Merivale: Underbelly label not real

By Carly Gibbs

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Merivale. Possibly Tauranga's poorest suburb and arguably the most judged. Carly Gibbs talks to two of the suburb's staunchest supporters who say perceptions must change.

It was pork bones that first convinced Graham Cameron that Merivale was a good place to live.

The local butcher was selling them for $5.99 a kilo and it seemed like a fantastic price.

But when Cameron and his wife mentioned their plans to others outside Merivale, the reaction was: "Oh, that's a terrible place to live."

That was seven years ago; nowadays, the 36-year-old is somewhat the unofficial mayor of this suburb.

Most people in Merivale know Cameron and he protects his community like he protects his four children - with passion and sometimes venom.

He is perhaps a surprising champion for Merivale. He went to a private school. He holds a post-graduate degree. He comes from a "comparatively blessed background".<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

Today, he's wearing pressed trousers, a collared shirt and polished shoes. He's off to meet Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae, in his role as services manager at Merivale Community Centre. He's looking pretty flash, but he's really pretty casual. "Kia ora bro'," he says to a man in a yellow T-shirt at the centre.

(Story continues below)

Graham Cameron (left) and John Fletcher of Merivale Community Centre. Photo: John Borren.

Perceptions. They're funny things.

This week, more than 40 Merivale residents protested outside the offices of Sun media, on The Strand, in opposition to an online survey run by the media outlet. The survey canvassed readers' views on Tauranga's most dangerous suburbs. It listed five options, including Merivale, which rated highest.

Protesters used a drum and a megaphone and demanded an apology from the media outlet. The apology was delivered.

But back in the suburb, tempers are still flaring. Why? Public perception. Merivale is seen by many as unsafe.

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. 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. These are all statistics from the 2006 Census. All are bleak.

This month, a 33-year-old man was stabbed in Baycroft Ave - one of just a number of incidents in the street since 2010. And spin-off still lingers from a survey and report released in 2009 that showed 12 per cent of residents didn't like living in Merivale.

The report, Positive and Proud, was carried out by the Merivale Community Centre and was done by two community workers who knocked on the doors of nearly all 859 homes between 2007 and 2008.

Of those, 317 (37 per cent) answered the questions designed to find out what residents liked and disliked about their neighbourhood. Ideas around safety, especially for children, were a dominant theme from the research.

The results are still relevant in 2012. Viewpoints from the survey were in most cases a real perception - but not a reality, says Cameron.

"Some people genuinely feel unsafe in the community and wouldn't go to the shops, and wouldn't let their kids go to the playground. Those are real perceptions but they don't match with the reality of what's actually happening. The majority may have 'heard' of a bad experience (not experienced it)."

John Fletcher, projects manager of the Merivale Community Centre, says a constant "drip-feeding" that Merivale is unsafe doesn't come from Merivale residents - it comes from people who live outside of Merivale. "If you call it a duck enough times, it becomes a duck," he says.

Grandmother Debbie Hanna has lived in Merivale for 50 years and tells the Bay of Plenty Times negative comments are unfair.

"I know there's a perception of Merivale and we have some bad eggs but it's a community. We know each other, we help each other out. You can walk down the street and talk to people. I'm pretty offended.

"We are all struggling. We are not wealthy but whatever we have we are happy."

***

Fletcher says a location elsewhere in Tauranga where a violent crime happens never has its location poo-pooed.

He says the 2010 Queen's Birthday murders of Ravneet and Anna Sangha, may have been horrific, but never dented Otumoetai's reputation.

Same with last year's murder of 50-year-old Colin Anthony Bidois in 4th Ave.

"The response as a region is very different to when it happens in Merivale," Fletcher reckons. "Here, it's like 'They're all gangsters'. It's like 'Oh, it's just normal for them'. But outside, it's the same tragedy, just responded to in a different way."

Cameron agrees but says violence is a problem in Merivale. The stabbing in Baycroft Ave was not a one-off occurrence.

"There is an underbelly of violence happening in Merivale and it bubbles to the surface when you pour alcohol down its throat."

On the day of the Baycroft stabbing, Cameron's phone ran hot. Neighbours texted to say there was a big party happening. They were worried. Cameron drove down Baycroft Ave in the afternoon. People were openly chugging liquor back in the street.

"You knew there was going to be something bad happening," he says.

The incident is regretful and people in Merivale need positive comments to help them change.

"Negative comments don't promote positive transformation."

People point the finger at Maori and Pacific Island families, Cameron reckons. And there is a big population of Maori and Pacifica people in Merivale.

"What I mean by that is who do we hear about in relation to child abuse? Burglary? Rape? Murder? We hear more about Maori and Pacific people."

There is "institutional racism" in Tauranga, he believes.

Tauranga South Police say some of Tauranga's worst crimes - double homicides - have happened outside of Merivale.

"Merivale just reflects the rest of New Zealand," says the officer in charge of Tauranga South Police station Senior Sergeant Lew Warner.

Warner, who joined the police nearly 29 years ago, says Merivale is no different to any other Tauranga suburb in that it's 2 to 3 per cent of the community that cause major problems.

"There are connotations [in Merivale] from years past," he says. "There are groups within that community that many, many years ago came to the fore - some were gang-related - but they're not as noticeable as they used to be. It's a name they've got from a bygone era."

Most people living in Merivale are "very, very good," he says. "Other areas reflect just as many problems but certain ones get a certain name."

***

Can Middle New Zealand be blamed for its perceptions?

"Most people in Tauranga are self-made people," Cameron says. "If you work hard you will succeed in life; they have those core New Zealand values. They're hardworking New Zealanders who can't get their head around why there are communities like ours where things don't seem to change.

"They translate it to their own life: 'Oh it must be because you're not working.' In other words, bludgers.

"... It's not about that our system is wrong, it's about that you're wrong. So if you can't get a job you individually have done something wrong. Poverty becomes not our issue to deal with as a community, or a city, or a country, it becomes your fault, and that's the thing that tears communities apart because if it's your fault, then I'm better than you."

Problems that exist in Merivale exist in pockets of communities throughout the Western Bay and throughout New Zealand.

But can you realistically compare well-heeled Matua with no-frills Merivale?

"We do our lives more publicly," Cameron admits.

"Our barbecues aren't on the back deck, they're on the front deck. If we have parties we invite everyone else on the street. If someone has a pool and their kids are in it, everyone else is invited. Public life means we are conflicted publicly."

One of the city's biggest commercial landlords, Bob Clarkson, reckons some people in Tauranga are "up their nose".

"I wouldn't care who lives next to me," the Pillans Point millionaire says. "Sometimes I find people at the bottom end of the market are the easiest to talk to. It's hard out there. We are a bit judgmental ... They need a break."

Merivale principal Jan Tinetti says there's a certain extent of not really understanding all the dimensions that make up Merivale. She says Merivale children are the most tolerant and accepting she's taught.

Fletcher invites those who voted Merivale the most unsafe, or have a bad word to say, to stop in at the community centre.

"Society is only as good as the way we treat those at the bottom.

"Don't sit there anonymous on your computer saying we're a bunch of feral dogs that should be shot. Come to Merivale and talk to us."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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