Sunday, 14 June 2015
Looking through some old files, I came across the feature I mentioned writing here, back in the days when life was interesting.
It wasn't as bad as I remembered so, while it's nice and quiet round these parts, I thought I'd give it a run out. I've ironed out a few of the kinks and reinserted a couple of things cut for the sake of the word count.
It did get published in the paper, by the way, but they never paid me for it, so fuck em.
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“Are you from the council?”
A man in khaki work shorts, a matching shirt and muddy boots is striding towards me. He is carrying a leaf blower and slipped over his gardener’s uniform is a fluorescent orange high-visibility vest. The vest is the same colour as the graffiti, sprayed across a holly hedge, I am photographing.
No, I reply – I am just taking pictures. He squints suspiciously. The Otepuni Gardens are beautiful, I say, and I often come here with my camera. I saw this graffiti today and, well. When did it appear?
“Overnight,” he says. “Someone’s gone right along this block and Block One spraying all over everything. I can’t believe it. I thought you were from the council. I told them about it this morning. I thought, they’ve come quick”. He grimaces.
We chat. He introduces himself as Anthony. He’s worked in the gardens for four years. Loves them to bits. Gets very frustrated by the mindless destruction he has to deal with. His dark eyes glint as we talk.
Some idiots ride their bikes through the flower beds, he tells me. People start fires. Chuck things in the water. Road cones, traffic signs. And he’s had to replace two lots of annual beds after people came along and ripped all the flowers up just for fun.
“Morons,” he says, shaking his head wearily. “I just don’t understand some people. These gardens are piece of history.”
This is true. The Otepuni Gardens, the 8.3 hectare public reserve nestled behind Tay St’s main drag, is Invercargill’s oldest park.
One hundred and fifty years ago the Otepuni creek snaked a wandering course through open country dotted with tussock, flax and shrubs, described by surveyor Frederick Tuckett in 1844 as "a mere bog and unfit for habitation". Undeterred, the area's first European settler, John Kelly, built his whare by the creek where Clyde St now stands. Soon, others joined him.
Rowboats came up from the Waihopai estuary to put passengers and goods ashore. Local Māori stopped for a cook-up on their way to and from the fertile mahinga kai around Sandy Point. The waterway was the heart of a growing township.
Crown surveyor John Turnbull Thomson thought so too. The undistinguished stream became the backbone of his grand plan to impose municipal order on marshland. In 1857, with a few strokes of his pen, he created Invercargill, and declared the land on either side of the creek, from Clyde St to Elles Rd, to be the official town gardens.
Horticulturally, nothing happened for a while. Then in 1872 the council offered a £20 prize to the person who could come up with the best design for a formal garden for the municipal reserve. This extravagant use of public funds prompted a series of heated letters to The Southland Times.
A correspondent calling himself Senex wrote on May 3, 1872, “I venture to say, nothing that will prove permanently attractive or in any way worth the bonus [will be] offered for its design.”
Yet with admirable foresight, he went on to say “The garden must be protected from sudden and also gradual rising of the creek, and therefore a very considerable slope will have to be effected on each side.”
A gentleman named Zanoni replied “Senex is wrong from beginning to finish.”
A further correspondent, writing under the name of Recreation, stated “The creek must be straightened... and when once straightened the land will seldom be flooded as it is often now... A well-directed expenditure in fencing these blocks, forming walks, and laying down portions in grass, cannot fail to be anything but a general good, and need not absorb all the revenue.”
Senex retorted, “I would ask how a generally sluggish and all but stagnant stream… can be particularly ornamental? I have set the ball rolling, and now believe the Council will not now throw away the public money on the Puni creek project.”
Misplaced confidence: the gripes were ignored. James Moreton, a North Road florist, won the £20 and a borough gardener was sought to implement the design.
Scotsman Thomas Waugh got the job, and immediately began to whip the gardens into shape. Seeds and cuttings were ordered from Wellington and Christchurch; the creek was straightened and the old stream bed filled in. Tussocks were cleared. In their place Waugh planted eucalypts, conifers, pines, macrocarpa. He laid out paths and borders to Moreton’s plans. Installed a nursery garden, a conservatory, a pond. Worked so hard for his salary of seven shillings and sixpence a day that when he dropped down dead in 1896, his obituary blamed overwork.
Yes. But the gardens looked magnificent.
Successive town gardeners augmented his efforts. Waugh’s replacement, Henry Edginton, put down 4000 trees and shrubs. His successor, James McPherson, planted 6000 bulbs along the banks of the stream. In 1933, Paddy Mansfield installed the poplar avenue in Block Three, filled in the pond, built an aviary, and created an alpine garden.
