Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Walking Radical Wellington

I told this story before. Whenever my father was asked for directions near his place of work, in the part of Milan where he was born, he would tell motorists to either turn at the bridge or continue straight after the bridge or similar, which would have confused them greatly since this so-called bridge was removed and the waterway it crossed paved over in 1930, four years before my father was born, and you could guess its past existence only by virtue of a slight slope in the road. But when my father was growing up everyone still called it the bridge and so he kept calling it the bridge, and maybe he even saw it in his mind, that bridge that was removed four years before he was born. He certainly knew where the old rivers where, even if you could barely see them underneath the modern city.

A city is sculpted by time, by the movements of people, by changes in labour relations and the economic base of the community. And it is sculpted by social relations in all their forms, including political relations, which are governed but not completely determined by those other factors. In Wellington, as of last week, we can access this particular layer of the city’s history thanks to the Walking Radical Wellington app, a project created by Dougal McNeill and Samantha Murphy and supported by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of our main university. So I downloaded the app and went on the walk.

If you’re not familiar with these kinds of apps, they are generally overlaid on mapping software such as GPSMyCity or, in this case, PocketSights, and connect a series of location that are annotated with text and pictures. Walking Radical Wellington features 28 such locations, connected in spatial as opposed to chronological order. The two main thematic criteria are sites of working-class and socialist struggle, and sites of organisations of the LGBTQ community alongside what the authors call the ‘social spaces and outlets whether private lives of individuals could find public expression’. This network of clubs, venues and private dwellings, stretching mainly from Cuba Street to Willis Street, is perhaps the most surprising and vivid aspect of the walk, conveying the sense of a secret Wellington that struggled for recognition and ultimately liberation.

The walk can be disorienting, because it takes you backwards and forwards in time, and also because some of the old physical markers have been erased over time by new leases and successive redevelopments. Often you will look for a street number, and find that it has disappeared, as if crushed between the neighbouring addresses. You may be searching for the original site of the Resistance Bookshop at 144 Willis Street, for instance (location #18 on the walk), but the numbers jump from 136 to 148. You are standing right there, but there isn’t there anymore. Similarly, you could say that the workshop of Philip Josephs – the anarchist tailor whose life is chronicled in Jared Davidson's brilliant book Sewing Freedom – is now a Sunglass Hut, but only more or less: the actual building is long gone.

Yet there is value in those spatial relationships, even when they connect places that have physically disappeared or morphed beyond recognition. The walk tells a story, through flash backs and digressions, and the space in-between the stops is the time it takes for the story to be told. Linear time is replaced by space, or rather displaced into another form of time: the time of walking from one location to another.

Outside Trades Hall

The authors are careful to point out that the story of radical Wellington they endeavoured to tell is one of many possible stories, dictated by their particular political interests and knowledge as well as by certain constraints such as how far people could be expected to walk in a single outing (this is why, for instance, an obvious set of locations such as Newtown was left out).

One thing the walk explicitly isn’t, is an attempt to map or connect places of current activity and struggle – a fact that was made obvious to me as I passed the social centre at 128 Abel Smith Street twice in the early stages of the walk. And what it perhaps most notably isn’t – again by explicit disclaimer – is ‘an attempt to capture the history of Māori political activity in Wellington’, which McNeill and Murphy felt ill-equipped to tell. There, I think, lies the most immediate opportunity for a companion or sequel that might go even further in illustrating how much place matters to our politics.

The Bank of New Zealand building photographed by Ron Fox

I really enjoyed the walk, and found it delightfully instructive. And not just because of the many things I didn’t know – for instance: about the industrial disputes during the construction of the State Insurance, formerly Bank of New Zealand building that towers, Death Star-like over the CBD, and where I worked briefly after moving to Wellington. Individually, those are just interesting stories. But woven together, they form a lineage, a heritage.

Walking Radical Wellington didn’t speak to me of lost utopias or romantic pursuits, but rather – much more compellingly – of the concrete signs of a collective history that is never finished or exhausted, but can be retraced, and brought back to useful life.

You can download the Walking Radical Wellington app for iOS or Android from the project's web page.