, um, you know…
Clara Yeah. Exposed you to things that you thought you needed, you know, but you were still doing all right.
Clara Yeah, yeah, yeah. What about, um, as you sort of grew into your own, sort of like adult life, um, in Port Kembla, was there any – like, I said, any like, um, distinctive changes that you saw in the area.
Nella Um, I always knew Port Kembla was a fantastic place to live. It always had so much potential. Um, the main street sort of died in the 19-, early ’80s, um…
Clara So you would remember the early billy cart derbies?
Nella Yes, yes.
Clara The banks, the big shops in Port Kembla?
Nella Well Port Kembla used to be the commercial hub of the Illawarra. It was Port Kembla before it was Wollongong City, um, because of the port. So Port Kembla was the commercial hub, um, so obviously it thrived in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, and then in the early ‘70s it started to decline, because Warrawong shopping centre then came into place. And they diverted the road, because you’d have to, used to come into Port Kembla to come to Warrawong, but then they put the diversion, King Street, and then past Primbee through to Windang, the diversion passed Primbee so, you know, the road opened up Warrawong, and Port Kembla subsequently died. Um, so there was a lot of changes, there was a lot of industry in Port, but that’s all changed now.
Clara Again, yeah.
Nella It’s, it’s, actually, Port has transformed into something else. It sort of, it stayed idle, as a desolate town for a long time, but I think it’s transformed itself, and people are actually seeing the potential of Port Kembla.
Clara Mmm. Do you remember any of the billy cart derbies, ah?
Nella Yeah, yeah, ‘cos I used to work in the pub.
Clara Ahh, [laughter] ok.
Nella Yeah, yeah, when I used to get busy [unclear] ‘cos that was a really busy pub in Port Kembla.
Clara Wow. Ok.
Nella Yeah. So I was probably in my late teens, 18 years, 18 till about 20.
Clara Ok. Ahh. And have you had the, the privilege of going back to see the, the last couple of years?
Nella Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And, and I personally thought it was best left for a time, but then again I suppose the whole concept of billy carts can be revived for the next generation that, sort of, didn’t see it for a long time. So it’s a good thing. I don’t think we should have it every year but, I think every 2 years would be quite sufficient.
Clara Yeah, yeah.
Nella So, but a couple of times it’s been, it’s been a big success.
Clara Yes exactly, you know, it’s a good thing for the area as well. So, what, how do you spend your time still now in Port Kembla after, you know, um, you know, having seen the changes, and even though like you said you always see Port Kembla with the potential that it has, how do you spend your time now in Port Kembla?
Nella Well I’m involved with our community project at Port Kembla, so I’ve been volunteering there probably for 17 years. Um, and I’m…
Clara Can you tell us a little bit about the community project in Port Kembla?
Nella Oh, our community project is a volunteer-based organisation with a paid coordinator, and, um, and which applies for funding for projects that are generated from the general public, um, to bring about culture change. And we’ve got some projects, um, that are up and running – Green Connect – which has, um, actually attracted some corporate funding, because it’s actually, ah, generating jobs. It’s tackling, it’s tackling, you know, waste and food, um, resources, and is employing the refugee population. And we also, um, have started our start-up businesses, not-for-profit funeral business, as a social model.
Clara A very [pause] busy project. So, our community project.
Nella And then we have 3, I think 2 or 3 free community events that we put on a meal and sort of a festive occasion, um, for the community.
Clara Uh hm. And you see that as – do you see a lot of new people moving to the area or a lot of more steady people coming to the area or taking advantage of the, the community project as well, or…?
Nella Well our community project doesn’t just concentrate on Port Kembla. That’s why we changed our name from Port Kembla Community Centre to Our Community Project.
Nella Because it’s, we’re about not just the immediate area, what we do is focused on the benefit, for everyone to benefit in the Illawarra.
Nella And even nationally and internationally. We just don’t have an inward looking, um, ah, vision, we, we have looked out for a bigger vision.
Nella And just that we happen to be based in Port Kembla [laughter].
Clara That’s fantastic.
Nella Which I’m happy about [laughter].
Clara Well, yeah, exactly it’s a really good, that’s really good, so…
Nella I’m very passionate about Port Kembla because for many years it was trashed, and, um, you know, not given a good reputation, but nothing’s changed in Port Kembla, everything’s still the same and the only thing that’s changed is the copper smelter’s come down, um, the steelworks obviously because of the downgrade, has less polluting potential, and the, the prostitutes and the drugs are still there but not as visible. Um, but people have just now just got on with their business and not bogged down with focussing on that. And as the street gets busier, I think they’ll just, you know, minimise their, their visibility. They might come out at night or whatever, but the business-like owners it’s, it’s actually quite good, because they can’t even afford to be in the shopping centres.
Nella So the main street is actually a good place to have business.
Clara Well Nella, thank you very much for sharing, you know, your childhood and your memories, your upbringing and everything else. And it’s really good to hear about the community project as well, and, ah, for being a part of our Oral History project.
Nella Thank you Clara.