Street gangs are an ever-present distraction and risk to the city's most vulnerable. But those with street credibility are standing up and making youth accountable. Carly Udy finds out why most teens will grow out of wanting to be a gangster.
Wednesday morning on the main street of Merivale has the busy mid-week atmosphere which invigorates all shopping suburbs.
A boy of about 4 is tackling his double-scoop orange chocolate-chip ice cream, while his sister, dressed entirely in pink, skips behind him with a Rocky Road.
Men and women come in and out of the dairy with bread, cigarettes.
There's also an Indian spice shop, a bakery, a liquor store and a butcher advertising a 40-piece pack for $25.
Across the road there's a lime green house with a white picket fence. But the paint is chipped. Inside the curtains have been replaced with cardboard that doesn't cover the full length of the windows.
Weeds and dandelions have taken over the front yard of not only this house but almost every house along this stretch of Fraser St.
On another street in Merivale, Graham Cameron's kitchen table is where I'm shown what the Bloods for Life or "B4L or BFL" hand gesture looks like.
Cameron curves his fingers into a B shape and holds the position.
'You can spell out the word 'blood' too but I don't know how to do that," he says attempting to entwine all of his fingers.
He's barefooted, wearing shorts and a blue Merivale Community Centre shirt. The front door is open and the stiff breeze outside rakes the grass. The radio is playing Rihanna.
Cameron, the Merivale Community Centre services manager, is showing me the hand signal for Merivale's youth gang.
Bloods for Life are a group of 12 to 15-year-olds who wear the colours purple, green and brown. Rarely they wear red - "they'd get told off (by the Mob)", Cameron says.
While most kids in this neighbourhood are "getting on with life", a group of about 20 in Merivale are part of Bloods for Life.
Cameron said BFL was a popular tag seen around Merivale.
"Once you're into actually being a member of the Mongrel Mob then you don't worry about this stuff," he says.
There are a handful of houses in Merivale with patched Mongrel Mob members living in them.
"Merivale is an area where people talk about being Mob affiliated, not gang affiliated."
Cameron has heard of one other geographic youth gang in Tauranga known as Brookfield Westside.
And last week, the youth gang Bethlehem Hori Locals came to his attention, and the attention of every other Bay of Plenty Times reader, when it was reported they had attacked two 15-year-old girls in Mount Maunganui.
"I tweeted it as the worst named youth gang - the BHLs.
"That's the thing about these gangs, they can make up a name on the spot. Overnight."
Over the phone, a 15-year-old called Stacey*, told me the group was actually called Bethlehem Locals - no "Hori".
"The two girls that got gang bashed called them the Bethlehem 'Hori' Locals."
The gang is a group of "wannabes" who wear red and have been operating for two years.
"They all hang out together and pick on little people because they have back-up and think they're strong," she said.
"The two girls that got beaten up, one was going out with one of the Maori boys one of two sisters [in the gang] liked."
Stacey has not been tempted to join a youth gang but said she'd heard of Bloods for Life - "they're just nothing" - and Brookfield Westside, who she described as "an adult gang, 18 onwards".
Cameron says debate could be had over whether any of them should really be referred to as gangs. "The [Auckland based] Killer Beez started as a genuine youth gang - that's an actual youth gang," Cameron says.
"If there was going to be some conflict or asserting their identity as a group, a place like Merivale, Arataki, or Welcome Bay would be it because of the very transient population through Housing New Zealand.
"It would be a place we'd know it would be happening."
That's because poverty breeds problems, Cameron says matter-of-factly.
Here in Merivale, a community with a population of 2400, the average wage is $10,000 less than the Tauranga average of $37,960 ($730 a week). Forty per cent over the age of 15 are jobless and 43 per cent don't own their own home.
Of the 890 Housing New Zealand Homes in Tauranga, almost 250 are in Merivale. These are all statistics Cameron is quoting from the 2006 Census. All are bleak.
"Thirty-seven per cent of families are single parent families. Thirty-four per cent over the age of 15 don't have a qualification. Fifteen per cent of households in Merivale have an income less than $20,000 and 32 per cent have an income less that $30,000 ..."
The impact on children, says Cameron, is what you'd expect.
"If you're raised elsewhere your role models are probably going to be more affluent role models.
"Kids in poorer communities are more likely to identify with role models in the media - Black American, African-American role models."
He mentions the tagging, chopper (bike) riding and wearing of certain clothes all gleaned from playing the game San Andreas Grand Theft Auto.
"These games celebrate this kind of culture. Juice and other music channels celebrate it as well.
"Get a group of them in a room and absolutely they aspire to be the top gangster in the area."
