Waltham: Christchurch's forgotten suburb
For years, the south Christchurch suburb of Waltham has been the neglected poor cousin of Sydenham and Addington. But are times changing? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.
"Some young children in this area haven't been out of Waltham," says Adrienne Carmichael on a quiet afternoon at the Waltham Community Cottage. "I mean, not even to Sydenham."
The south Christchurch suburb of Waltham is not exactly huge. The world of these children would be defined by a limited, walkable geography: home, Waltham School, Waltham Park and Waltham Summer Pool. Everything beyond Waltham Rd and Brougham St would be terra incognita.
"It's hard to comprehend," Carmichael adds.
Carmichael is the community development facilitator at Waltham Community Cottage, a Christchurch City Council-owned bungalow on Hastings St East. Her title is ungainly. It really means she is ultimately in charge of community programmes – everything from playgroups for kids to falls prevention programmes for the elderly to ukulele lessons, hip-hop classes and depression support networks for everyone in between.
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She is a link to social services and other charities for those who need them. There are free lunches on a Wednesday. Twenty or 30 people usually come along. It helps them feel less isolated, less stranded.
On those Wednesdays, you could put a human face on statistics. According to the council's community profile of Addington, Sydenham and Waltham, published in November 2014, 11.8 per cent of Waltham households receive the domestic purposes benefit, now known as sole parent support, compared to 4.1 per cent across wider Christchurch. Addington had 6.3 per cent and Sydenham had 6.2 per cent.
The 2013 census said that 7.6 per cent of people in Waltham were unemployed and affordable housing was hard to access. The most common job type in Addington and Sydenham is professional, but in Waltham it is technician and trade worker. Of the three low-income suburbs, Waltham is worst off and is missing out on post-quake growth happening in Addington and Sydenham, the council study found.
Waltham is not just a small suburb, it also feels neglected. When Brougham St was widened in the 1980s, becoming a state highway to the Lyttelton port, the suburb was cut in two and left without a centre. It can be hard to work out where Waltham is, exactly.
You have to get out and walk. Start in the south-western corner, where Waltham meets the river, at the recently repaired Waltham Summer Pool. It reopened in 2015 and there were good crowds during the last two hot summers. The post-quake years were bleak without it.
Waltham Park is adjacent. The site allows for a detour into history. As its proximity to the centre of Christchurch would suggest, Waltham is an old suburb. For decades, its small wooden cottages housed families dependent for work on the railways and gasworks. The school opened in 1891 but the suburb name goes back further, to at least 1866. The council bought the park, a former dumping ground, in 1922 and created a war memorial where 43 local names are listed.
The crumbling industrial character endured. An old maltworks and associated warehouses were an eyesore on Waltham Rd. There were stacked car wrecks and a firewood depot. A Neo-Nazi flag indicated a skinhead chapter in a decaying bungalow. This lasted until after the earthquakes despite long-term plans to clear the area and build new housing.
This is finally happening. Many in Waltham are amused that the new housing complex is to be called St Martins Village Green. You might expect cucumber sandwiches and games of croquet. Have the developers taken the name of a neighbouring, more prosperous suburb in the hope of adding desirability?
The name came with the land, says Four Avenues Property Group co-director Craig Pickett, and "it had a nice ring to it". The Rapaki Group had registered St Martins Green in 2001 and planned to build townhouses there but never quite managed it. Pickett's group is building 88 two and three bedroom apartments and townhouses on "about 9000 or 10,000 square metres", with other builders and developers putting more homes along Waltham Rd.
It will be high density. Pickett's group have sold 76 of their 88 and are holding 12 back. They sold for between $400,000 and $480,000, mostly to investors. That is at the high end for Waltham where the median home value in March was just $320,600.
Will it gentrify the neighbourhood or will they become expensive rentals for already struggling locals? Pickett is talking about revamping the area, with the sheer scale of the development offering a rare opportunity to do so. He drove around the suburb, at the leafier end, where it blends into Opawa, and saw potential.
"I was really struck that there were nice tree-lined streets," he says. "It had a feel of St Albans 10 or 15 years ago, when people were buying older houses and doing them up. It could be an opportunity for people to go in there and really pull the whole area up.
"There should be an influx of people and vibrancy round there," he adds. "It should be getting pretty busy."
St Martins Village Green will be finished by the end of 2016, he expects. The neighbouring school's roll has grown recently and will grow further. That is good news. But Adrienne Carmichael wonders about the density of it.
