Naked in Nuhaka: Urban Ecology
Naked in Nuhaka
By Leo Koziol
PERHAPS THE MOST DREADFUL PRODUCT of Hollywood film-making in the 20th Century is one "Joe's Apartment" (1). Its about a down-on-his-luck slacker in New York City who strikes an opportunity for a dirt cheap apartment when an old women dies inadvertently on the street. Posing as the dead woman's son, Joe moves into the apartment, only to find it infested with thousands of cockroaches. The roaches adopt Joe and do fabulous song and dance numbers. A mid-90s MTV Films (2), "Joe's Apartment" is the kind of entertainment you find buried late night on MTV in the US, or, here in New Zealand, in the midnight slot on TV2.
A couple of week's ago, prior to drifting off to la-la land I ran into this film on TV. Unfortunately, I suffered through about a third of it. Joe's cockroaches do their fabulous song and dance numbers, and weasel their way into the slacker slob's heart. The cockroaches equally love Joe for his slovenliness, with a neverending supply of garbage and leftover chinese and pizza takeout. Before I switched off the film in horror this seemingly unique piece of celluloid was quickly and obviously falling into bland Hollywood formulae. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy loses apartment. Cockroaches save the day. Boy gets apartment back (oh, and the girl, too).
The film made me feel irascible and beleagured partially from its stupidity -- but mostly because my old house here in Nuhaka is infested with cockroaches. Gisborne cockroaches. The urban myth out here on The Coast goes something like this: they hitched their way here on a boat sometime back in the 1960s, we learned to get along with them, no one really complains about them, and they're now pretty much a fact of life. I find them totally disgusting, and all too prevalent.
I walk around the house looking for dark patches on the wallpaper -- for I know it will be a cockroach!! (3) I kill them without mercy and with great zeal. I throw them on the ground for my cat to chase after and play with (and, hopefully, kill). I cut them in half and watch both ends determinedly persevere towards a doomed existence. Three weekends ago, what I thought was an albino one crawled gently across my living room floor. I bottled it to gleefully show it to my parents. The next day, my son pointed out its sad lack of uniqueness after it had changed colour to "normality". I guess it had shed its skin, and the new colour had not yet set in. How disappointing. The cockroach still sits sealed in the jar. It's happily alive.
Isn't it strange that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) is spending millions to eradicate the suburbs of West Auckland of Painted Apple Moth, when the East Coast has been infested with the most horrible of creatures that makes rural daily life here quite miserable? Aren't these cockroaches about to eat every tree and native bird in the district?
I moved back to Nuhaka, to find myself living with a creature more at home in the condos, apartment blocks and doss houses of New York City. Who would have thought that this place would have such an urban ecology?
There's something strangely ironic that the portion of Auckland currently being mass-sprayed for the Painted Apple Moth is its western suburbs (4).
Start at Ponsonby Road, and the city changes away from its tony eastern burbs and its enigmatic downtown to become staunchly to the Left -- both geographically and politically. Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and surrounds would rank high in what recent "Knowledge Wave" speaker Richard Florida calls the Creative Class (5): strong Polynesian/Pakeha ethnic mix, top rankings in the "Gay Index" (6), and the heartland of the Bourgeois Bohemians ("Bobos" for short) (7). Tip a little further to the left, and you are in the heartland of Labour and Union politics (Mt. Albert aka Helengrad) and the largest urban concentration of the ecologically aware (Waitakere, the "eco-city" par excellence, stretching out across the NZ Green bushlands to the wild mythic shores of Piha and Karekare (8)). Throw in the working class bohemianism of the "Westies", add in a dash of wine culture with the rather more genuine Bohemians of Dalmatian and Croat immigrants (9), and then add a dash of faux-bourgeois Titirangi and Waiatarua; and you have a heady mix that is representative of all that is cutting edge in progressive politics and culture in Aotearoa NZ today.
And every couple of months, for the past few years, these eco-socio-politically aware folk have been having their senses bombarded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The threat to our nation's economic future from the Painted Apple Moth is clear. According to MAF, with no natural enemies on our shores, this tiny little moth could do "hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to our forestry over the next 20 years" (10). What isn't clear is what goes into the sprays that go over suburban housing areas on a regular basis. The core ingredient of the pesticide is "Btk", an ingredient popular with organic producers for its non-chemical basis. Other ingredients, added to make the pesticide palatable to the moth, are not disclosed by MAF (11). Side effects attributable to these other ingredients are being recorded, such as asthma or migraines, but without full information full assessment is not possible.
