Revitalizing Community Spirit
The personal story of how the Swanson Railroad Station project became a catalyst for community growth and change.
The Swanson Railway Station Project began late in 1993 in order to rescue a heritage building, which was doomed to demolition, and to utilise it usefully in Swanson. From this initial concept, the project evolved into the exciting development of an area of unattractive wasteland in Swanson, and stimulated community spirit to such an extent that the community has become proactive in developing a 10 year revitalisation concept plan for the whole village. None of the group of residents spearheading this work had any special skills or experience - just a lot of determination and a love of their community.
Swanson is a semi-rural suburb of Auckland, set at the base of the lovely Waitakere Ranges. Like many communities these days Swanson had no community focal point other than the school, and even after a year I was finding it difficult to get to know people. So when I saw the advertisement in the school newsletter inviting people interested in “acquiring an historic Railway Station at very little cost for use as a Café or Craft Gallery in Swanson” along to a meeting, I was attracted to the idea. At that meeting I met six other people who were to become close friends and workmates over the next six years. We decided to relocate the station next to the Railway line so that it would fulfil its original function as a shelter for travellers, and to use the building for a community meeting room and a Café. The café would ensure that the project would eventually become financially self-sustainable.
One of the first jobs we did was to fill in an application form for a Lotteries Grant where we had to name a committee. Someone put my name down as Chairperson (just until we got incorporated and elected a proper committee, of course) and I remained in that position for the duration of the project. Despite annual elections, no one else showed the slightest inclination in wanting to take over the role.
We were an enthusiastic but very naïve group when we started. The Station in question was the Avondale Railway Station which had been closed since 1986, and was going to be demolished so that NZ Rail could replace it with a more vandal-proof corrugated iron shelter. They agreed to sell it to us provided we paid for a new shelter, and fixed the platform damage resulting from moving the station. We estimated we would need $30 - $40,000 which we would raise in six months, then we would spend another six months restoring the station and open the following summer! It ended up taking seven years – but the scope of the project grew enormously in that time.
1994 was an intense year of fundraising and promotion of the project. Although we found that people were interested and even enthusiastic about the concept, there was a lot of cynicism about how successful it would be. “It’s a wonderful idea, but it will never happen” was a frequent comment. This was like a red rag to a bull for me and my feisty crew, and we were determined to prove the sceptics wrong.
During that year we had something on every weekend, from sausage sizzles at the local garage to a monthly Market Day, which is still an important component of Swanson village life. At every event we talked to people about what we were doing and slowly gathered support from the community. By the end of the first year we had raised enough money to move the station and begin restoration. We were also totally exhausted.
By then our goals had expanded to buying the 9500 square metres of excess Railway Land between the Railway Line and the road and it took most of the next year to push that sale through. In the meantime the station building was suffering badly. The toilet block had been set on fire, every wall inside and out was covered with graffiti, every window and door was smashed, and the floor was littered with unmentionable or unrecognisable objects. We had a real fear that we would lose the building but fortunately by September 1995 we were ready to go.
None of us will ever forget that mad ride in the back of a truck in the early hours of the morning to meet the Station on its journey to Swanson. It had been cut in half and the roof removed, but with the double verandahs all lit up it was an amazing sight – like a big headless angel drifting along the deserted early morning roads. We finally arrived at Swanson around 5am and the building was made secure. Then we lit up the barbecue, opened the bottles of bubbly and had a big champagne breakfast with the moving crew and anyone else who turned up. All morning people kept arriving to see it. As the skies lightened and people drove by on their way to work we could see them staring in shock and mouthing “Oh my God”. Someone asked me why we were importing graffiti now, as surely we had enough of our own. I went over to the other side of the road to get a better view of what people were actually looking at, and suddenly could see what they meant. It didn’t much resemble the image of the picturesque old station we had sold to the community. It looked awful! We had carried the vision of the restored station in our minds for so long that we no longer saw the dirt and grime, graffiti and damage. But fortunately most people were very positive about it despite its derelict state.
We really felt as though we had turned a corner that day, and of course we had. But the real work was just beginning. Restoring a building as damaged as that on a very tight budget is a long, hard, complicated job and we relied heavily on the support of the community. Three years after the station arrived, we officially opened the community room, which is the smaller of the two rooms. The Swanson Station Café finally opened in December 2000 – over seven years since that first fateful meeting.
It was during the first few years of fundraising and promotion that we began to feel a change in the community. We noticed that at our events people weren’t just coming along to buy or sell things; they were coming to see other people. When we put out tables and chairs they were always full of people chatting away over a coffee or light meal. We realised that people had missed this type of contact and the more we provided opportunities for it, the more successful our events became. We also came to appreciate that meeting this need in our community was making the project much more satisfying for us.
