Memory won't fade easily from Centrepoint property

By Megan Jones

At the risk of sounding flaky, the site of the former Centrepoint commune feels like it could do with a good clearing.

Not the sort of clearing that could be provided by any of the bulldozers that seem to hover around the land like developer's vultures ready to pounce.

Nor the sort that could be provided by a bit of elbow grease and a lick of paint - although the old buildings could do with that too.

What needs clearing at Centrepoint is the sense that the past has not been erased from the old Auckland property, a site that generated infamy and rumour during its 1970s and 80s heyday before it was closed after sexual abuse charges were laid against members in the 1990s.

Many people don't know it is still there, but tucked across from the Albany Megacentre and between North Harbour Stadium overflow carparks is a dirt road leading to one of the bush enclaves that have survived Auckland's northern sprawl.

There, surrounded by trees, are the rundown remains of the Centrepoint commune - a unique complex, which includes a commercial kitchen, pottery studio, creche, dwellings, arts and craft studios, tennis courts and a 25m swimming pool.

And there also are the residents - hosting, last Saturday, an open day.

They now call themselves the Kahikatea Eco-Village and Art-space. They are young and idealistic.

There is face-painting, home baking, there are dance workshops, a sculpture trail, music is blaring, incense is burning.

But they feel like squatters - it looks as if those other Centrepoint residents have only just up and left.

Little appears to have been renovated or painted since Centrepoint officially closed in 2000, after its spiritual leader Bert Potter and others were convicted on child sex charges.

TO AN outsider, this place still evokes the stories that grabbed headlines and became the stuff of national rumour.

There is the dining room where a commune member was filmed squatting over a table giving birth while the children ate breakfast nearby.

There is the centre's living area where many group therapy sessions were held, where some participants were supposed to have been forced to use a bucket in the room as a toilet to help "free" themselves.

There is the glade where members of the community took ecstasy and LSD distributed by Potter.

And there are the narrow bush tracks through which some children were led to Potter or other adults in order to have "loving" sexual experiences.

Centrepoint was a unique place, formed in the 1970s by people united by the common goal of liberating themselves - physically, emotionally and sexually.

By all accounts, extraordinary things happened at the commune - good things, confusing things and some very bad things. In 1991 police raided Centrepoint and arrested six men and two women on charges of indecent assault and rape. Seven were convicted, including Potter, who was convicted of indecently assaulting five minors.

There were rumours the abuse was more widespread. When Potter was released from jail in 1999 he told a reporter that he had done nothing wrong and still believed that sex with minors was appropriate at the start of puberty.

That didn't help erase the stains from the commune's dirty laundry.

A woman, Louise, who used to live nearby and who visited the commune several times in its heyday, has come to the open day.

She recalls as a 14-year-old being propositioned by Bert Potter. He told her she was "sexually deprived", she says, and suggested she come to the centre for a weekend to rectify this. She declined.

"This was the Chernobyl of communes," she says.

Louise says there was a very positive energy at Centrepoint - the place was buzzing with creativity and life, but now the property feels dead.

"It has no energy now. It feels like it's had its soul ripped out," she says.

It seems incongruous that a new group is trying to live as a community here on the bones of the dead Centrepoint dream.

This time there is no spiritual element, and there is no guru. Their kaupapa is simply: respect yourself, respect others, respect the land.

Members of the Kahikatea Eco-Village and Art-space prefer to be called a village rather than a community and they don't like to dwell on the past.

Their average age is 30 and while one member has been there since Centrepoint days, most are too young to remember what happened here.

Resident Guy Ralls does not feel there is any shadow over the property.

"It's a long time ago that all happened and the bush does a good job of clearing out any of the old history."

But it is the history of this land that is stirring emotional debate about its future. The Public Trust is likely to sell the land after the lease expires on June 30.

But the former Centrepoint people, whose money and toil went into this unique property, have strong feelings about who it should be sold to - and for what purpose.

This Albany land, they say, is a place where commune children were born, placentas were buried, ashes were scattered and couples wed.

It is steeped in their memories.

Members sank all their assets into the commune and everything was communally owned.

They never had possessions, so in a sense this place is their heritage.

Ironically, the only members to ever get any money back when the commune closed were Potter and a group called the Old Believers who were paid about $49,500 each to leave and sever their connections with the trust for good.

In 2000, the High Court put the remainder of Centrepoint's assets into a trust called New Zealand Communities Growth Trust, to be managed by the Public Trust for the benefit of the wider community.

