The day I flew into Hamilton Airport, there was a photo of me in the Waikato Times. These two events were not related (the photo accompanied a story originally from the Dom Post on the popularity of traditional pastime activities, including the bowling league I was part of) but it was a little spooky to find this unintentional welcome back to the city where I was born.
I left Hamilton in 1997 and after my parents moved to Raglan in 2002, I haven’t really had any reason to go back there. But one of my all-time favourite Hamilton bands, Mobile Stud Unit, were having their 15th anniversary/final show, so I decided to spend a couple of days in Hammo, revisiting.
Growing up in Hamilton in the ’80s, it was pretty bleak. In the classic science fiction film The Quiet Earth, the only man and woman left on earth end up in Hamilton and there’s a brief shot of Bruno Lawrence wandering around a totally deserted Garden Place and Alexander Street. At the time, I remember thinking, “Oh, they must have filmed that on a Sunday,” because that’s what town was like on a Sunday – as deserted as a post-apocalytic landscape.
But Hamilton got better. By the time I left, the centre of town had a lively strip of bars, cafes and restaurants. There was a good live music scene and Hamilton was a fun place for its size. So the whole time I’ve been living away from Hamilton, I just assumed that stuff would have kept on progressing and improving. Sadly, though, it hadn’t.
Something strange has happened to the core of Hamilton. All the main shops are now focussed around four malls – Centreplace, Downtown Plaza, the K Mart plaza and the new Warehouse. But strangely when the malls close at night, the streets of Hamilton seem to close too. At 5.30 on a Thursday, town was eerily deserted. Does no one even want to see a movie?
And it gets worse – back in the ’70s, Hamilton dubbed itself “Fountain City”. Not so much because it had a lot of fountains, but because it sort of wanted a name and, uh, if you name it, they will build them? Well, the fountain in the middle of Garden Place has just been ripped out because it was leaking, but with no plans to repair or replace it. No one cares.
I bussed out to Westfield Chartwell, né Chartwell Square, which has been turned into even more of a mall than it used to be. I caught the wrong direction Orbit bus back and ended up going on a journey past The Base, a giant big-box shopping complex that has been built to car scale, not human scale. There’s even a shuttle bus that will drive you around the place because it’s evidently too big and unfriendly to pleasantly traverse on foot. Damn you bone-machine humans and your puny stamina!
At a time when people in cities are moving back to the city centres and away from far-flung suburbs, it seems that Hamilton is still sprawling. It feels like a city that’s been allowed to grow with a really strong focus on suburbs. It’s as if a bomb has been dropped in the centre of the city, causing everyone to flee to the outskirts, only to return to the city on the weekend, after dark as boozed-up zombies.
I get the feeling that if you want an effortless existence in Hamilton, you’d have to be sort of person who’d enjoy settling down and getting married and living in a house in the suburbs with your kids, Bella and Jack.
The people I know in Hamilton who aren’t playing by that script, they’re the ones who are doing really cool creative stuff. Some of them end up leaving, but others stay on and hopefully make the city a better place.
I’ve always liked the idea of never living somewhere where you’re too comfortable – a bit of geographic grit in your oyster to help form the pearl of your character. Hamilton provided me with enough grit, but then it got too gritty so I got out.
But even after being disappointed with Hamilton’s lack of life, my visit was all suburban oppression. On Friday night at the Mobile Stud Unit gig, I caught up with some old friends and had a brilliant night out as MSU gleefully rehashed their classics. It was sad to see the end of MSU, but perhaps that’s a good enough point to finally close the Hamilton chapter of my life… if that’s possible.