Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Oh dear, Otago

Last week I was sad to see my home of many years, Dunedin, on the news - for all the wrong reasons. The annual Orientation week toga parade had gone horribly wrong. Businesses along the main street were pelted with eggs, students climbed street lamps and jumped into the crowds below them, and - worse of all - a passing car filled with scared female students was attacked, with a window being smashed.

Of course, this is inexcusable. It's quite possible to have fun - even raucous, drunken fun - without smashing stuff. I'm not going to say that, in the good old days, students didn't behave like this. When I was an Otago undergrad, this sort of destructive behaviour wasn't common; but it certainly happened in the decade before I began my studies. And my cohort weren't perfect either. My chums and I wandered merrily about town, drunk, noisy, and completely oblivious to the fact that for some people - particularly international students who haven't been exposed to heavy alcohol consumption - seeing drunkenness can be quite intimidating. (Since those days, I've got old, boring, and teetotal. Sitting down to watch Grand Designs with a cup of TV is as risque as my life gets.)

I loved living in NZ's premier student town. Dunedin has an exuberant, 'full of beans' vibe about it: it's a pleasure living alongside young people whose lives are bursting with new possibilities. I felt I could usually walk safely at night in Dunedin, in a way I couldn't in any other city I've lived in. But every now and again, walking along the street, I'd see a bunch of drunk guys coming towards me, and I'd tense myself for the nasty remark. Or I'd walk through someone's piss or vomit. Or I'd hear of an assault, or racial or homophobic abuse being shouted at other people as they walked.

There's no question that this sort of behaviour is a bad idea. What I'd like to see, though, is the Dunedin community (and other communities with the same problem) help address the problem. For example, every year the media exaggerate students' drunken antics, portraying bad behaviour as the norm while stirring community anger. This time, the media reported that students were throwing buckets of faeces at toga paraders from second story flats on the main street. Call me a skeptic, but I simply can't imagine anyone would collect turds in a bucket for weeks, for lobbing at a future passing parade.

Over the last ten or so years, landlords have erected more and more closely packed apartment-style flatting complexes in the university area, eager to capitalise on the high rents they can collect in this area. One of the city fathers, who can regularly be heard denouncing student behaviour, is a part owner of some of these complexes. The complexes are so densely packed together that there is no room on the sections to store students' rubbish, which ends up strewn on the street. And there's certainly no room for students to congregate, meaning they end up socialising and drinking on the streets.

Worst of all is the blatant promotion of excess drinking to students. The day after the toga party, the Captain Cook pub opened at 8.30 am. Students were already queuing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out what happens when you give students alcohol for breakfast.

A lot of damage resulted from the toga party debacle. Much of it was inflicted by the students on themselves. Some will be kicked out of their residential halls or the University, and some will end up with criminal convictions which prevent them from pursuing the careers they'd hoped for. The community has a right to expect students will behave themselves - but also a responsibility not to put students in circumstances which increase the chances of bad behaviour.


Anna said...

If one of you lovely THM ladies is about, you're welcome to fold part of this mammoth post back. xo

Paul said...

Unfortunately, our society is awash with booze and our universities have become targets for a voracious drink industry. At Auckland we have a Drinking Horn, where students debase themselves in a sea of free piss, while their peers look on. Almost every event on campus involves free or subsidised drink, much of it supplied by the breweries, who want to get brand loyalty. Meanwhile, in Town, bars offer happy hours that continue for most of the night and promote shots that get people drunk fast.

The students get the blame, but they are just victims of a massive drug industry.

Anna said...

Willing victims, mind you!

'Voracious drink industry' is absolutely right. Universities/students' associations have very little control over how much booze students are plied with. Off-campus set up events in direct competition with on-campus ones, that tend to have better host responsibility.

I remember one bar in Dunedin that used to run promotions offering cheap shots for punters wearing bikinis. Of course, it was just a way of supplying cheap entertainment for middle-aged pervies, and I've no doubt it worked really well.

Anne-Marie said...

I think there's a whole heap of different issues in this post.

I agree entirely that NZ's alcohol industry is irresponsible in its attitude towards students - and to society in general. The P epidemic? Whatever - alcohol is the most dangerous drug around, not least because it's cheap, legal and readily available.

Drinking is so ingrained in our culture [and not just ours of course] that many people believe they can't have a good time with out alcohol. I gave up drinking about five years ago, for a variety of reasons, and many times I've had to fight for my right to NOT drink. How crazy is that?

My student years were spent in Palmerston North - a student city like Dunedin. As editor of the student magazine I railed against the city council for ignoring students. The council and local businesses and police complained about students when they behaved badly, but other wise took no notice of them. Yet Palmerston North would not exist as it is with out students - they are the economic lifeblood of the city. Same with Dunedin. The city fathers crack down too hard on students and they'll run the students out of town, and how good would that be for Dunedin?

People need to think outside the square, to start looking at more creative ways to deal with the bad behaviour. I don't really have any suggestions but for a start I think the local pubs need to start seriously consider their responsibility to the local community.

I know I sound like an old-fashioned temperance campaigner but I have seen so much damage caused to people's lives by alcohol, it's some thing I feel very strongly about.

Here endeth the rant ...

Anonymous said...

Some of the things being done in the last few years:

Using info from the local paper, the pub which opened at 0830hrs for a "special event that was absolutely not the Cookathon" has had its license opposed by a member of the public because of, among other things, events like the cookathon.

The pub which did "wifebeater wednesdays" ("nothing to do with domestic violence, it's just the black singlets, honest") - the management have apparently not applied for a renewal of their license due to the horrible cost of noiseproofing. The fact that the police were annoyed with the guy so much that they dug up the (withdrawn by wgtn police legal)charge of sedition is probably irrelevant, even though some of those police officers might have wanted to oppose the license for other reasons.

Oh, and the University was so concerned with the situation they've invested several million dollars in a community patrol/social service that runs 24/7/365. Gave me a job :)

Without thinking, the other day I drove up Castle St on my scooter after midnight. There were a few people about, but nobody ran after me, nobody threw anything at me, and I only realised afterwards that there had been absolutely no glass on the street. This would have been unheard of a few years back, so I reckon things are getting a bit better.

Anna said...

What great news that one particular pub won't have it's license renewed. As someone who spent a couple of weeks in the maternity ward 10 metres away, I didn't appreciate the noise!

Anne-Marie - I completely agree with you, and I don't think that suggesting that there is more than life to drinking makes you a wowser. Someone once made a very insightful comment to me - when the local economy's bad and the university keeps it going, Dunedinites are more tolerant of students' bad behaviour. The implication is that it's more acceptable for students to harm themselves or others when there's $ to be made. Host (ir)responsibility certainly has a lot to answer for...

Julie said...

(Where do you want the fold Anna, doesn't look all that long to me!)

Interesting how in NZ the suffrage movement was so closely linked to the temperance movement, and here we are again over a hundred years later, talking about the impact of alcohol on our society.

Like you Anne-Marie I've had to fight for my right to not drink (yet still PAAAARtee). I still have to explain my teetotalling ways to people now that I'm in my 30s. To not drink is seen as somehow aberrant and inexplicable.