Setbacks slow Aranui's road to recovery

00:37, Nov 24 2012
CHRISTCHURCH'S WORST STREET: The shops in Hampshire St.

Give a dog a bad name. At some point, possibly in the 1990s, it was decided that Hampshire St, Aranui, was unofficially the worst street in Christchurch. The label stuck. As recently as early November, TV3's Campbell Live repeated the line in a story on the Ministry of Education's proposed Aranui school mergers.

How are such things measured? Back in 2004, The Press reported that, in the 1990s, "when teenagers were killing teenagers", some Christchurch police routinely called Hampshire St "the Reservation". It was gangland, and some of its crimes stayed in the public memory. A 13-year-old boy shot by his best friend, teenage stabbings, police chases and a firebombed fish and chip shop. Empty state houses were set alight. Kids aged from 8 to 14 terrorised shopkeepers.

That was then. Lately, stories about Hampshire St and the surrounding area have tended to focus on the positives, particularly the work of the Aranui Community Trust (ACTIS).

Which does not mean that Hampshire St has not been in the news for the wrong reasons since 2004. A 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in the playground of Wainoni Park, behind the shops on Hampshire St. A pub, known locally as the Hampshire Hilton, continued to be a problem. There was a drive-by shooting in 2008. And, most notoriously, there was the so-called "house of horror" case, in which two bodies were found under the floorboards of a house on the corner of Hampshire St and Wainoni Rd. Jason Somerville got 23 years for the double murder.

But the general shape of the Hampshire St story is that ACTIS began to turn the community around last decade and improvements seemed obvious. Crime dropped and local pride and social cohesion increased. The place started looking better. But besides the Somerville story, there have been setbacks to the narrative more recently, with the double whammy of earthquakes and recession followed by uncertainty over the future of schools.

ACTIS chairman Rob Davidson relates the fall and rise of Hampshire St to government policy. He remembers ACTIS forming "after the devastation of the policies of the 1990s", particularly market rents on state houses and high unemployment.


"The area was devastated, socially and economically."

The new Labour government of 1999 was inspired to revitalise state housing areas (in the interests of balance, it should be noted that Davidson is married to Labour MP Lianne Dalziel). As Davidson explains it, the Aranui community wanted revitalisation to come from a genuine partnership: "The community was cynical about having things done to it."

It was textbook urban renewal. ACTIS received an annual grant of $217,000 for four years from the Stronger Communities Action Fund. It bought a group of shops on Hampshire St and converted them into community resources. The pub that Davidson remembers as being "very socially destructive" - fights would start in the bar and end up on the street - was eventually closed down.

"It took us a lot of years. We now own that building and that is the earthquake recovery centre."

Davidson says that a dedicated community constable was based in the ACTIS office.

"He worked closely and the crime rate dropped significantly because of a number of factors. There was less unemployment, more social cohesion. It's a really strong and vibrant community."

Housing New Zealand used to top local surveys as the most reviled organisation. But its status improved after derelict state houses were replaced by new townhouses. In a $1.9 million Wainoni Park upgrade, the children's playground was moved from behind the shops, where it was considered dangerous, to the front of the park. A land swap improved the park outlook.

When the Stronger Communities Action Fund was discontinued, ACTIS battled to get a Heartlands centre, which provides services from Government agencies and NGOs.

Only two months ago, the Christchurch City Council opened a flash new library across the park, on Aldershot Rd.

But "things have slipped a little bit", Davidson says. In particular, the legacy of the earthquakes: "The physical infrastructure has been badly damaged and the roads have been badly damaged. Housing New Zealand has left houses unrepaired for two years."

Local historian Tim Baker says that there are 91 empty state houses in Aranui awaiting repair.

"The place doesn't look as nice as it did," Davidson concedes.

Come into Breezes Rd off Pages Rd, and you notice Coin Save ("Winz quote available here") and the Save More Convenience Store. Both stores cater to those living in poverty. The average income in Aranui is $18,000, and the suburb sits at 10 on the deprivation index, the lowest rating possible.

You notice entrances to Aranui Primary School and Aranui High School and then you turn into Hampshire St.

But realistically, the street looks no better and no worse than state housing neighbourhoods all over the country. There is tagging everywhere. Houses look a little untidy but mostly lived in; since the earthquakes, there are parts of Christchurch that look worse than this.

At Wainoni Park, the Wainoni-Aranui Family Centre has been off limits since February, 2011. It sits in high grass, behind a fence, covered in tags. Amidst the indecipherable tagging, you notice some old-fashioned legible graffiti: RASTA and DOPE. Nearby, someone is chemically spraying paint off a fence.

The front windows of one ACTIS property are plastered with happy photographs from the annual Affirm festival. There are pictures of school groups from Shirley, Aranui and Mairehau. There is Lianne Dalziel in a bright, comic wig. There is the premises of community group Supergrans.

Keep driving. Soon you reach Wainoni Rd and the site of the Somerville murders. Two garages still stand on a weedy plot of land, one partially burnt. Among the scorched rubbish, there are fresh McDonalds wrappers. The traffic rushes past on Wainoni Rd and you recognise that the road forms a border. Across the other side, you find Avonside and Chisnallwood schools and you see that houses are tidier, with more trees and maintained gardens.