I don't want any conspiracy theory to get started, but isn't it a little ironic that the heartland of progressive politics in our nation -- ground central on the war on GE -- is facing such a bombardment to their senses? Isn't it a little to easy to imagine a bunch of MAF scientists and engineers down in Wellington with sly gleeful smiles getting a bit of a kick out of those "out there" wacky Jafas (12) receiving their regular dosages, further muddling their quite possibly already befuddled little minds? Or am I just paranoid?
One of my favourite books of the last century is "Ecology of Fear", by Mike Davis.
Mike is a complex urban analyst whose works have focused on Los Angeles as a model of future urban development in the U.S. and around the world. He's written a number of tomes, but the one I found fascinated me the most is "Ecology of Fear". The book records the collision of ecological catastrophes (including natural disasters) with social disparity and dislocation in this supermetropolis.
One chapter examines the lack of fire safety controls on inner city condominiums of the poor, whilst millions in funds are siphoned off to protect the rich living low density in the tinder dry scrublands of the mountains. Another chapter examines the psychological and ecological effects of the chemical spraying of LA in the 1970s to curb potential agricultural pests similar to the Apple Moth. The concluding chapter talks about the collision of disasters as portrayed in Hollywood popular culture and actual disasters as played out in the physical world of Los Angeles.
Deeply dark stuff, the book touches on a "fin-de-siecle" urban "schadenfreude" (13) whereby the general malaise of American cultural dislike of lefty, loopy, liberal Los Angeleans results in an almost cheering for armageddon of this celluloid Sodom. Here's a choice quote from a review in Salon:
"The book's popularity exactly mirrors 150 years of ambivalence about the glamour of living in Los Angeles, expressed locally as a weird kind of Schadenfreude -- glee not at someone else's misfortune, but at (potentially) our own. There are some L.A. residents who claim to get an adrenaline rush from these reminders that the worst could happen to them at any moment. Every copy of the "Ecology of Fear" sold in the city should be stamped: Get out now, while you can! But, before you go, have a cool time!"
I sat in my San Francisco apartment in 1998 reading "Ecology of Fear" in awe. On a similar geological faultline to LA, in SF I felt way more spooked at the potential for a culturequake. What happens if the undercurrent of Fascist Neo-Nazism became a reality in the US? This from the book, a genuine quote from a manifesto that led now-executed Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh to his morbid task, an urban vision of hell, the Day of the Rope:
"[After slaughtering the blacks, Latinos and Jews] the Organization turns to the white race traitors. Sixty thousand are hung [on Santa Monica Boulevard] from tens of thousands of lampposts, power poles, and trees."
The book continues:
"Even the street lights at intersections have been pressed into service, and at practically every street corner I passed this evening on the way to HQ there was a dangling corpse, four at every intersection. Hanging from a single overpass only about a mile from here is a group of 30, each with an identical placard around its neck bearing the printed legend, "I betrayed my race." Two or three of that group had been decked out in academic robes before they were strung up, and the whole bunch are apparently faculty members from the nearby UCLA campus." (14)
I read the above, and it sent a chill down my spine.
You see, my apartment was located on Cesar Chavez St, San Francisco. Cesar Chavez was, until 1996, called Army Street. The liberal Mayor and Supervisors of San Francisco, undoubtedly with their anti-war stances in mind, decided to change the name of Army Street to Cesar Chavez in the early 1990s. The name change was to honour Cesar Chavez, latino agricultural labour activist of the 1950s and 1960s. Army Street stretches from the industrial wastelands of Bayshore, across the Latino Mission District, and up to the wealthy white and gay suburbs of Noe Valley and Twin Peaks. The name change occured despite strong protestations from the minority Republican populations.
