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Flaxmere: Turning a town around

For years, Flaxmere has been synonymous with decay and deprivation. But a self-help ethos is bringing new life to the Hawke’s Bay town.

Henare O’Keefe of the U-Turn Trust. Photo/Glenn Taylor
Henare O’Keefe of the U-Turn Trust. Photo/Glenn Taylor

Once a place gets a bad reputation, it can be hard to shake off. Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule remembers getting a phone call on a Saturday night years ago from a newspaper reporter inquiring about a stabbing at a motel in suburban Flaxmere.

“That’s interesting,” Yule told the journalist, “because there are no motels in Flaxmere.”

Someone had been stabbed, all right, but elsewhere in Hastings. Yule says the reporter, hearing there had been a stabbing in the city, assumed it must have been in Flaxmere.

Such is the image of the suburb from years of negative publicity. Like Otara in South Auckland and Cannons Creek in Porirua, Flaxmere has become synonymous with crime, poverty and mean streets. In the public mind, it’s Hastings’ problem child.

Tragically, it’s true that terrible things happen in Flaxmere. In early May, coroner Carla na Nagara, ruling on the deaths of four 15-year-old girls from Flaxmere, found they had all committed suicide. The deaths had occurred over a period of 13 months and three of the girls knew each other. The coroner found that all four had been exposed to domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and online bullying.

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Even by Flaxmere standards, this was bad – as traumatic for the community as the killing of young police constable Glenn McKibbin, who bled to death in a Flaxmere street after being shot on a quiet Sunday morning in 1996. McKibbin had stopped a motorist for a routine check. Former soldier Terence Thompson, driving past, shot him in what appeared to be a random act of murderous rage. Thompson was subsequently killed by police after a nine-week manhunt.

Ah, well, outsiders will say with a shake of the head, that’s Flaxmere for you. They said much the same in 2009 when a police report revealed the existence of as many as 15 youth gangs in the suburb, one of which – the Mongrel Mob-affiliated Original Flaxmere Bloods – was said to present a risk of serious violence in the community.

People said it again in 2010 when police stopped a car in Flaxmere in the early hours of the morning and found 24 stolen sheep tied up and crammed inside. Well, everyone said, there you go: Flaxmere.

Henare O’Keefe at the Te Aranga marae and community garden with grandsons Rylan, 5, and Taylor, 3: “The people here are real; what you see is what you get.” Photo/Glenn Taylor
Henare O’Keefe at the Te Aranga marae and community garden with grandsons Rylan, 5, and Taylor, 3: “The people here are real; what you see is what you get.” Photo/Glenn Taylor

The suburb’s reputation is such that someone started a semi-satirical Facebook page called “You Know You’re in Flaxmere When …”. Supposed examples of Flaxmere life included bullet holes in bus shelters, parked cars stripped of their wheels and kids going to school with no shoes on but stopping to buy a pie for breakfast.

Far more viciously, a mock Wikipedia entry describes Flaxmere as a zoo without a fence and suggests that 95% of the Hawke’s Bay population would welcome a napalm drop on the place.

But talk to people who know the suburb, many of whom have lived there for decades, and a different picture emerges. Bert ­Lincoln, who for 10 years has run the Flaxmere Community Patrol, a volunteer group that drives around the suburb acting as another set of eyes for the police, is a proud Flaxmere resident.

Sitting in the dining room of his impeccably neat home in Folkestone Drive (many of the local streets are named after British seaside towns; McKibbin was killed in Margate Ave), Lincoln says he’s lived in the suburb for 45 years.

One of his neighbours has been there six months longer, another six months less. “Most of the people around us have been here 40-odd years,” Lincoln says.

Clearly, people don’t stay in a place that long if it’s dangerous or unpleasant. And it’s not as if Flaxmere residents have no options. The houses that surround Lincoln’s are occupied by people who are there by choice.

An architectural draughtsman who works from home, he says he and his wife have had opportunities to move – but why would they? “If I won Lotto every week of the year, I couldn’t buy better neighbours.”

It’s a theme you hear repeatedly from people who live in Flaxmere – population 9500 – or who at least know the place. And there’s the thing: most people know Flaxmere only by its reputation.

Very few take the trouble to check it out. If they did, they would see a community that – initially, at least – confounds the popular image of a wretched, crime-ridden ghetto.

Russell Wills. Photo/Hagen Hopkins
Russell Wills. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Sense of community

Hastings Hospital paediatrician Russell Wills, who stepped down this month as Children’s Commissioner, knows Flaxmere well and says he loves it.“It’s full of terrific people, most of whom love their kids and love other people’s kids. It has a strong sense of community and a real vibrancy.”