The Public Trust says the land is "very valuable" but even if it sells for a fortune, those who originally bought and built it will not receive a cent. That, perhaps, is why it still feels like their land.

What's more, not all the former residents have left. There have always been some Centrepoint people living there.

IN 2000, the trust leased the land back to a group of former Centrepoint members known as the New Community Group who started a new eco-village called Anahata Community. Over the years, the number of residents has waxed and waned and according to Ralls, was down to single figures last year.

He says this is when a handful of young artists and musicians rediscovered the place, seeing the opportunity and deciding to take action. The artists threw a party and invited all their friends. They began networking like mad and formed the new group of residents.

There are now about 40 adults living on site and using the studio spaces. Only two have Centrepoint links - just one was a member.

They want to stay and are trying to buy the property, and believe they should not have to bid for it on the open market.

It seems a well-meaning group, but they don't strike you as a cohesive unit. When questioned the openly argue about the responses. When asked how many children live on site, they struggle to answer.

They say they are looking for more people to move in, but there doesn't seem to be any clear screening or selection process.

Felicity Goodyear-Smith, spokeswoman for a group of 150 people with Centrepoint links, shares these observations.

Goodyear-Smith says she has been invited to visit the new Centrepoint and her impression is that the tenants live like a big group of flatmates.

This is the potential road to ruin for any sort of communal-living situation, she says, and the group is certainly not reminiscent of the early Centrepoint members.

"It's not easy to live as a group unless you have common goals and some sort of leadership," she says. "We had a long time to try and it's not a small thing to do."

She says most former Centrepoint people do not want the property sold to the new residents.

"It's not really going to give access to the public and its very unlikely to be sustainable.

"The people come and go. They now have an all-time high of 40 but often it drops to about 15 in the winter... It seems very unlikely to be sustainable."

But does it matter what the former owners of this land desire for its future?

Shouldn't the Public Trust simply sell to the highest bidder?

The trust's objectives are to use the former commune's assets to provide grants for specific educational, therapeutic and counselling projects, projects that promote community living and grants that provide relief of poverty.

The trust's head of special projects, Don Mather, says it has to consider how best to use the assets to meet those objectives. It is not legally required to preserve any of the land and buildings, he says.

And while there is a consultative committee, which includes some former commune members, the final decision is the Public Trust's alone.

Centrepoint people are fiercely vocal and will never really sever their ties with this property.

Protracted debate over the original division of the property by various Centrepoint factions was long, arduous and complicated.

Mather laughs as he says that when the High Court finally put the assets in trust and assigned the job of managing it to the Public Trust, the trust pleaded not to be given what was perceived to be a very difficult job.

He says the subject of the property's future is "very sensitive".

MEANWHILE Goodyear-Smith's group has been working behind the scenes to try to ensure the outcome her group wants.

The group has sent at least 100 letters to the trust pleading with it not to sell the land to a private buyer or developers, but to either give or sell it to the North Shore City Council as a public park and community centre.

North Shore Mayor Andrew Williams says the group also approached the council asking it to buy the land, and the council is in discussions with the Public Trust.

He is aware that some developers have shown an interest in the property but it has an unusual zoning as a community reserve, which may present problems to other potential buyers. Goodyear-Smith says it would be "unethical and immoral" if the land ended up in private hands.

But it's not just the land whose fate many members want to seal. The future of the buildings appears to have stirred up even more emotional debate.

Williams says the trust has made it a condition of purchase that several of the buildings - particularly the old "longhouse" dwellings - be demolished. This is as a result of discussions with former Centrepoint members who want them destroyed because of their "bad history", he says.

Goodyear-Smith says initially she understood the requirement was to be for all the buildings to be bowled, but these requests do not come from her group.

She knows of two people who were deeply affected by the sexual abuse who want the buildings all destroyed.

She believed the longhouses - where some of the abuse was said to have happened - were not well made and would be no great loss.

But at a time when we should be conserving our resources, to bowl other unique and perfectly good buildings would be "a travesty," she says. To her the building have no bad feeling.

"I just feel terribly sad that they are so run down," she says.

Her hopes rest on the property becoming community-owned, which would restore the "jewel" the Centrepoint people created and keep alive the spirit in which the original community was started.

That's a sentiment echoed by Williams, who says the property is a beautiful place that needed to be "turned around in a positive way" for the good of the community.

There is a sense this means as much for the infamous group who once lived here, as those who may benefit from it in the future.

- Herald on Sunday

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