I envisioned Cesar Chavez St facing a similar fate to Santa Monica Boulevard. A symbolic demarcation line between the relatively benign suburbs of the south and the "dangerously" liberal Gotham to the north. And it creeped me out, big time.
schadenfreude \SHAHD-n-froy-duh\, noun: A malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others. Source: www.dictionary.com> schadenfreude \SHAHD-n-froy-duh\, noun: A malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others. Source: http://www.dictionary.com
Look at Auckland and environs, and a deep ecology of fear emerges. Gateway to the rest of the world, with the largest seaport and airport, the city is the "buffer zone" for all ecological and biological scourges which might drift in from elsewhere. Urban Auckland sprawls across dozens of volcanoes, pimples that might burst at any moment. Add to that the potential impact of global sea level rise, tsunamis from east or west, and the not oft discussed potential for a major earthquake, and the ephemerality of this "city on the make" becomes easily apparent.
I don't imagine any kind of right-wing social apocalypse ever befalling Ponsonby Road and its urbanites. But I do admit fascination with the sad schadenfreude coincidence between the social ecology and ecological crisis of West Auckland. For any foreign immigrant to Auckland, it must be part of the "magic" of this new (temporary) home - as much as the quakes, riots and police state is to new residents of LA. Urban texture. Like boy racers.
There was an intriguing article in New Scientist that I spotted on Arts and Letters Daily recently. Though I didn't unreservedly agree with its content, it touched on one of the more interesting elements of the Painted Apple Moth debate. It was entitled "The Greening of Hate":
"Ecologists make talk about alien, invasive species sound like anti-immigration rhetoric... Green themes like scarcity and purity and invasion and protection all have right-wing echoes... Hitler's ideas about environmentalism came out of purity, after all." (15)
It is ironic that it is the "greenies" who are arguing against the spraying going on in West Auckland. But it is even more ironic that they are not offering any arguments in return. Their ideology states -- on a basis of ecological purity -- that the Painted Apple Moth must be completely eliminated. No alternative is offered on this messy debate, no discussion of how we might cope with the messy truth of the ecologically impure fate of Auckland as it further expands into an increasingly globalised economic and social reality.
Or should we just close the borders?
Today, dozens of containers were loaded off aeroplanes in Auckland. Hundreds of tourists stepped their way on to our shores. The wind blew pollen and seeds from Australia. Boats released bilge into our harbours. And the cockroaches in Nuhaka carried on with their messy and scurrying little lives. Strangers in a strange land. Last, loneliest, loveliest.
WEBLINKS Catherine Chalmer's Hanging Cockroaches in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/08/arts/design/08ROAC.html?th
(1) It scored a big fat ZERO at http://www.rottentomatoes.com!
(2) Now that's an oxymoron!
(3) Quite similar, I guess, to the eye I kept on the ground for human feces and used condoms when I lived back in San Francisco.
(4) Okay, so the general gist of what follows is a conspiracy theory that West Auckland is being sprayed upon by the Wellington bureaucrats to get back at all those liberal westies and their greenie attitudes. Then I remembered that the "blue rinse" set of east Auckland got it first in the 1990s. Please ignore this fact, and continuing reading the article in post-ignorant bliss.
(6) Gay Index used to rank hottest cities: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/storydisplay.cfm?storyID=3101675&thesection=news&thesubsection=general&reportid=812597
(7) "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There", David Brooks, Simon & Schuster, 2000.
(8) Full disclosure: I worked as a Policy Analyst at Waitakere City, in the western half of Auckland, in the first half of the 1990s. I was there as the city's progressive "Eco-City" vision was in gestation.
(9) Okay, I'm using a bit of Eastern Europe geographic license here...
(10) See: "Wipe Out", Frances Walsh, Metro magazine, March 2003.
(11) Frontline of TV1, Sunday 4 May 2003, did disclose some of the ingredients, which included lots of preservatives that cause allergic reactions, amongst other afflictions.
(12) New Zealand slang for "Just Another F*cking Aucklander."
(13) Salon.com, "Pornography of Despair", by D.J. Waldie. http://archive.salon.com/books/feature/1998/09/cov_21feature.html
(14) "Ecology of Fear", Mike Davis, Metropolitan Books, 1998, p. 335. The quote is from: Andrew Macdonald, "The Turner Diaries", Barricade Bookes, NY, 1996, p. 151. Davis notes: "The original 1978 edition, circulated via mail order and gun shows, is reported to have sold more than 200,000 copies."
ABOUT NAKED IN NUHAKA Leo Koziol (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes on identity, culture, ecology, and place in Aotearoa NZ in the 21st Century. Nuhaka is located on the East Coast of the North Island of NZ. http://www.nuhaka.com/
All content (c) Leo Koziol
& Rautaki Group Consultants