Aranui is lagging behind.

"The earthquakes have been very unkind to this area," says Aranui High School principal John Rohs. "My perception is that many people who were solid, hardworking people in the service industry lost their jobs simply because so much of the city's infrastructure was destroyed. We noticed it particularly as a school, the number of people who moved because their houses were wrecked and they lost their jobs. But I feel that the tide is turning now with the slow rebuild of the city."City councillors Peter Beck and Glenn Livingstone represent the Burwood-Pegasus ward, which takes in the east of the city. This is their area. They subscribe to the general view that Aranui improved over the decade after the establishment of ACTIS, only to slip back again since the earthquakes and the recession.

But the earthquakes bring up another story. Many outside Aranui were surprised by the response of the community after the February 2011 quake.

An impromptu market and supplies centre appeared on Hampshire St. ACTIS co-ordinator Rachael Fonotia organised the distribution of donated fruit and vegetables, nappies, pet food and canned food. Looking back, Livingstone says that the success of the Aranui response was to do with the structures established by ACTIS and its profile as a community hub.

"People gathered there and were resourced by them," Livingstone remembers. "Whereas in Horseshoe Lake, there wasn't any type of community structure and it hit them very badly. Then again, they were quite self-starting."

There were other initiatives in Aranui. Tim Baker made a name for himself as "Tim the Doer" when touring television reporters marvelled that he had connected washing machines and impromptu water supplies for locals who lacked both. Here was some of that Canterbury resilience, as well as the devolution of authority to the community that Rob Davidson saw as crucial a decade earlier.

Compared to that, the recent schools proposal is the process in reverse. In her book about community responses to disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, writer Rebecca Solnit observed that the initial, on-the-ground response after disasters is often positive and inclusive, while the later, top-down response is much less warmly received.

That seems to have been the pattern in Christchurch. And so it was in Aranui, where the Ministry of Education proposed that three primary schools, one intermediate and one high school might merge into one mega-cluster, possibly in Wainoni Park.

"Sometimes it feels like Aranui has been put in the too-hard basket, and we'll have all these schools dumped together," says John Rohs of Aranui High School.

"We all know there have to be changes," Peter Beck says. "But they have got to be driven from the community."

Beck cites the tagline for the earthquake recovery network CanCERN, of which he is the experts".

Beck goes on: "They had proposals dumped on them that felt like 'prove to us that you shouldn't be closed'. Rather than 'here is a variety of options for you to consider'.

It's moved along, of course, and school communities are doing their best to respond but it did feel like divide and rule."The proposal involved combining Aranui School, Avondale School, Wainoni School, Chisnallwood Intermediate and Aranui High School as one school that would take students all the way through their "education experience", to use the jargon, from year 1 to year 13.

At July 2012, Aranui School had 149 students, down from 242 in 2008. Aranui High School had 502 students, down from 622 in 2008. Avondale School had 335 students, down from 494 in 2008. Chisnallwood had 746 students, down from 785 in 2008. Wainoni School had 92 students, down from 139 in 2008.

The merger would create a megaschool of more than 1800 students, with a disproportionate bulge at intermediate level.

The public consultation period seemed limited for something this large. Initially, consultation was to run until December 7. Lianne Dalziel and the city council stressed that more time was needed, and the deadline has been pushed back until March 7.

Meanwhile, local principals and community leaders have been working together to "see what kind of sense we can make of the proposal", as Aranui High's John Rohs puts it.

It seems likely that flat-out rejection is not an option.

Tim Baker predicts that Aranui High will merge with the three primaries, with common buildings keeping younger and older kids out of each other's sight, and with separate entrances. The current Aranui High site could house the expanded school, perhaps with some land acquisition.It wouldn't be put in Wainoni Park?

"That's just looney stuff," Baker says.

"It's very likely that Hekia Parata told a few people off for putting that on there. It's so illogical and stupid. She was embarrassed."

Off the top of his head, Aranui High is 8.7 hectares and the park is around 5.7ha. It would make no sense.And what happens to Chisnallwood in this scenario? It would stay where it is, as an outlier.

Chisnallwood is the main reason why five into one won't go. Chisnallwood principal Richard Paton explains that while his school sees "'the Aranui community as being an important part of the eastern Christchurch jigsaw and the Chisnallwood community", his school's community is a far greater one geographically, with 35 schools feeding in. He adds that "most people would recognise that Chisnallwood does not fit the cluster that it is being put into".

But in what way? Chisnallwood parents talk in meetings about not wanting their kids to walk down "that street" - meaning, of course, the notorious Hampshire St.

At an Avondale School meeting this month, a parent said that "all the people who do have a choice will be taking their children to other schools, even if they have to travel across town".

On the one hand, you have Hampshire St's historical bad reputation. On the other, there is cultural difference. Based on the most recent Education Review Office reports, of the five schools, only Chisnallwood Intermediate and Avondale have Pakeha majorities in their student rolls.

