Hard News by Russell Brown

Exile on Queen Street

I popped into town for a cruise down then up Queen Street this morning, to refresh my memory of the 20 trees earmarked for execution in what Leighton Smith has memorably dubbed "the Queen Street Massacre". And I needed to, because many of them are possibly the least memorable trees in civic history.

To listen to the furore, to read the 200-odd letters to the Herald, you would think that the golden mile was to be denuded of all its foliage by cold-eyed lunatics. Which would, indeed, be a serious matter, because Queen Street has a hell of a lot of trees. At this time of year, healthy green canopies stretch up the hill from the Mayoral Drive, and some surprisingly substantial specimens spring from the paths from Wellesley down to Queen Elizabeth Square.

But for the moment, there is no imminent danger of them being cut down: just 20 of the 36 trees in the short stretch between Wellesley and Mayoral, to be replaced in the first part of the $30 million Queen Street renewal programme; most of them scrawny specimens that have virtually no impact on the city experience. I frankly doubt that half the people who have written to the Herald actually know what they're trying to save.

In general, of course, a tree in the ground is to be treasured. Why remove one just to plant another? The Herald brought in another arborist to examine the condemned specimens, and he duly expressed the utmost optimism in the prospects of nearly every one.

But for Leighton, and those who have applied for an injunction to stop the redevelopment, it's not so much about the existing trees as what's planned in their stead: natives. The spectre of native foliage brings out a bizarre response in some people. Rosemary McLeod wrote a silly column for the Dom Post last year bemoaning the advance of the grim green army; arguing that if we were to be an open society and welcome the exotic foods and colourful clothes and costumes of immigrants, surely we should embrace their colourful plants too. Or something.

As Tim Selwyn points out in an interesting post, the save-the-trees campaign is really more in the nature of an opportunistic anti-PC backlash by people who think the planting of native flora is the thin end of the wedge:

And is it not hypocritical for the sort of anti-RMA people (who complain about the authorities having to consult the public at all with things like motorways) to now be whining to the council and using the RMA to hold things up? What happened to "just get on with it" and "too much useless talkfests" etc? Oh how they change their tune when they have a chance at an anti-PC crusade. This is what it is isn't it?

Tim also points out something I'd forgotten: that the QEII Square redevelopment under the Banks council took out a row of quite substantial pohutukawa. Perhaps it was unavoidable as part of the transport development, but it was rather more in the way of a massacre than what is proposed for Queen Street.

But the people complaining now didn't complain then. They didn't complain about the so-called Birch Report, which proposed gutting tree protection regulations in the city (which resulted in a shambolic period of council indecision, during which street trees were destroyed or damaged without permission). They didn't complain about the same council's surprise decision to dump pensioner housing. Just so long as no one's planning to sneak in a cabbage tree, apparently.

On the other hand … there are, in fact, already cabbage trees and nikau palms on Queen Street, and most of them look lonely and shabby. I love cabbage trees - the one in front of our house sheds like a bugger but adds an iconic touch you wouldn't get from anything else - but I really have my doubts about their worth as urban street trees.

Yet if you go up to Karangahape Road you can see what a stand of maturing nikau in a well-conceived street garden looks like. It's not just attractive, it's quite exciting. The palms now tower over the shop canopies. It couldn't be anywhere else in the world.

Why council officials can't present a similarly attractive vision for Queen Street, I don't know, but the official artist's impression is singularly unconvincing. The council's planning department needs to consult earlier and more widely and stop presenting its ideas as a fait accompli.

But I feel sorry for Dick Hubbard. This whole affair is much less about the trees than it is about an opportunity to scrag him for his alleged high-handedness and arrogance (which, when you consider the way his predecessor behaved for three years, is a rather odd allegation to make) - witness the entry of that newfound friend of the trees, Aaron Bhatnagar, and angry allegations from right-wing bloggers who don't appear to be at all familiar with Queen Street. (Check out the first comment under this post - these people shouldn't be allowed off their meds.)

And, of course, we have Leighton Smith declaring: "If Dick Hubbard allows the Queen Street Massacre I will make it my personal responsibility to see him removed from office." Oh, the pomp of the man.

So on one hand, we have a planning department that needs to listen, and on the other a bunch of hypocrites, nutters and opportunists. It all makes Waiheke Island, where we just spent a few days' holiday, look quite good.

I always come away from Waiheke thinking that I could stand living there. And then I mull over what the sale of our inner Western suburbs house would fetch us on the island. At best, it would be a straight swap. Maybe later in life.

I did the usual things: swam, hit the Ostend market for tarts and olives, and visited Harry's Bookshop, which proved to be a fruitful source of the kind of funny old books that I buy. I left with Election '81: An end to Muldoonism? (written by a gallery journalist and a Victoria lecturer, but effectively a Social Credit pamphlet in drag - things were weird back then); Towards Nationhood, a 1969 collection of speeches by Norman Kirk; Bill Cooke's intriguing Heathen in Godzone: Seventy Years of Rationalism in New Zealand, which includes a cautionary tale about letting Marxists control anything bigger than a cake stall (although I would reiterate a previous point that the embarrassing Marxists of our own era are the more wild-eyed conservative bloggers) and a handwritten inscription from the author to Brian Edwards "with respect"; Perspectives on Religion, an interesting collection of essays presented to a colloquium at Auckland University in 1974, just as Christian fundamentalism began its ascent; Best of 'Life After Closedown', which collects Tom Frewen's amusing columns for the Waiheke Gulf News between 1982 and 1987 (I figured $3 for a book with a picture of Tom in his Y-fronts on the cover was a bargain).

But the book I actually took with me to read was Trek out of Trouble, Noel Holmes' famous account of the 1960 All Black tour to South Africa, as endorsed by Warwick Roger and others. It is, indeed, a frank and fascinating work; an illumination of its time, but above all a rugby book. The best rugby book ever written here? Possibly.

And, in conclusion, I must testify that I came away from the island with three jars of Waiheke Island Herb Spread, a "gourmet blend of traditional and wild seasonal herbs and flowers" that is almost endlessly useful. It looks like (and can be used as) pesto, but I have also employed it to marinate boneless chicken thighs before finishing in my new Anuka electric smoker, and stuffed it, Jamie Oliver-style, under the breast skin of a roast chook. Brilliant every time. Those hippies know what they're doing.