Why do a pair of Waiuku mums drive their daughters 40 minutes to a skatepark in Manurewa once known for drug dealing and gang fights?
In 2008, a Manurewa liquor store owner was gunned down during a robbery of his shop, which backs on to the Randwick skatepark. According to longtime local and avid skater Walz Brown, that was just one of many crimes perpetrated in and around the sprawling reserve.
“Back in the day, you could buy anything here: drugs, women, anything. And the selling of stuff all happened around here,” Brown says, looking out over an array of smooth concrete ramps, quarter pipes and bowls. It doesn’t look like the place he’s describing.
Brown says the key to the change was Auckland Council’s $5.3 million redevelopment, which kicked off in 2010. By 2020 a new playground, skatepark, basketball court and community centre had been all added to the site.
So instead of drug dealers and pimps, the site is now full of children zipping around on scooters and skateboards. Among the melee are two mums from Waiuku, Shontelle Thomson and Louise Newbury.
Since the level four restrictions were lifted, the pair have been making the 40-minute trip up the southern motorway a couple of times a week with their skateboarding daughters, Sienna, Macie and Bella.
Newbury says one of the biggest challenges when it comes to supporting their kids’ passion has been finding a place that isn’t dangerous or intimidating for their 10 and 12-year-old girls.
“The vibe at our local park in Waiuku is very much about smoking and vaping,” she says. “So we’ve been touring around Auckland, going to skateparks in places like Waterview and Mt Albert, and the atmosphere in these areas is terrible. The kids are nasty, we’ve seen punch-ups. And then we just happened to come across this one.”
Thomson says their daughters were immediately made to feel welcome – which she says is significant, given how macho the skateboarding scene is known to be.
“We know what a bad rap Randwick Park gets, but the vibe here is totally different,” she says. “The people are so lovely and when my daughter fell the other day, you should have seen how many kids got around to help her.”
The mothers have felt so moved by the kindness they’ve been shown that they did a fundraiser to help out the kids who don’t have skating gear.
“We come here all the time and we’ve seen that some of these kids have nothing,” Newbury says. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we get some skateboards for them?’. We asked our community to help out and we’ve been able to give out about 50 scooters and skateboards and helmets.”
Brown knows the local community really appreciates the donations of boards and scooters and he hopes it will help spark a new generation to take up the sport he loves.
“It’s always good when anyone comes here, and they kept coming back, which was kind of weird,” he laughs.
“But we’re loving it. I’ve lived here my whole life and since they made the new skatepark, it hasn’t been tagged and the kids now feel safe to stay here till it gets dark.”
Auckland councillor Angela Dalton is particularly pleased to hear how the area has changed, as she was instrumental in securing investment for its redevelopment when she was Manurewa Local Board chair.
“When the Manukau City Council ended, we started to talk about the need to prioritise the area as there had been a lot of investment from developers but there were no community assets.”
But after plans were drawn up, the project almost got derailed by the City Rail Link.
“We did lose capital on this project because council took the decision to only use the minimal construction materials,” says Dalton, who’s been the Manurewa-Papakura ward councillor since 2019.
“So the local board put an extra $700,000 from our budget, which was a huge amount of money for us. We just felt, ‘Why should they have to get the minimum, because council has decided to spend its money on the CRL?’”
She points out that another key to its success was involving locals in every aspect of the project.
“Not only is it community designed, it’s also community run and that’s where people like Dave Tims, Maree Bevan [and Walz Brown] have come in and that’s what made it a safer place to be, because the community has ownership of it.”
Dave Tims is a local community worker with the Christian charity Urban Neighbours of Hope and he also runs the caretaking business that keeps the area clean. He says much of the credit for the changes should go to Brown for the mentoring work he’s been doing in the area for the last decade or so.
“Walz and his boys have played a major role in creating the culture there. He worked with them when they were teenagers and now they are young men with families, so they are passing that on to their kids.
“When we first came here the park was crazily violent and drugs and alcohol were everywhere, but Walz’s boys have changed that culture, so families feel safe to be there.”
He says seeing that people from out of the area are now hearing about the changes shows what happens when you invest in local communities.
“When something is stunning it does something to your spirit, and this development has lifted the mana of the area. If you go down now, you will see all these different groups playing together, working together, without the need for any formal structure or supervision because we have people who take ownership of the place.”
But the most telling change is that locals now realise their worth.
“I remember when the building was opened, one of the comments was. ‘Far, this is way too good for Randwick’. But the reply quickly came back from someone else: ‘No, no, we deserve something like this’.”
But don’t confuse such a statement for entitlement. Rather, it’s the realisation that Auckland is for everyone and everyone should expect community facilities they can be proud of.