Tuesday, May 21

Christchurch: we have an “Uncle Barry” problem

For the past decade, in an unscientific but longitudinal survey, I have asked various groups of young people the question: “If Christchurch was a person, who would it be?”

I teach a 2nd and third year course on the sociology of the city at University of Canterbury, a course that came into being in response to the earthquakes and the city rebuild. Central to what we do and discuss is to consider the city as a laboratory of urban change and experiences.

Early in the course I mention the work of American sociologist Robert Park who, in 1925, described the city as “a state of mind”.

This got me thinking as to how we perceive and experience our cities. What would be ‘a Christchurch state of mind’? Conversely, what would be a Wellington state of mind or an Auckland one? 

I realized that I had a ready-made informal survey population in my class that could be, and was, supplemented over the past decade by year 11 & 12 high school students who came to university open days and, more recently, by the large second year Business and Culture class I now teach into. This has resulted in a survey population of hundreds of young people, of various classes, ethnicities and gender/sexualities. They had either grown up in Christchurch or moved here for university.

What fascinates and concerns me is that for over a decade I have got exactly the same answer, every year, across all groups that I ask: ‘If Christchurch was a person, who would it be?”

So, who is Christchurch?

Christchurch is a white straight man in his late 40s, only high school educated, racist, sexist, anti LGBTQi, conservative, who likes to drink beer and is primarily interested in sport.

Christchurch is, we decided early on, “Uncle Barry”. 

In other words, Christchurch is the second largest city in the country but is perceived and experienced by young people as the city of small town and provincial attitudes.  [As an aside, my ex-students who go and work in the Wellington Public service report that “Christchurch is the place Wellington makes fun of when it is not making fun of Hamilton…] 

I then ask them, how many of you see yourself living here by choice in 5-years and in ten years? Again, consistently across all groups, for over a decade, it is at most 2-3%. That also means University of Canterbury is primarily ‘adding value for export’. 

When I ask why, the answer is “Uncle Barry”. In other words, who wants to live in a city of Uncle Barry and his attitudes? To answer, what is a Christchurch state of mind? It is the state of mind of Uncle Barry.

Of course, many in Christchurch will strenuously disagree and deride such a description. Christchurch celebrates itself as rebuilding a new city for a new century. And there are small pockets of change in Christchurch; but my students describe the University of Canterbury campus as ‘the alternative [to] Christchurch’. Yet a university does not make a major city and is not enough reason for people to stay here – especially when it is in the suburbs.

So, to Christchurch I would say, listen to your young people.  

For over a decade they have perceived and experienced Christchurch as a city embodying and enforcing conservative small town and provincial attitudes. Very few of these educated young people see or want to see a future for themselves in Christchurch.  Christchurch could change (consider the radical transformation Wellington underwent from the 1970s to the 1990s) but it has to want to change.