Part of the suburb’s image problem is that it’s out on a limb – off the main highway and physically removed from its mother city, Hastings. You don’t drive through Flaxmere to get anywhere. You need to make a conscious decision to go there, and most people don’t. Why would they, unless it’s to observe how the less fortunate live?

The sense of separation from Hastings is magnified by the busy Hawke’s Bay Expressway, which slices through the semi-rural open space between Flaxmere and the western edge of Hastings proper. This physical divide helps create an impression that Flaxmere is a place the rest of Hastings would prefer to ignore or forget.

“If I had my way,” says Henare O’Keefe, a Hastings district councillor and Flaxmere hero, “I would move the entire village and put it on the main arterial route so people would have to drive right through the middle of us to get to Wellington.”

Off the main highway south, Flaxmere is out on a limb, removed from its mother city, Hastings, and lacks a full-size supermarket, although it has the population to justify one. Photo/Glenn Taylor
Off the main highway south, Flaxmere is out on a limb, removed from its mother city, Hastings, and lacks a full-size supermarket, although it has the population to justify one. Photo/Glenn Taylor

Satellite town

That geographical separation is a pointer to Flaxmere’s origins. A common misconception is that the suburb was built as a state housing area, but even today it has only about 300 state houses. In fact, Flaxmere was privately developed in the late 1960s and early 70s as a satellite town to ease the pressure on Hastings. The land was cheap because it was stony and regarded as virtually useless agriculturally.

Only later did winemakers discover it was prime grape-growing terroir. Today, ironically, the poorest residents of Flaxmere look directly out on the Gimblett Gravels, some of the most sought-after vineyard land in the Southern Hemisphere.

In O’Keefe’s words, Flaxmere was intended to be “the Stepford of Hawke’s Bay” – a model village, aimed at upwardly mobile home buyers. Traces of that idealistic vision are still evident in the Flaxmere Village shopping centre, which was built in a style not dissimilar to that of a more successful aspirational 1970s housing development, Porirua’s Whitby.

The first houses were marketed in 1967 as “a new concept in modern living”. Lincoln recalls going to a “Parade of Homes” – a display of show homes – on Flaxmere Ave, the east-west thoroughfare that runs through the heart of the suburb. They were well-built homes, constructed to a minimum standard on sections of 750-800sq m.

The problems began when Flaxmere spread out to the west in the early 1980s. As Yule puts it, the developers got greedy: they began jamming cheap, poor-quality homes on small cross-lease sections.

Two-bedroomed shanties, O’Keefe calls them. “Some of Flaxmere’s social ills were designed into the place,” he says. “It became a dumping ground.”

At the time, says Yule, Flaxmere was sold as a dream: low-income people getting their own homes. Many buyers mortgaged themselves to the hilt. Few could have realised how economically vulnerable they were. Low-income Flaxmere families depended heavily on seasonal work at the Whakatu and Tomoana freezing works. When the two big meat-processing plants closed, in 1986 and 1994 respectively, the rug was pulled out from under the community.

Several thousand families lost their primary source of income. Maori and Pasifika communities, which between them comprise roughly 80% of the local population, took the biggest hit.

Wills says the effect of those closures is still being felt. In a social deprivation index based on the 2013 census, Flaxmere ranked a maximum of 10.

Photo/Glenn Taylor
Photo/Glenn Taylor

Legacy of greed

Drive west along broad, tree-lined Flaxmere Ave and the legacy of the developers’ greed becomes clear. At the eastern end, closest to Hastings, Flaxmere Ave is conventional 1970s suburbia: mostly summit-stone homes, owner-occupied and well cared for. Leafy Flaxmere Park, the jewel in Flaxmere’s crown, resembles a smaller version of Christchurch’s Hagley Park. Yule says the suburb’s parks are some of the best in the region.

But somewhere around the intersection with Chatham Rd, the social environment changes. This is where the vision of a model village came unstuck. From there on, the houses are conspicuously smaller and clearly built with inferior materials. The sections are bare and many of the homes look run down. “They used to call it the Wild West,” says Lincoln. “It was tough.”

It’s at this end of the suburb that social deprivation is most concentrated. Unemployment at the time of the 2013 census was 18%, roughly three times that of the wider Hastings district. Median annual income was $19,000 compared with $26,500 for Hastings, which was itself below the national average.

A third of the residents in this western part of Flaxmere were under 15 and nearly 60% lived in rented homes. Maori made up 57% of the population, Pasifika people 28%.

