United, the world in a suburb

By Geoff Cumming

An Auckland suburb’s diversity, confirmed by the latest Census, reflects the changing face of NZ. Geoff Cumming reports

Mt Roskill is the most ethnically diverse community in New Zealand. Photo / Dean Purcell
Mt Roskill is the most ethnically diverse community in New Zealand. Photo / Dean Purcell

When Cecil Lochan settled in Mt Roskill in the mid-1970s, the Fijian-Indian was the first non-European in the street. His neighbour wasn't happy.

"He would come home drunk and spit at me and yell this and that."

The neighbour eventually mellowed and the small cul-de-sac of Gregory Place is now home to three Indian, four Chinese, one German, one Pacific Island and five European families.

"We used to have street barbecues. We'd bring our own food and set up our barbecues at the end of the street - it was such a nice, friendly affair. The last couple of years we haven't because new people have come in and they haven't wanted to join in. The problem is the language. But gradually they learn."

In the 70s, Mt Roskill was known as the Bible belt of Auckland and, a smattering of Maori and Pacific Island families aside, it was the conservative face of white, working class New Zealand. There were no pubs. Even now, the suburb has few watering holes and relatively few bottle stores.

The latest Census confirms it is probably our most diverse suburb, a melting pot of races from Africa, the Middle-East, India, China, Korea, the Philippines, Samoa, Tonga and beyond. More than 60 languages are spoken here.

Mt Roskill is still a bastion of religious observance but just 44 per cent identify as Christian - below the national average - while 10.5 per cent identify as Hindu and nearly 6 per cent as Muslim.

In the unhelpful way that Statistics NZ lumps races together by region, nearly 60 per cent of Mt Roskill residents were Asian-born, the highest proportion in New Zealand. About a quarter of the suburb's population are European - though the Roskill electorate (which takes in a wider area with roughly twice the population) is 44 per cent European.

This diversity and the high number of new migrants struggling to find work to match their qualifications brings challenges. There is poverty here, social isolation, domestic violence and property crime which locals say stems from the failure of some migrants to obtain jobs. Occasionally, the problems have flared into violence - most notably in street clashes between Tongan and Somalian youths over a decade ago.

But Mt Roskill has not turned into the strife-torn ghetto some academics and politicians predicted in the 1990s after immigration policies changed to target skill gaps rather than traditional source countries such as Britain and Australia. That may be down to good luck and a relatively buoyant economy as much as initiatives by the police and social services. It also says much about people's adaptability and spirit, Lochan believes.

"People have come to accept the fact that we've all got to live together and that's good.

"Roskill has changed - I wouldn't say for better or worse but it has become a different place. So has New Zealand."

Relatively affordable house prices and the central location are the main reasons migrants converge on Mt Roskill and, though it's still seen as a transitional suburb, many stay for good.

It's a youthful population, with significantly higher numbers in the 15-35 age group than for the country as a whole.

But 16,000 residents fit into the highest category on the deprivation index and between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of residents earn less than $20,000 a year.

The housing stock remains comparatively modest - four-square brick and weatherboard state homes and 1950s bungalows still dominate a suburb that was largely spared from 70s infill. But now there are signs of change, driven by hot demand. Two-storey executive homes with two-car garaging have replaced ex-state houses along Denbigh Ave and investors are buying-up large, bringing a decline in owner-occupied homes.

Redevelopment along Stoddard Rd, chiefly the big box retail centre on the old bus depot and the entry of both supermarket chains, further indicates the suburb's rising status.

And a plethora of grassroots initiatives shows that migrant groups are not relying on the state for a hand-up - they'd rather do it themselves.

Yes, there's crime, says Lochan, who was burgled a few years ago. But it's linked to national trends - the "breakdown in values" and reduced parental authority - rather than ethnic factors, he says.

Lochan, the president of the Auckland Regional Ethnic Council, was not typical of Pacific migrants in the 1970s. The highly-qualified civil servant brought his wife and two young daughters here partly to escape discrimination in Fiji. His daughters both gained university degrees and married Europeans. One lives in upmarket Mt Eden; the other is working overseas while her two children attend university. It's a story of generational upward mobility - the migrant dream.

Lochan, aged 77, has rental investments but has never wanted to leave Gregory Place.

"Mt Roskill can be a wonderful place. I love it. There is everything you need here - specialty Indian, Chinese and Middle-Eastern food shops, supermarkets, parks and playgrounds, a library and a swimming pool.

"It's not as expensive as Mt Eden or Epsom but it's not poor. It's becoming very popular because it's very central. There's easy access to the airport and to Queen St and to hospitals.

"It's a more tolerant place. You'll see kids on the way home from school walking hand in hand with different races. They accept each other, especially the generation that were born here. The younger ones don't have any feeling about different races, they grew up together like human beings.

"Racial overtones are decreasing, except for a few - that's what we are trying to combat. The biggest concern is the prevention of violence. The other is employment - we should have more opportunities for Roskill people and anyone else."

That's a theme picked up by the many grassroots agencies which have sprouted to help new migrants: there's not enough support from central Government and scarce funding for local initiatives. The current migration wave is led by international students who, once qualified, can gain residency if they find long-term work, says Migrant Action Trust chief executive Honey Rasalan. "Some of them really struggle and have to tighten their belts. You can find eight people living in a 3-bedroom house because the only way to survive is to share resources."

Another migration wave is internal - Kiwis increasingly see Mt Roskill as a desirable suburb. Youth pastor Bradden du Jary and his bank officer wife Zara swapped renting two years ago for a new home in Mt Roskill bought with NZ Housing Foundation assistance.

"Mt Roskill hadn't been on our radar because of its reputation. The perception we had was a bit like a ghetto - a low decile area with a high crime rate.

"It's completely different. The closeness of things like supermarkets, malls, the airport and getting to work in the city - it's fantastic."

It's a very involved community, says du Jary, who helps out at the local youth centre and other gathering points.

"It's a very mixed neighbourhood. When you walk down the street you've got Maori, Pacific Islanders and Asians all out walking the dog. There's a retirement village across the road so there's a diverse mix of old people as well.

"We've got the markets, the annual cultural festival is massive - things like that really bring people together.

"We've heard some domestic violence a couple of times and you do hear the police chopper a bit. Down at the youth centre you sometimes notice a bit of tension between the Pacific Island and African communities but it's pretty isolated.

"We back on to Memorial Park and it's a great place to go for a walk or a run, though I don't know if I'd go running at night. The police have worked hard to break up the old gang lines but you still hear of houses getting broken into."

He says it's easy to get to anywhere in Auckland from Mt Roskill and, like others, expects the area to take-off with the linking of south-western and northwestern motorways.

Du Jary grew up in provincial towns and admits his old mates find Auckland too much of a culture shock.

But if Mt Roskill today is the future face of New Zealand, it's an optimistic one.

- NZ Herald

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