I was on a jury recently, for a sexual assault case in one of the glacier towns. The trial revealed a tawdry lifestyle: precarious work, transient population, the only belonging to be found in the smartphone screen, the dvd, the facebook message, the porn… Identity is a series of uniforms- the hotel, the bar, the Warehouse clothes, the rugby league shirt, the All Black scarf… They eat a diet of takeaway or bar food. Somewhere in there is a desire for affection, even love and it all goes wrong. Meanwhile the tourists pass through in their thousands, for there is a natural wonder here which they all must photograph.

All pretty grubby and a long way from the culture of the mining towns in their heyday, the Labour-voting, union-belonging, men and women with their sports teams, the camaraderie of the bathhouse, the need for trust, the stories of past struggles for economic and social justice, some of them church goers, a few of them communists, providing their own infrastructure when necessary. Of course I mustn’t idealise the culture – there was a lot of booze involved and it was patriarchal, but compared with the tourist town it had considerable integrity…

Mawhera/Greymouth is in transition, slowly becoming a tourist town. As I hung around for a few days, that was the impression – tourists were probably outnumbering locals. There are signs of greater liveliness. The town square is happening. Stewart Nimmo’s was busy (and he deserves that, after hanging in there for so many years as a local gallery), the Chinese restaurant was full of Chinese – a nice image, a young woman was playing the ukulele outside the library as she learned a new song, there seemed to be more posters advertising shows, and I could sit and have a conversation with a UK couple about Brexit.

The question becomes one of maintaining the local, and not becoming tawdry and transient. This is where there are crucial things to be quickly learned and I’m not confident of this happening. To maintain that integrity while changing requires trusting the local values, building with local materials, involving the community not just to provide feedback but in doing the work, and thus to respect local skills and local craftspeople. So far, that hasn’t happened. The Miners’ Memorial has been literally made in China, and it shows – when the money could have generated half a dozen local sculptures along the flood wall. The start of the cycle trail is boring mock heritage. The town square could have been made locally, with roof supports and furniture made by local artists and craftspeople, the tiles made via community workshops as has been done in Harihari. It could have been beautiful. Instead I’m betting it will all be brought in from outside. Behind this, unfortunately, is a sort of mid Californian aesthetic accepted by councillors and officers as ‘the norm’. It’s the design aesthetic of shopping barns, fast food outlets, sporting complexes, used car lots, prisons and airports.  And it is expensive.

The issue, really, is one of culture. There needs to be a design committee made up of locals with art skills and knowledge of cultural processes, and this committee needs to be led by tangatawhenua. But how is that going to happen? There’s the rub, as Shakespeare might say.

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