“Mr Mansfield was noted for his lavish displays of annual and herbaceous plants,” says the council’s Otepuni Gardens Town Belt (B) Management Plan 1995-2005. The management plan also notes that “even during those early years, there were problems with groups loitering in the Gardens and annoying citizens passing through.”
When the band rotunda was built in 1920, the gardens became a popular place to gather. Electric street lighting was installed in an effort to curb vandalism. Policemen patrolled the gardens at night, alert for undue carousing. It’s a different story these days.
“Otepuni Gardens are not what you’d call a problem area for us,” says Inspector Olaf Jensen, of Invercargill. “Isolated incidents, and vehicles broken into sometimes.”
What about vandalism?
“We don’t patrol this area, so unless a member of the public calls our attention to something going on, we don’t know about it.”
It costs the current council about $50,000 a year to fix the mess caused by louts, Invercargill city council parks manager Robin Pagan says.
“On parks alone we’re spending at least $25,000 if not more on vandalism-type things,” Pagan tells me from behind the desk of his Queens Park office, where a small plastic tuatara is perched on the edge of his computer keyboard.
“Litter, graffiti, things being chucked in the creek. Broken trees. Some people seem to take joy in lifting the paving blocks. They pick them up and chuck them in the creek. It’s hard to know why.”
The Otepuni Gardens became neglected after McPherson decided they were too small and cramped to carry on being the chief public garden of Invercargill and shifted his attention to the bigger, flashier Queens Park, Pagan explains.
“It all got transferred – the aviary, parks office, works yard. It’s more central here; more room, and less problems. It floods down there. Three, maybe four, times a year someone would have to rush in in the middle of the night and lift mowers up out of the water and do all sorts of things. So it wasn’t the best.”
Flooding. It seems everyone but the council had anticipated the havoc the generally sluggish stream might cause.
It was no secret the 'Puni had a habit of bursting its banks after heavy rainfall. High tides in the estuary regularly flooded the gardens too. A combination of these factors could cause disaster. And it did. On Valentines Day 1940, the Otepuni Gardens and its surrounding streets disappeared under several feet of murky water.
The Southland Daily News lamented the ruin of the gardens’ summer display. “Shrubs, hedges and trees showed their dripping heads disconsolately above the floodwaters”, it reported. The potato crop put in under the direction of the city council was destroyed. Islington St, it said, “looked like Venice without the gondolas”.
It also identified the cause of the floods. “The stream has within recent years been straightened, and this has permitted the faster flow of water from the higher reaches.” But nothing was done. It happened again. The 1984 floods were a repeat of 1940, and some.
Stopbanks, dams, and updated stormwater systems were hastily installed, and finally the stream started to behave itself. The new stopbanks encircled and enclosed the gardens, altering their look and feel. After decades languishing in Queens Park's shadow, something of a renaissance followed.
“The gardens started being used a lot more,” Pagan says. “They had a bit of privacy about them, I suppose.”
Suddenly, Otepuni Gardens was a popular venue. Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum came to town to film parts of the 1989 made-for-TV movie The Brotherhood of the Rose there. 1995 saw the advent of Cherrystock, the free summer music festival touted as Invercargill’s answer to The Big Day Out. It ran in the gardens for five years.
In winter, the gardens hosted Southland Regional Council science and technology fairs. Families enjoyed electric fishing, water sampling demonstrations, and whitebaiting. At the 1997 event, the deputy mayor and 251 other brave souls walked barefoot over hot coals. (This, The Southland Times noted, was 20 fewer than the previous year.)
In 2001, Block Two was the venue for the inaugural Shakespeare in the Park. Venture Southland’s Angela Newell fulfilled a lifelong dream to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the weeping elm next to the sundial.
“I used to bike through there on my way to school,” she explains. “I always thought it would be perfect for it.”
It was. About a thousand people came, she recalls, and an Invercargill tradition was born.
But Shakespeare in the Park never went back to the Otepuni Gardens, and the science fairs, music festivals and film crews are a distant memory.
Vandals aside, the gardens are mostly deserted these days: a shortcut, and not much else.
Parks division office administrator Heather Guise blames the liquor ban. “You can’t do anything there now.” Bookings for 2009 extended to the Southern Institute of Technology’s orientation week activities, an Easter egg hunt, a Matariki hikoi (using the gardens only because the council wouldn’t give permission for it to go through town), and three weddings, she says. There is a “tentative” booking for a wedding next year.
“It’s not very popular,” she surmises.
Invercargill’s oldest park will just have to wait and hope for people to remember why it exists.
“We see the Otepuni Gardens as an important corridor, a pleasant way to go if you’re going to work,” Pagan says. “They’re basically just historical now. They’re almost the forgotten gardens, aren’t they?”
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[all photos: © me]