Change on 'dead-end' Owairaka street

By James Ihaka


Five years after they were thrust unwillingly into the political spotlight, things have changed for the residents of McGehan Close - much of it for the better.


The small Owairaka cul de sac is still the same couple of rows of tired-looking Housing New Zealand flats dotting the street under the shadow of Auckland's Mt Albert.


This is the place Prime Minister John Key said epitomised "dead-end" New Zealand where an underclass had allowed hopelessness to "become ingrained".


But when the Herald visited last week it found the residents mostly upbeat, positive and largely free of many of the issues that allegedly plagued them.


Gone are the wannabe gangsters who terrorised them, along with the broken glass, the graffiti on fences and homes and rubbish that littered a nearby stream.


Instead there are children playing outside, neighbours speaking with each other over their fences and people wasting little time reporting any suspected crime.


It is a street where everyone knows everyone - and where people say they're proud to come from.


Among them is Halahetoa Haukau, who was 12 when the media showed up in droves after the Prime Minister's infamous 2007 speech at the Burnside Rugby Club, in Christchurch.


Now 17, the retail student said many of the street's problems went away when local gang Dope Money Sex stopped using their local park as their watering hole.


"A lot of them are either in prison, shanked [stabbed] or have kids of their own and have grown up and moved on.


"It was pretty scary back then. No-one would come out of their homes because they were too afraid, you would never see any children at the park, ever.


"But they've gone ... it's probably because of that," she said, pointing to a liquor ban sign above the park.


Eddie Tafili, 66, had an ongoing battle with the gang, which saw him constantly cleaning up broken bottles or graffiti occasionally tagged on his fence and home.


But he said it was unfortunate that McGehan Close had been used by politicians for their own means.


He said the street had people who were trying to get by "like in any other place around New Zealand".


"Most people around the place are finding things tough right now, not just here," said the former furniture maker.


But another man, who adds his opinion without giving his name, said little has changed for him under the National Government.


He believes things have gotten worse for many on the street, who are predominantly in low-paid jobs or on welfare.


"Especially after they put GST up to 15 per cent and where the hell are all the jobs [Key] promised?


"And the tax cuts? You ask anyone on this street if they're any better off because of them and they will say 'what the hell are you talking about?"'


Caroline Santos rolls her eyes at the underclass label her street was tagged with - probably because the 24-year-old is studying for a BCom at Auckland University.


Ms Santos said the publicity had galvanised the street's residents and while many of the people the Herald had spoken to in 2007 had now left, she said McGehan Close showed how a neighbourhood can take ownership of its problems.


"It's a really good place and yeah, people are proud to live here. They used to be too scared, now they will call the police if they see anything going on.


"The people who live here have hopes and dreams too, they want better for their children."


She conceded the Government had done some good with homes being recarpeted or fitted with new kitchens, bathrooms and curtains - part of a $125 million investment into state housing upgrades.


She said Housing New Zealand and the Auckland City Council were proactive in dealing with complaints, particularly with graffiti, which is cleaned up almost as soon as it appears.


Police also respond quickly to their calls while a footbridge built in the last couple of years runs over a nearby stream that is surprisingly free of any rubbish.


"But really with a lot of the changes I think it's the community that has done most of this," Ms Santos insists.


Every second Thursday Alpesh Macwan holds a barbecue at number 13 McGehan Close.


He regularly gets about 15 kids and a few parents showing up for a sausage or to play with his rabbits while a couple of local youth workers also pop by to lend support and listen to the children.


Mr Macwan knows the locals through his work as a budgeting adviser with Christians Against Poverty and says the future is bright.


"When I moved here you could hardly see the children outside playing and I let all the kids come here and they're all playing together.


"They all know each other, they're playing at the park and that's how the parents get connected as well. This is a lovely place with lovely neighbours."

- THE AUCKLANDER

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