Welcome to A-town: A connected community in Christchurch's second poorest suburb video

JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF.CO.NZ

Lois Foote has lived off and on in Aranui for 25 years. The Aranui suburb 6 years on from an earthquake that really hit their community hard, being one of Christchurch's poorest and most diverse suburbs.

It's two days before Aranui's biggest event of the year and Rachael Fonotia's office on Hampshire Street is bustling with activity.

Decades ago, Hampshire Street was the most feared street in Christchurch. For some people this perception remains, and Fonotia is a little tired of the stereotype.

She makes the case that despite road works and their cones still littering the eastern suburb, new community assets are adding to what may be Christchurch's most connected community.

If anyone knows Aranui it is Fonotia. Born and raised in the area, as the manager of the Aranui Community Trust Incorporated Society (Actis), she is now helping to lead the grassroots recovery of an eastern suburb that's been "forgotten".

I visit the day after a repeat of TV show Into the Darklands, about double murderer and necrophiliac Jason Somerville and the House of Horrors at the corner of Hampshire Street, has screened.

Fonotia shrugs and a sad look briefly passes across her face.

"What are you going to write?", she says warily. "We've had it all."

"That house of horrors... it was so tough on everyone in this community, especially the families," says Fonotia. "It doesn't help anyone heal when they keep bringing it up."

The site is now known as Ripene Ma Reserve.

"We just held our White Ribbon event there... it's about making positive changes."

Rachel Fonotia is the manager of the Aranui Community Trust.
John Kirk-Anderson

Rachel Fonotia is the manager of the Aranui Community Trust.

The epicentre of positive change in Aranui is likely to be right here, where ahead of the annual community festival Affirm, Fonotia is writing herself post-it note reminders.

The Actis office, as local residents refer to it, is the heart of Aranui and has been so for the best part of a decade.

Every day Actis is actively helping those in their community – from the Aranui Neighbourhood Nurse visits to Maori Land Court (first Tuesday of every month) and literacy programmes; early childhood education – "we're really big on getting the children into this"; a member of the NZ Fire Service is in the office once a week to help put in smoke alarms - "we'd rather be there doing that, than have to turn up in the middle of the night to put out a fire"; foot clinics and a fruit and vegie co-op – "bags are $12 and $6, people just come in here to pick them up".

The Aranui Tool Shed is so popular, Fonotia says, they can't keep up with demand for the lawnmower hire.

"We've got a couple of old mowers and they're always out," she says. "It all feeds into that thing of if you look after your garden it gives you a bit of self-pride in your home, which in turn feeds into being good for your community."

It sounds like a such small thing but for many Aranui residents, it makes a huge difference.

News stories about Aranui tend to follow a similar narrative.

Typically, white middle-aged men are consulted for their opinions on how to improve the prospects of the low socio-economic suburb. Typically, there's a focus on Hampshire Street, dubbed "the Reservation" by police in the 1990s.

Fonotia has the statistics of the suburb she's passionate about on the tip of her tongue.

"The median income of people in Aranui is $18,000," she says. "On the deprivation index, Aranui is at 10, which is the lowest rating. For example, most people that live here don't have internet access at home, that's a total luxury. For most people looking at your phone or looking up something on your computer is taken for granted."

Sunny snapshots of Aranui's 16 Affirm family festival at Wainoni Park on December 3. Close to 5000 turned up for the ...

Sunny snapshots of Aranui's 16 Affirm family festival at Wainoni Park on December 3. Close to 5000 turned up for the action and the fun.

After the 7.8M earthquake and subsequent tsunami warning on November 14, Actis fielded many concerns from frightened residents in the east.

"We've had six years of earthquakes to get this stuff right – why isn't this sorted out yet?" asks Fonotia.

These were people who couldn't go online to check for Civil Defence updates – they relied solely on the sirens.

"They wanted to know where the blue line was," Fonotia says. "That's what we're dealing with here. They didn't know where to go or how far to go inland. They didn't know when to come back home. Some people evacuated but, when they finally did came back home, the sirens went back on again later that morning so they didn't know what to do. I think there should be a big artwork that can be lit up at night so if something like that happened again people would know where they have to get to in order to be safe."

