(First published in The Dominion Post, August 22.)
I recently did something every rah-rah cheerleader for Wellington should do.
I took the Airport Flyer bus from the airport to the railway station. It’s a trip that presents a very different picture of the city from the one promoted by the booster brigade for the world’s “coolest capital”.
The problem is not the bus service, as suggested recently by a local politician, doubtless with his eyes on the forthcoming council elections. It’s the city itself.
For many visitors, the Airport Flyer provides the first experience of Wellington, and it’s not an inspiring one. It may be heresy to say this, but Wellington as seen from the airport bus is grotty.
Note that I say grotty, not gritty; gritty can be cool, but grotty never is.
The capital has a magnificent front entrance, but the Airport Flyer approaches the city via its scruffy back yard.
Before going any further, I should stress that I’ve spent much of my working life in and around Wellington, and there’s a lot about the city that I love. I’ve proudly shown overseas visitors its better parts.
There remains some truth in the slogan that you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, but the rarely mentioned qualification to that statement is that the truly good days come rarely. The reason Wellington celebrates them so extravagantly is that its climate is essentially hostile to human existence.
Much of the time the city is bleak and windblown, as it was on the day of my Airport Flyer ride. This served only to accentuate the inconvenient truth that large parts of Wellington look drab, desolate and neglected.
Our trip begins in Rongotai. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how the presence of Sir Peter Jackson’s film-making empire has lifted the eastern suburbs, but there’s bugger-all evidence of it in Rongotai and Kilbirnie.
Mostly the flat eastern suburbs remain what they always were: areas of mean, low-cost, early 20th century houses jammed too close together and apparently owned by landlords too stingy to do maintenance or buy paint. Many have been butchered by cheap and ill-conceived alterations.
The tone lifts as the bus proceeds through Hataitai, one of my favourite Wellington suburbs, and the quaint Mt Vic bus tunnel is a treasure. But then you’re through to the other side, and it’s almost Kilbirnie all over again.
Mt Victoria is supposedly one of Wellington’s most desirable locations, but you wouldn’t guess it from Pirie St. It’s a clutter of ill-matching properties, many of them tired, rundown and of little aesthetic or architectural merit. San Francisco it ain’t.
Cambridge and Kent terraces are an eyesore – a jumble of cheap, gimcrack commercial buildings cobbled together by opportunist investors and developers with no concern other than making a buck.
Courtenay Place? It looks even more squalid by day than by night, when at least the darkness blurs the tattiness. Manners Street is little better.
It was about this point on my journey that I noticed something else. The few people on the streets appeared to have purchased their clothing from op-shops and generally looked demoralised and defeated.
A stranger would have concluded that this was the poor side of a town that had seen better days – an antipodean Detroit, perhaps – and that the sad-looking pedestrians shuffling along the footpaths were making their way to the nearest soup kitchen.
The overall impression created by both the people and the shabby streetscapes was one of impoverishment. But this was downtown Wellington – "Absolutely Positively Wellington", the dynamic capital of one of the world’s most affluent economies. How could this be?
Earlier that morning I had flown in from Europe where, for all its supposed problems and stresses, city streets were teeming with life and exuded energy and positivity, and where dazzling architecture turned my head around every corner. The contrast was striking – and slightly unsettling.
I know other people who have noted the same thing about Wellington but are afraid to state it for fear of being howled down.
It’s only when the Airport Flyer gets to Willis Street and Lambton Quay that the traveller gets any impression of a vibrant and prosperous city. That’s assuming they haven’t already been so disconcerted by what they’ve seen that they’ve pressed the “stop” buzzer and taken a cab back to the airport so they can catch the next plane out again.
Admittedly there’s not a lot that can be done to fix this, short of re-routing the Airport Flyer around the bays, which would obviously be impractical. But let’s at least abandon the smug pretence that Wellington is a glorious gem that instantly bewitches every newcomer.
Yes, bits of it are charming, but much of the city looks tired and unloved to the point of appearing almost derelict. If you don't believe me, take a trip on the Airport Flyer and try to look around with an objective eye.