"I'm not sure what social problem that will cause later on," she says. "That's my concern. But from our point of view, the more the merrier. And the school has new classrooms being built and is going from strength to strength."
There are tidy new houses with still unpacked moving boxes inside. There are the new clubrooms of the historic Canterbury Mineral and Lapidary Club, built after the original was dismantled brick by brick. There is the school with its generous grounds and the Sydenham Community Preschool, which arrived after the earthquakes.
The social housing at Tommy Taylor Courts, on the corner of Brougham St, was opened in 2001 by Sandra Lee in her former role as Local Government Minister. She spoke of Taylor as a local hero, a man who was briefly Christchurch mayor before his death in 1911 and put plans in place for the clearance of slum housing. She talked about his tradition bearing fruit when the city became "the first local authority in New Zealand to provide community housing for its citizens".
Twelve of the 25 units are closed and the council hopes to have the complex relevelled and repaired by 2017. There are four other social housing complexes in Waltham with varying degrees of earthquake damage, according to information supplied by the council. All 26 one-bedroom units at Waltham Courts are open and repairs are scheduled for the 2016-2017 financial year. Eight units are being built on Osborne St after four units were destroyed by the earthquakes. Sixteen units are still open at Phillipstown Courts and will be repaired after more badly damaged complexes are fixed. And eight units out of 20 are closed in the badly damaged Cecil Courts and repair options are being considered.
That list excludes the nearby Brougham Village in Sydenham. The 89-unit complex was demolished in 2015 and no plans for a replacement have been released.
Waltham's old industry is sometimes repurposed or remembered. A huge railways good sheds on the corner of Waltham Rd and Mowbray St has been taken over by Fletcher Reinforcing and is stacked with steel for the Christchurch rebuild. The former gasworks is memorialised by a sculpture on the corner of Waltham Rd and Moorhouse Ave by Lyttelton artist Mark Whyte, who made a replica of a pile of coal. The coal is also a memory of when south Christchurch skies were dark and gritty with industrial smog.
Now it is all car yards and small businesses. There are companies you never hear of who do things you don't know about. A truck parked outside Salvation Army Emergency Services on Iversen Tce has a sign that reads, "Countdown Food Rescue, Helping Kiwis in Need".
The old AMI Stadium, which is now mostly known as Lancaster Park again, looms over the entire scene. It can feel like the forgotten ruin of the earthquakes, bigger than the Christ Church Cathedral and arguably more important in Canterbury lives. The concrete coliseum stands upright but weeds are taking over.
It is huge and useless. Old sponsors' signs are still up around the edges of the ground, sometimes adding irony in a post-quake environment. "Keep on smiling," says AMI. "Show us your crack," says Novus, thinking of car windscreens rather than houses. "Specialist tree care," says Treetech, not expecting that weeds the size of trees would one day be growing in the stadium.
Large Roman numerals are engraved on the side facing Wilsons Rd. "MMVIII" records the opening of the East Stand in 2008, ahead of a Rugby World Cup that had to bypass Christchurch entirely in 2011. It now looks like a gigantic act of hubris.
Like Waltham Park at the other end of the suburb, Lancaster Park also functions as a war memorial. The sign at the historic entrance reads, "To commemorate the glorious deeds of the athletes of this province in the Great War, Aug 1914 – Nov 1918."
Depending on who you talk to, the streets enclosed by Wilsons Rd and Ensors Rd are either part of Waltham or a micro-suburb called Charleston. There are small wooden houses and cottages in a cluster of quiet, tidy, networked streets.
John Hoskins, founding chairman of the Charleston Neighbourhood Association, explains that the name was coined when the Muldoon government launched a scheme to revitalise inner-city neighbourhoods. The Avon Loop was another beneficiary of the scheme in Christchurch. Charleston was named by combining Charles St and Grafton St.
There are quaint lamp posts and seating on street corners. In another inadvertent sign of post-quake loss, some of the mosaic artwork was produced by Phillipstown School in 2003. Call it 2003 BE, Before Earthquakes, and before the school was closed by the Ministry of Education.
The artist Colin McCahon lived on Barbour St before he shifted his family to Auckland in the early 1950s. The little house now stands in a noisy light industrial zone, surrounded by concrete and wire fencing. His memories were not fond. He said it was "a place almost without night and day as the super floodlights of the railway goods-yards kept us in perpetual light".
