Community has many different meanings. People might live in a particular community, but have little contact with their neighbours, preferring instead to pursue their social life elsewhere. Others in the same street might be best friends and spend hours 'chewing the fat' over a back fence. Planners of state housing communities encouraged the second model, in which neighbours would become friends and where locals would look out for one another.
Among the first schemes to attempt this was the Savage Crescent precinct in Palmerston North, which was influenced by the design of 'garden suburbs' in Britain and America. Constructed between 1938 and 1945, the houses on Savage Crescent were sited around a large park, where children could safely play, free from the hazards of the street. The park was also a place where, on long summer evenings, neighbours might gather for a game of cricket or hear the latest gossip, a place where local friendships might be forged and strengthened.
A more ambitious attempt to 'design community' was in Naenae, Lower Hutt. Here the social hub of the suburb was to be a vast community centre. In 1948 a promoter of the scheme envisaged how the centre might be used:
On odd occasions we can let Mum off the chores of getting tea, and the whole family can dine at the centre and stroll around the grounds. Afterwards we may naturally drift apart for the rest of the evening, each to his or her own interest group – boxing for Bob, night tennis on lighted courts for Nan, hobbies for young Dick, drama for Mum, indoor bowls for Dad, or perhaps a debate – until the time for a rendezvous for a light supper in the lounge, and the introduction of new found friends.
But Bob never got to his boxing. The post-war housing shortage meant that the state gave priority to building homes rather than halls. Instead, Naenae residents found other ways to meet each other. Dorothy Logie identified the arrival of the daily bread van as the way 'we got together on our street'. And Glad Carrick recalled the buzz of early evening, when 'everyone' swarmed to play street basketball.
The time lag between the construction of housing and the arrival of community facilities has been a constant grievance for tenants. New state housing communities were most often established on the outskirts of cities, often far from shops, halls and other services. Tenants often had to draw on their own resources to get basic community amenities. For example, in the 1960s much community effort was expended establishing marae for urban Maori. Among the first opened were those in the state housing areas of Mangere and Otara in South Auckland, which remain a pivotal part of community life today.
"It is not until you live there that other features become not only apparent but also cause for irritation. The reggae in one unit competes with the crying baby in the next and the tied-up wailing dog over the back. The pork bone boil-up assails the air but does not obliterate entirely the sweet smell of marijuana, or rotting bags of rubbish that waft out further down, and so on.
Until I lived there I was blissfully ignorant to the fact that a man would see fit to lock his wife outside on the fire escape, where in full view of all she spent hours crying for him to let her in again whilst also dodging frozen chickens that were hurled sporadically out at her in attempts to shut her up. Meanwhile the couple's two small children took refuge with me throughout the lengthy ordeal, to which I might add nobody intervened.
A long-term elderly resident with self-appointed caretaker status was considered the matriarchal figure of the camp. She would sing loudly and grandly with an operatic pitch as she went about her rounds and was always good for a gossip if time allowed. One day she divulged to me that her biggest fear was dying in the night and the ambulance men happening upon her Penthouse magazine collection that she liked to cast her eye over.
People like her and the black humour in general provided a flipside to life in those flats, making it bearable. I'll never forget one solo mother lamenting the benefit cuts of the nineties with the following comment: 'Who needs Jenny Craig when we have Jenny Shipley?'.
Over the years I have often looked back on those days, not only in recalling many a story but also realising an underlying feeling that despite everything, they were good days. I know that those experiences shaped me during my formative years of young adulthood, and have equipped me with an acceptance [of] other people's differences and hopefully a tolerance for others I might not have otherwise acquired. It has been years now since I did my time on benefit hill among the 'have nots', but ironically I have yet to experience such a sense of solidarity within the private housing market (the 'have lots') in which I am now an indebted member for ever."