Ripena Ma Reserve, White Ribbon Reserve, now sits where the house that was nicknamed the ''house of horrors" used to ...
Joseph Johnson

Ripena Ma Reserve, White Ribbon Reserve, now sits where the house that was nicknamed the ''house of horrors" used to stand on Hampshire Street in Aranui.

For many residents, the Actis monthly newsletter is a lifeline.

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"There are many people in the community who wouldn't know anything about what was happening with the recovery if it wasn't for the newsletter," says Fonotia.

The Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (Scirt) supports the newsletter with a full-page listing road repairs.

Fonotia pulls up a picture of a giant inflatable road cone that Scirt had offered for this month's Affirm festival.

"It's good of them to offer but I think we've seen enough of those around here."

Six years on from the 2011 earthquakes, roadworks are still a major concern for residents in the eastern suburbs.

"You can go out one way in the morning and come back a few hours later to find that road is blocked off now," says Fonotia.

Carisbrooke Street resident, Lois Foote, who has lived in Aranui for around 25 years, agrees.

In Aranui, roadworks are an ongoing frustration, six years on from the 2011 earthquakes.
Joseph Johnson

In Aranui, roadworks are an ongoing frustration, six years on from the 2011 earthquakes.

"It's relentless and it's depressing," Foote says. "Although now that the motorway has finished it's been better. Before that our house would shake every time a truck went past."

Foote, who lives with chronic lung problems, finds living with dust from the constant roadworks difficult.

"You wash your house and your windows and the next day they're covered in dust again. I just can't understand why the various companies don't co-ordinate with each other. They seem to re-do the same bit of road three times. They dig it up and put it back then come along a week or so later and dig it up again. It makes no sense."

Aranui as "like a retirement village" Lois Foote says.

Aranui as "like a retirement village" Lois Foote says.

She describes Aranui as "like a retirement village" and says she feels safe walking down the street now, something she might not have said six years ago.

Aranui is a Maori word, with "ara" meaning path and "nui" meaning great.

Tihi Puanaki laughs when she says she ran the Maori department at Aranui High School for "millions of years".

It wasn't millions of years but it was decades.

For more than 40 years she has been a leader in kapa haka and waiata Maori.

In 2014, Puanaki, of Ngati Hine and Ngai Tahu descent, won a Lifetime Achievement Award.

A teacher, performer, composer and choreographer, she established the first kura kaupapa Maori in the South Island, Te Kura Whakapumau i Te Reo Tuturu, in 1986, and was awarded a QSM in 2003 for her work in Maori education.

Te Kotahitanga, a group she established alongside her husband, sons and whanau, have won both regional and national kapa haka competitions.

Everyone in Aranui knows her or knows of her.

She's known for her plain speaking, down-to-earth ways.

"I'm going to tell it to you straight," Puanaki says. "Because that is how I am. I hate the roadworks here, like most of us do. We even wrote a song about it, we got so sick of it."

Aranui High School, Avondale School, Wainoni School and Aranui School all closed their doors for the last time this month.

"It has been very hard for our people to have their schools close," says Puanaki. "It goes right to the heart of the community. Some people have lost their jobs and there is a lot of history that will be lost. It has been very hard. I have been involved in education for much of my life, I hope this works out positively."

The combined "super school" Haeata Community Campus, opens on Friday, February 3.

The principal of the Haeata Community Campus, Andy Kai Fong, says the building is on time for completion and the official hand-over date is December 16.

"Most teaching staff have been on board and preparing for the new school since October 10," adds Fong. "Enrolments stand around 600 students currently. We feel there has been a momentum shift as the year has progressed and many of the community are excited to be part of Haeata."

Fina Fa'amoe, manager of the Aranui Eagles premier rugby league team. Nearly six years on from the 2011 earthquakes, the ...
Joseph Johnson

Fina Fa'amoe, manager of the Aranui Eagles premier rugby league team. Nearly six years on from the 2011 earthquakes, the club still has no clubrooms and stores its gear in shipping containers.

To say that A-town, as Aranui residents call their suburb, is  big on rugby league, is an understatement.

Fina Fa'amoe, known as "Mama Eagle" to many club members, is the premier manager, club registrar, club secretary and committee member of the Aranui Eagles premier team.