If you were to include Charleston in Waltham, you could even take in the Charity Barn on Ensors Rd. Billed as the "world's largest permanent garage sale", it feels like a transient camp of shipping containers, old books and toys, stacks of house paint and urgent religious signage that almost resembles words on a McCahon painting.
"Pray, hope and don't worry," one sign urges. Another message painted on a wall reads, "While we have time, let us do good."
The Charleston area was extensively hit by the earthquakes, Hoskins says. "Ferry Rd itself was not too bad but behind Ferry Rd, particularly down Charles St, that was hit quite severely. You will see a lot of building activity going on and a lot of new buildings that are finished."
Like many in the area, Hoskins hopes to see the return of Lancaster Park as Christchurch's primary stadium.
"I'd like to see it go back to what it was before the earthquakes. According to figures, that would be a cheaper option but it depends on whose figures you look at."
He was dismayed to see that the council took the stadium off its assets list, meaning it could be sold without as much consultation. The association wrote to Mayor Lianne Dalziel and received an assuring letter in return. "It will not be sold without extensive consultation with the neighbours," they were told.
In the meantime, council staff are still waiting on new assessments of the stadium and land before making recommendations. Nothing will happen on this side of the 2016 local body elections.
Can art sometimes help? A Melbourne art collective called Field Theory flew over in 2014 and spent 72 hours inside Lancaster Park, broadcasting local stories and memories of seeing bands and sports teams play, or even the Pope's visit in 1986. That was on behalf of the Physics Room gallery.
Further down Wilsons Rd, near the train tracks, the Dog Park Art Project Space was housed for two years in a concrete bunker among the panel beaters and paint fumes. A month before it closed in 2014, another project opened across the road, called the Xchc. You pronounce it "Exchange".
An old brick building was done up and fitted out. The slogan "make showcase share" runs across the glass windows; above it, a sign reading "The Old Pickle Factory" tells you that a salami and pickle business was here from the 1950s to the 1970s.
One of the volunteer directors of the Xchc explains that they were warned off Waltham. "No way are you going to make it there," they were told. But the centre of town was unaffordable even if things had been available, which they mostly were not, and there is a nice theory about creative spaces springing up in what have traditionally been industrial areas.
"We go by the byline of cultivating a creative ecology. Historically, where we are standing is the manufacturing belt of Christchurch. In any city's evolution, you will see a decline in manufacturing and that's often where there is a rise in creative industries."
A recent group art show, Open Workshop – Industrial Waltham, engaged with the local environment and traditions in sometimes witty ways.
There is a production side, where space can be hired short term. There is a showcase side, where work can be shown. And there is a cafe that can be recommended as a pleasant change from the pies and Cokes of industrial Waltham.
"Right now we have two architects, a furniture designer, a woman who teaches singing and songwriting, a web designer, three fashion designers and two painters," the director says. She also confirms that the XChc is in talks to possibly house the Auricle sound art gallery, which recently closed in New Regent St.
Could it spread, and make Waltham a creative hub? The lease runs until 2019. As an idea, it is to be applauded.
Then you cross the train tracks, and the incessant port-bound traffic on Brougham St, and you see a tall orange crane on the skyline that is helping to build St Martins Village Green. Back at Waltham Community Cottage, Adrienne Carmichael describes the profile of the neighbourhood.
"Very few own their homes," she says. "Rent prices have gone up considerably, which has been hard. On the other hand, I have heard of landlords taking rent prices down. One of our community who comes in, a single mum, was paying $430 a week and it's gone down to $400. But they aren't managing, not really.
"People have been having to get out of rentals while they are fixed up. One has been out 18 months and is still not back in. Families have to move in with other family members. Very small places with lots of people, it's not good."
Waltham has its homeless too. There are men who prefer to sleep outdoors than take shelter. There are families squeezed into caravans. Carmichael worries about the homeless women "because it's a hard world out there".
But you wouldn't do a job like this if you didn't believe in the value of community or the essential goodness of people. Carmichael has seen the positive sides. Two recent stories come to mind, speaking volumes about community spirit.
There is an ex-chef unable to work because she has two children with special needs, but she is cooking the cottage's Wednesday lunches for nothing. And there was one of Carmichael's health clients who needed a cleaner. A caregiver grandmother at the playgroup offered to do it for free. Those are the kinds of tiny stories that matter.
"It's incredible. That's what building community is all about. It works."