Get them alone and they'll say they want to work in kiwifruit. Be a father. Make something of themselves.
"If we made a serious effort for the more affluent members of our community to build relationships with the less affluent in our community, we could make a big difference but there's no effort to do that. We don't have that philanthropist spirit like other countries."
Cameron tells me about a 16-year-old Merivale kid who used to tag "CK" with a cross through it.
The kid told him it meant "Cops killer" or "Crips Killer".
Cameron responded with "Well, how many cops have you killed? And are you going to?"
"Don't be stupid," the kid spat back.
"Well why do it?"
"It's all reputation, it's all fame," Cameron says. "Making yourself bigger than the other person.
"When they're at home doing the dishes, being asked to tidy up their bedroom, they're just kids allowed to run wild.
"And that's the thing," Cameron says. "It's 10 to 15 Merivale families unable to put any boundaries around those young people."
And the kids know no different.
"I feel compassion for where they're at. It's amazing what people acclimatise to and what they think is normal.
"The problem is not gangs. The problem is poverty.
"People are pretty resilient. A lot of people will bobble around the things we are talking about.
"There's not many that will live their lives in degradation and pain. People find their way out of these things."
Street gangs, says Hayden Henry, are increasing in Tauranga.
The Peaceful Warrior (aka social worker) for Ngai Te Rangi iwi, says not only are groups of youths claiming their territory across the Western Bay, they are an affiliated group of "brothers".
Henry is a solid man and not someone a weedy kid would want to mess with. But contrary to this, he's got a welcoming smile.
He was in one of these gangs as a child.
"But back in those days we were on push bikes," he says. "Fracturing a bit of law."
Henry's job is to get youth on to more positive pathways.
The inside of his office, a pre-fab building in Mount Maunganui's Te Awa o Tukorako Lane, has the scribblings of teenagers all over it. Whiteboard pens have left behind Maori motifs, words in te reo, and Lost boy searching for new direction.
"It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks but when you've still got them at a young age you can show them some direction, some new life," he says.
"The whole thing is about identity. There's a lot of down time for some of these youth and often they're just happy when someone's going to associate with them. One follows the other and they get into bad habits."
And so Henry has Ricky, the Eastsiders, and other disaffected youth from Arataki and Matapihi playing touch rugby; and he gives them some incentive.
"It's like putting a carrot out in front of them. What's all those crazy things they do on bikes and that? Nitro Circus? Well, I say 'you fullas keep yourself out of mischief and fundraise for your tickets and I might be able to get a van to take you up there'. It's a two-way relationship."
Henry is a man who is trying hard for those who often don't want to try at all. Many of these kids don't have qualifications and their job prospects are limited. "They come from similar backgrounds or their family genes are similar. But when they come together, they are all whanau and the colours are left behind."
What Henry tries to offer is opportunity. Positive identity. Light at the end of the tunnel.
"But you need resources," he says. "You can't run on the smell of an oily rag."
For police, working with youth takes up a quarter of their work.
Inspector Karl Wright-St Clair, of the Tauranga Tactical response Team, says the "gangster culture" is fashionable but Western Bay groups aren't well organised.
"They're groups of young people who identify with a particular culture. We would not class them as youth gangs."
Wright-St Clair says there's a "few groups" in the Western Bay linked with criminal gangs and they model themselves on LA-based arch-rivals the Bloods (red) and the Crips (blue).
Wright-St Clair says police are aware of intimidating groups or "gang patches" in public places, particularly town centres, and work hard to stamp it out through education, the justice system and prevention interventions with high risk families and offenders.
"Dealing with young people requires a unique set of skills but it's a vital role in policing as we have the opportunity to make future changes in their lives."
That statement should bring hope to Ricky.
At 17, he's started to "get over" his crew the Eastsiders. He sees himself getting out of the lifestyle pretty soon. He wants to do "a bit of engineering".
He brightens and continues: "Next year, I might go to polytech. Do a bridging course on trades."
He also wants to travel. "I like Italy, it looks pretty cool. Brazil."
But Ricky knows it won't be easy. He left school at 16 without even obtaining NCEA Level One.
But it's time to change, he says. Time to grow up. Build a future. He's done too many things he isn't proud of.
The rest of the Eastsiders crew will be left behind. "They'll be all good," he says with arms crossed.
Lost for eight years, Ricky is beginning to find direction.
*Ricky and Stacey are not their real names.
KNOWN BAY OF PLENTY YOUTH GANGS:
Eastsiders, Westsiders, Bloods for Life, Bethlehem Locals, Brookfield Westside. They all have their own hand signals and "colours" representing their geographical patch.