"The boys are aged 18-35 years," she says. "But I'm like Mama Eagle in my role."

On the field where her beloved team trains, Fa'amoe rattles off some of the Eagles accomplishments.

At the Canterbury Rugby League Awards in October, the Eagles were named club of the year with club member Kahi Tipene awarded as the top try scorer of the year. Alana Hema won club president of the year and Cath Irwin was named administrator of the year.

Irwin was a long-time Actis associate, who died in August. 

"I'm trying, impossible as it is, to fill her shoes," Fa'amoe says. "I have no idea how she managed to do everything she did, she was incredible."

"We had a few tears that night."

She stands beside the two shipping containers that has held the club's gear since the 2011 earthquakes.

"We've had no clubrooms for six years," Fa'amoe says. "That's been really hard on everyone staying connected. It's so good for the kids and the mums and dads, to play sport, it's a really big thing for them to have this outlet so we keep going but it's hard."

The Eagles aren't the only thing that has soared high from the streets of Aranui.

Just down the road, at 86 Hampshire Street, is the childhood home of Roger Shepherd.

In the early 1980s, Shepherd founded the Flying Nun record label which boasts fans around the world.

"I was conceived in the bohemian part of inner city Christchurch and, with my mother, returned from the maternity hospital to my parents' new home in Hampshire Street," says Shepherd. "Before my birth they had bought a section in Aranui on the eastern fringes of Christchurch and built a house on it. It was January 1960."

He adds that around that "small bursting at the seams house" a large number of state houses were soon built.

"It wasn't what Mum and Dad wanted but budgetary considerations had pushed them there and that is where they were to largely remain for the rest of their lives."

There can be no denying that Aranui generally and Hampshire Street specifically were considered rather rough, says Shepherd.

"Once I got to school age I understood that my family were different. We were broke like everyone else but had touching and rather effete middle class aspirations. Dad listened to classical music and read books and it's a wonder my little poncy self wasn't beaten to a pulp. Strangely enough I never was."

Aranui was a suburb of young working class families and in the 1960s it heaved with kids.

"Its absolute bustling epicentre was the formidable strip of Hampshire Street shops," says Shepherd.

The Hampshire shops slowly closed and were boarded up as the supermarkets came and car ownership became a working class possibility.

Shepherd says that growing up in Aranui had a major impact on his life.

"Even though I left home and Hampshire Street in 1978, the clearing and selling of that house earlier this year created a great deal of reflection about family, home and the place I come from. I realise that growing up on Hampshire Street helped shape what I became. I'm grateful that I've been allowed to continue to grown into the curious non-judgmental misfit that I most certainly am."

Like Flying Nun, once-struggling Aranui is starting to flourish. Its relatively new library and new community centre are valuable assets.

Other visible signs of the recovery, says Councillor Glenn Livingstone, the Community Board liaison on Actis, include new two-storey housing by Housing New Zealand and the new school, Haeata Community Campus.

Although roadworks are a visible sign of the recovery, Livingstone admits it has been frustrating.

"It has been very frustrating for residents, the incessant detours and road blockages. The intensity of the road works has pushed residents to the edge of their patience, although many also recognise the work has to be done."

It's the day of the Affirm Festival, which this year was dedicated to the memory of Cath Irwin.

Everyone hates the 'r' word – Rachel Fonotia looked like she hated the taste of each letter as the word came out of her mouth when she uttered it in her office –  but Aranui might just be the poster child for resilience. Perhaps authorities dealing with the aftermath of the Kaikoura earthquake might want to look at eastern community groups for guidance? 

Their streets have tagging. Their homes aren't perfect. The roads are still littered with road cones. But at Affirm, Wainoni Park is full of happy people wearing purple T-shirts – Irwin's favourite colour – and eating whitebait patties. Children play on the bouncy castle or chase each other to queue to have their faces painted.

More than 5000 people attend Affirm. Neighbours and friends greet each other with a wave or stop for a hug.

Near the stage there's a group of volunteers and Rachael Fonotia carrying a clipboard covered in post-it notes. She is smiling and stops to talk to Tihi Puanaki shortly before she goes on stage to present a moving dedication to their lost friend, Cath Irwin.

This is Aranui.

 - Stuff

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