The revitalisation of community spirit in Swanson was raising issues far beyond the scope of the Railway Station project, so in 1997 we called a public meeting to invite the Swanson community to take control of its future. From this meeting the Swanson Residents and Ratepayers Association was born and has been hugely successful. Many people were keen to be part of the process of defining and developing Swanson. Over the next few years the community worked with Council and landscape designers to develop a concept plan for Swanson called Swanson Beyond 2000. This plan is being implemented over 5-10 years, and addresses issues such as traffic management, residential development, environmental concerns, protection of heritage buildings and sites, recreational opportunities and aesthetics.
The Swanson Railway Station project became integrated into this overall plan. Our original $30,000 vision evolved into an $600,000 development of the site which includes the Swanson Station Park, and a Park and Ride Carpark. This occurred because although we kept our original vision in sight, we remained flexible enough to see the bigger picture as it emerged, we had the courage to reach for it, and we were committed enough to carry it through.
The Swanson Railway Station is now a self-sustaining project. The income from leasing out the Café provides a maintenance fund for the building. The income from community events such as the extremely popular Market Days goes towards providing free community events in Swanson, in particular the annual Christmas Parade. A Trust has been established to administer the Station business. The community and the group that led the project is justifiably proud of this achievement.
However, although it was a wonderful experience it was also extremely difficult. There were many times when it felt like a huge millstone around my neck, and although I can honestly say it never occurred to me to give up, I sometimes wished I had never started it. There were many times when I felt hopelessly out of my depth, struggling alone and insecure in a bureaucratic world that I knew nothing about. There were many times when I felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work involved, when overcoming one obstacle just seemed to lead us straight up into an even larger one.
Since the project was completed I have had time to reflect on some of those difficulties. Probably the hardest one was dealing with bureaucracy – finding your way around the various city councils, government departments and New Zealand Rail as it was known at that time. Often the hardest thing is finding the right person to talk to.
Keeping up the momentum over the seven years was a struggle at times but I learnt to be patient. Things happen in fits and starts and I learnt not only to capitalise on the busy times, but also to use the slower times to gather strength and resources.
Working with volunteers can be challenging. People volunteer for all kinds of reasons and there is a range of commitment. It can be hard to keep people motivated for a long period of time when all you can really give them is the satisfaction of getting the job done. Having said that we had a core group of amazingly capable and staunch volunteers whom I could always rely on.
However being a volunteer can carry a number of difficulties. I thought that if you volunteered your time and energy, people would be extra considerate and respectful of what you are doing. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. Often people assume that if you are volunteering your time, then you have plenty to spare and it is therefore worth little. It is perfectly OK to keep you waiting as long as they like, or even not turn up at all. As a volunteer you have no status and, initially at least, no credibility.
You feel constantly on the back foot because you are always asking people to give you something – help, advice, money, time etc. –and I have over the years encountered people who are downright rude, ungracious, and incredibly mean-spirited. These experiences can be devastating, but fortunately they are the exception rather than the rule. I have also met many amazingly generous, kind, inspiring and enthusiastic people along the way who have given me the motivation and energy to keep going.
I found managing personal conflict between group members the most difficult aspect to handle. Some of these conflicts occurred when one member felt that they were contributing more than another. My personal belief is that it is unreasonable to expect every member of a group to do equal amounts of work. Our personal responsibilities and commitments vary considerably and people should only give what they are able to without feeling guilty that someone else can do more. However if someone does undertake to do something, I expect that they will either do it or arrange to have it done. It is a real dilemma deciding what to do when someone fails to carry out a particular task they have undertaken to do. If I leap in and do it, as I have done at the last minute on some occasions, this can result in feelings of guilt, and resentment at my taking over. On the other hand if I leave it and it doesn’t get done, they also feel guilty at letting the team down. Either way I feel annoyed too. So it is a lose-lose situation for both of us. I still don’t know what the best answer is, and tend to judge each situation as it arises, which fortunately is rare these days.
For me, the Swanson Railway Station Project was a time of huge personal growth. Before I became involved in this project I had never organised an event larger than a children’s birthday party. I had no knowledge of anything to do with the mechanics and bureaucracy of moving and restoring an historic building. My fundraising abilities amounted to no more than the occasional cake for the school gala. I had no confidence whatsoever in public speaking. And I hardly knew anyone in Swanson. I have come a long way since then and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to extend myself in this way, while at the same time contributing to our community.
For the Swanson community there have been a number of benefits from this project. It provided a focus for the community outside the school, and therefore brought a much wider group of people together. It developed strong community cohesion, which led to the formation of the Swanson Residents and Ratepayers Association, which in turn has led to a much better informed and a more proactive community. This has enhanced the development of community spirit in Swanson, which has really highlighted for me the importance of community spirit and how much it is often lacking in our busy modern schedules. Sure we can do some great things by ourselves. But together, we can do amazing things.
I believe our group was successful because we were passionate about what we were doing and committed to both the project and each other. Also, most importantly, we had a lot of fun and laughed a lot together.
I believe that group energy or community spirit is one of our most potent, but underused, resources. Swanson Railway Station is a beautiful historic building, which benefits our community both aesthetically and functionally. But to Swanson it is also a symbol of the power of community spirit, of what can be achieved when a community works together towards a common goal.
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