Intermediate is 75 per cent Pakeha, 16 per cent Maori and 4 per cent Pasifika. Avondale School is 59 per cent Pakeha, 27 per cent Maori and 7 per cent Pasifika.Then you cross Wainoni Rd. Aranui School is 41 per cent Pakeha, 29 per cent Maori and 28 per cent Pasifika. Wainoni School is 38 per cent Pakeha, 42 per cent Maori and 18 per cent Pasifika. Aranui High School is 45 per cent Pakeha, 29 per cent Maori and 15 per cent Pasifika.

Paton says that he can't comment on suggestions of white flight or phobia about Aranui, except that "the families that send their children to Chisnallwood see Chisnallwood as their community school".

"The reality is that Chisnallwood is an anomaly," John Rohs says.

"You have a large number of middle class, relatively affluent families who bus or drive their children to the edge of the Aranui cluster to Chisnallwood and out again every day.

"I feel quite strongly that social attitudes in Christchurch are deeply entrenched," Rohs says.

"The perceptions that people have of the Aranui community are at times really offensive and disrespectful. The people who live in the Aranui community would have every reason to feel really affronted by the fact that those views are still so publicly articulated.

"The Aranui community is a very diverse community. It's also resilient and it's culturally extraordinarily rich in terms of its Maori and Pasifika flavour."

Rob Davidson agrees that "there is a lot of stereotypical prejudice".

"In any community where there is poverty, there are issues," Davidson says.

"People turn on themselves and we have problems with young people and graffiti, but underneath all that the community is incredibly strong and vibrant. And the diversity is something to be celebrated."

Counterintuitively, Aranui High's John Rohs actually believes that the merger proposal could have long-term benefits for Aranui.

"The proposal could be very beneficial for the community if it's planned well and the community has input into what the school might look like," Rohs says. "It could be a fantastic hub that enhances and fosters urban renewal. From that point of view, I have been all for the proposal but it has to be very carefully considered."

The worst advertisement that Aranui has had for years is on the corner of Hampshire St and Wainoni Rd, reminding commuters daily of the horrific crimes that took place there.Jason Somerville murdered Tisha Lowry, his neighbour, in 2008. Her body was hidden for a year. In 2009, Somerville murdered his wife, Rebecca Chamberlain. Again, he buried her body under the house. A few days after reporting his wife missing to the police, Somerville confessed to both murders. Three weeks later, the empty state houses were burned. That was three years ago. The question has lingered ever since: what exactly do you do with a death site?

Last month the city council bought the empty site at 1/312 Wainoni Rd and intended to buy 169 Hampshire St, with plans to turn it into a park. But what kind of park? Perhaps a memorial garden makes more sense than a playground. A resident told The Press that putting a playground on the corner "would be like putting a playground above a cemetery".

Another resident, Sheralee Finch, wondered if a community police station should go there: "It would stop half the crime and drinking that goes on."

Rob Davidson's preference is for an understated garden memorial that could be "for all victims of domestic violence".

How do you make a positive from a negative? Maybe another way is to use Jason Somerville's life as an example.

Glenn Livingstone thought about this after watching an episode of the true crime series Beyond the Darklands about Somerville. He saw that there were generational issues, and thought about how it can take generations to turn lives and communities around. He says it is not to excuse Somerville's actions to say that "he didn't have a show at life at all".

Apply the same kind of thinking to Aranui, plagued since the 1960s by gangs and criminal activity, and turned around only in the past decade by the efforts of Rob Davidson and ACTIS.

Crime dropped in Aranui over the past decade, but historian Tim Baker expects a shift upwards soon, due to post-quake stresses.

"What will emerge, not just in our suburb, is a rise in spousal abuse. Depression is going to be huge next year. It's going to be worse than what it is now."

This bleak end of Hampshire St with its horrific history is like a tourist attraction in reverse. It is a kind of warning and also a reminder that some other communities in Christchurch only see Aranui when there is a problem.

You have to see past the stereotypes and history. Does Glenn Livingstone think that people in the east of Christchurch feel overlooked by the earthquake recovery or are they getting a fair shake? He thinks it is a mix.

"Some will feel quite grateful and they'll see the sharp end of the council is those on the road getting their services back in. But some are feeling definitely overlooked. In Aranui, you may say that they feel overlooked by life itself, from the word go. Life has been tough."


Aranui Community Trust (ACTIS) was formed in 2001 as the third party in Christchurch City Council and Housing New Zealand plans to renew Aranui. ACTIS describes Aranui as "a vibrant diverse community with a sense of hope to develop together". Its mission is "to change minds to change lives and break cycles". The ACTIS website marks the evolution of the community from 2001 to 2007 with selected, locally-sourced quotes. In 2001, residents said things like "even though this is called a community, there is a lack of community" and "the way the area is now, I am not keen to stay long term". In 2007, they said things like "I have seen significant changes: park, housing, significant beautification" and "people were more itinerant and now there is a sense of more stability".


Affirm has been held in Wainoni Park since 2001. ACTIS says that it is now "looked forward to as a significant day for the community, as well as visitors from other parts of the city". Last year, close to 4000 people attended and Ladi6, aka Aranui-raised performer Karoline Tamati, headlined. This year's Affirm is on Saturday, December 8

The Press