Ana Apatu, chief executive of the U-Turn Trust: in poor-quality houses, children’s health suffers. Photo/Glenn Taylor
Ana Apatu, chief executive of the U-Turn Trust: in poor-quality houses, children’s health suffers. Photo/Glenn Taylor

“The child health team at the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board will tell you they can draw a line through Flaxmere where the quality of the houses became poor and the health status of children suffered,” says Ana Apatu, chief executive of the Flaxmere-based U-Turn Trust. As a consequence of cold, damp, crowded homes, Flaxmere achieved the unwanted distinction of the highest rate of rheumatic fever in the country.

Yule acknowledges that Flaxmere lacks some of the resources that better-off communities take for granted. It’s a sore point with him, for example, that the suburb lacks a full-size supermarket despite having the population to justify one. Locals have to go to Hastings to do a big shop, and many don’t have reliable cars.

He also points out that by its very nature, the suburb has relatively few entrepreneurial people with financial resources and professional qualifications, although there are outsiders who are prepared to help.

On a more positive note, Yule recently saw a map showing the location of all reported domestic violence incidents in Hawke’s Bay during a single night. He says there were no more in Flaxmere than in Havelock North, Napier, Hastings or Wairoa. And he says the election signs he puts up every three years are more likely to be vandalised in affluent Havelock North than in Flaxmere.

Ana Apatu, chief executive of the U-Turn Trust: in poor-quality houses, children’s health suffers. Photo/Glenn Taylor
Ana Apatu. Photo/Glenn Taylor

Man on a mission

The relentlessly upbeat O’Keefe, 63, is the smiling face of Flaxmere – the antithesis of the suburb’s negative image. One of two Flaxmere representatives on the district council, he’s on a mission to rehabilitate a damaged community.

He came to national prominence in 2008 when he led an “Enough is enough” march from Flaxmere to Hastings in protest against family violence. A former ambassador for author Alan Duff’s Books in Homes Foundation, he was named Kiwibank Community Hero of the Year in 2012 for his work with at-risk youth and prevention of family violence.

As O’Keefe puts it, he has a “self-inflicted mandate” to promote all that’s good about Flaxmere, starting with the people. “The people here are real,” he says. “What you see is what you get. There’s no smoke and mirrors, no hidden agendas, no politics.”

He makes his points with droll humour and sometimes can’t resist mischievously playing on Flaxmere stereotypes. A typical O’Keefe-ism: “Local people will give you the shirt off their back, though it won’t necessarily be their shirt.”

Another: “An endearing quality of the people here is that they stab you from the front. They will often tell you your pedigree in the supermarket or at the rugby.”

Like Lincoln, O’Keefe has lived in Flaxmere since 1971 and in all that time, he says, he’s never been assaulted or felt unsafe. He and his parents and nine siblings migrated from Ruatoria, on the East Coast. They came looking for employment and found it in the meat industry – a familiar pattern at the time.

Bert Lincoln. Photo/Glenn Taylor
Bert Lincoln. Photo/Glenn Taylor

It was the sudden closure of the Tomoana works, where he had worked for 23 years, that thrust O’Keefe into public life. He was closely involved in the union-backed Tomoana Resource Centre, which provided redundant workers with food parcels and advice on debt management and housing. He measures its success by the fact that the predicted suicides and crime wave never happened.

It’s a matter of pride that the redundant workers took charge of the situation. “I always said, ‘Don’t wait for the bloody Government; we’re going to do it ourselves.’”

Self-reliance is a recurring theme with O’Keefe. “Our mantra is Flaxmere, heal thyself. We want to cut the umbilical cord from the Government. We are intoxicated by the Government, addicted to it. I want them out of our lives.”

If there’s a community initiative, O’Keefe is likely to be involved in it. He turns up at local events dispensing free food from his mobile barbecue, the Tunutunu (it’s the Maori word for cooking or grilling). “We’re taking Flaxmere back one sausage at a time,” he jokes. He and his wife, Pam, have fostered 200 children, one of whom, Phillip Rhodes, is now an acclaimed baritone on the world opera circuit. O’Keefe says Rhodes and his five younger sisters had a “Jake the Muss” dad.

The O’Keefes also set up the U-Turn Trust, which is based at the Te Aranga urban marae on the far western edge of Flaxmere. Yule and former All Blacks captain Taine Randell, who grew up in Flaxmere, are trustees.

The trust operates a large and thriving community garden and wants to build social housing on adjacent vacant land. It’s also promoting a Flaxmere Friendly Landlords’ Scheme that would involve putting stickers on the windows of homes that have insulation, heating and smoke alarms.

Henare O’Keefe at Te Aranga marae. Photo/Glenn Taylor
Henare O’Keefe at Te Aranga marae. Photo/Glenn Taylor

It’s like a Heart Foundation tick, says trust chief executive Apatu. The aim is to encourage and acknowledge responsible landlords. “The majority of landlords are brilliant, but there are some who prey on our vulnerable whanau.”

