Cuba's characters colourful - and a curse

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 05:00 15/07/2014
cuba mall
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ
MOVE ALONG: Sergeant Morgan Gray and Constable Ross Barnette arrest a teenager, who said he was living in Cuba Mall. 

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To some, the colourful characters who inhabit Cuba St are what give it its spirit and vibrancy.

To others, they are weird and undesirable, and make the people who work and shop there feel unsafe.

Frequent complaints early this year - particularly about the behaviour of a group of 15 to 20 people in Cuba Mall - prompted police and Wellington City Council to investigate the street that is often regarded as the city's cultural heart.

As part of the Cuba St Focus Report, about 180 shoppers and visitors were canvassed on how they felt about the area. While many said they liked its diversity and vibrancy, others said its "weird people", "undesirables" and beggars made them feel unsafe.

Retailers also reported that people loitering, drinking or fighting made their staff feel unsafe, and the privately owned Left Bank was singled out as being poorly maintained.

Mandatory menswear shop owner Clare Bowden said the predicament of some of the people who loitered along Cuba St was "tragic", but their antics were offputting for shoppers, and for parents who took their children to the playground.

"To just look out and see someone smoking from a glass bong - no one wants to see that, not tourists, not parents, there's a whole range of people who don't want to see that.

"I don't mind a bit of fun, like the students up at all hours jumping in and out of the bucket fountain - that's just Cuba St, and that's how it should be."

Between May 5 and June 8, Wellington's new metropolitan policing team trained their sights on Cuba Mall, trialling a "pop-up" police station and arresting six people within the first 10 days.

During May, police recorded 294 offences, including five serious assaults and 33 thefts.

Sergeant Morgan Gray said police did not believe crime was worsening in Cuba St, and some issues had "dropped off" since psychoactive substances were banned, but "undesirable" disorder contributed to an image problem.

The report listed a heightened police presence in Cuba St, graffiti removal and a new CCTV camera for the Left Bank as part of the crime prevention focus.

"We're looking to deter the people frequently causing problems in Cuba St from loitering there, and we want to see a wider demographic of people frequenting that area instead," he said.

A homeless teenager who was arrested in Cuba Mall yesterday on suspicion of breaching bail conditions said he hung out there because he found it interesting.

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But the 17-year-old said he would prefer to live in a hospital, which was where he last had a proper meal, six days ago.

Inner City Residents' Association representative Sarah Webb said it was troubling to see people living rough in the heart of the city.

"There was a time when we just didn't see that in New Zealand - when you're travelling you do, but not in Wellington.

"I think we're all very fond of Cuba St, it's very iconic and we have an emotional attachment. It doesn't matter if you live in the city or outside the city, I think we are concerned about what's happening there."

- The Dominion Post

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