Wills, who sees child patients from Flaxmere with acute rheumatic fever and even tuberculosis, says some houses are in an appalling state. He finds it frustrating that the land near the marae remains undeveloped despite being suitable for social housing.

Another successful trust initiative is a boxing academy established by Craig McDougall, a man Wills describes as inspirational. According to O’Keefe, some of the most valuable work the boxing academy does happens when training is over for the day, when people just sit around and talk. “People come early and leave late. They minister to one another.”

And it’s not only the trust that is achieving good things locally. O’Keefe, Wills and Yule all speak in glowing terms of Flaxmere College and its principal, Louise Anaru.

Presenting her findings on the suicides of the four teenage girls – three of whom were either still at or had been to Flaxmere College – the coroner said the school was the one institution that was constant and responsive in the girls’ lives.

Wills praises both the teaching and the standard of pastoral care at the school (motto: “Student success is the only option”). In a reversal of the customary pattern of “white flight” from schools in deprived suburbs, parents from outside Flaxmere send their children to the college’s learning support unit.

Apatu, who came to the trust from the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, is especially proud of another project, the Jarmy Army, a joint initiative with Plunket. Kids were falling behind at school because they were cold at night and not sleeping properly. The solution: free flannelette pyjamas. Apatu laughs at the memory of boys proudly walking home along Flaxmere Ave in their new PJs. “I thought boys would be too cool to wear pyjamas,” she says, “but oh, wow.” Some had never owned pyjamas before.

Henare O’Keefe teaches grandson Taylor, 3, about holding ice. Photo/Glenn Taylor
Henare O’Keefe teaches grandson Taylor, 3, about holding ice. Photo/Glenn Taylor

Driving force

Sponsorship is crucial to the trust’s initiatives. The Warehouse contributed to the Jarmy Army project. The Hastings-based Unison energy company sponsors O’Keefe’s mobile BBQ and a close relationship has developed with family-owned Bostock New Zealand, a big grower and exporter of organic fruit and vegetables that is based nearby.

“Millionaire hippies”, one admiring local calls the Bostocks. Vicki Bostock, who died last year, was an inaugural trustee of the U-Turn Trust and a driving force behind the community garden.

The Government pumps millions into Flaxmere too, but O’Keefe would rather the community looked after itself. Agencies like Work and Income grow bigger and fatter because communities are not stepping up, he says. He wants resources to flow straight from Wellington to “where the rubber hits the road” rather than being used to run big bureaucracies.

Tevita Faka‘osi is another who believes local communities know best how to meet their own needs. He runs a programme developed for Pasifika families by the Napier-based family violence prevention agency Dove Hawke’s Bay.

Faka‘osi has lived in Flaxmere for 20 years and has a small office in a building owned by the Catholic Sisters of Compassion. He says Flaxmere is a good community – “an intimate community where we all know each other and can work together”.

He acknowledges there’s “quite a bit” of family violence locally, some of which comes from ingrained cultural and even religious attitudes. “Some of our culture supports violence. That is our big challenge.

“Sometimes we use our culture or faith as an excuse for violence. Most of us islanders think you can’t change it, but you can if you want to. That is what we tell people: they have a choice.”

Showing off the onion crop: a matter of pride.
Showing off the onion crop: a matter of pride.

There are other challenges too. Faka‘osi says there’s plenty of opportunity in Flaxmere but some people are too picky about the work they’re prepared to do. Much of the work is seasonal – at the Wattie’s and McCain food processing plants, or in vineyards – but there’s enough to keep people employed year-round.

Faka‘osi says there’s too much reliance on benefits: “I tell people, ‘Whatever work comes, you should take it’.”

That self-help ethos is strong among leaders of the Flaxmere community. It comes from a sense that if Flaxmere is going to rise above its problems, it will have to do so through its own efforts.

Wills is a big supporter of that approach. Every community is different, he says, and only the communities themselves can come up with the right solutions to their problems. “Outside help can be important, but it should support and resource the community’s solutions, not impose outside solutions on them.

“Of course, there is stuff that only governments can do – social housing, policy around housing, minimum incomes, housing standards. But there are also things that only communities and business and philanthropy and schools can do. Put that all together and you’ve got something really powerful.”

Flaxmere has done some extraordinary things, Wills says. “The community has worked really hard to do everything it can to nurture its young people and families. I want to see the Government meeting them halfway, and I don’t see that.”

Asked if politicians are often seen in Flaxmere, he pauses for a moment before answering: “Rarely.”

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