Hard News by Russell Brown

13

The K Road Story

I'm very pleased that Metro magazine has posted my feature K Road at the crossroads on its website. Because it appeared in the December-January double issue, it's been a longer wait than usual for the story to reach the free-to-read point, but it's there now.

I put a lot of work into the story and, at the behest of editor Susannah Walker, quite a bit of myself too. I'm also grateful to Susannah for reading an early draft that I was struggling to get down to the commissioned 3000 words and telling me "don't worry about length", they'd find the space, and to concentrate on making a good story into a great one. So the story that appeared in print is nearly 5000 words long. There are not many magazines that will accommodate that kind of length and Metro is a treasure.

And still, there was a lot left out. I did 17 interviews and, inevitably, there are narratives and angles that didn't make the cut. Here are a few out-takes:

Peter Hawkesby, former owner of Alleluya cafe on setting up in St Kevins Arcade in June 1994:

"It wasn't the first time that I'd been here. I always used to come in because it was such a beautiful vista – it had, I think, four functioning shops. The café which I took over had closed the day I arrived back from living in Tokyo for 10 years. That was a Friday, I came in on the Monday and went to get a drink.

"There was Worms bookshop opposite which incorporated two shops. They told me that the women who ran the café had closed it on the Friday. So I had a closed café, a second-hand bookshop run by a retired tax consultant. A little dairy open from about even to 12 at the top of the stairs. A Niue island travel shop that also did typing. I think a magazine shop at the front – and I forget what was on the other side at the front. And she second-hand bookshop that's still there now. And that was it.

"People like Habanero and Verona, who had opened prior to me, were encouraging. They were pleased that other people were coming into the street. Other people thought it was a bit looney, because K Road was still quite depressed and the arcade was completely dead.

"Pop-in culture had stopped. When I came back [from 10 years in Japan] all my friends were in their mid-40s and busy. When I left, it didn't matter whether we were busy, we could pop in to each other's places at any time. And suddenly that had gone and I'm not a dinner party person, I'm not a party person, so I wanted to establish a place where my friends could pop in and I could re-socialise back in to Auckland. It was really for myself. It was like creating a living room.

"And that's what it is – but it's not just my living room, it's become numerous people's. And it is their living room. It's where they live, this is their office, it's where they meet their friends. It's fantastic."

 And on departing after 21 years:

"I'm optimistic. I'm not leaving believing it's all going to collapse because I'm gone or because Paul's glossing it up. At some point he'll stop glossing it up because it'll cost too much – it'll be a bottomless pit. He's already said. It's exactly what happened with Murray Rose.

"You'll see pragmatism coming in when the flash tenants they maybe imagined they were going to get don't eventuate. And you've already seen in the first few months people that perhaps weren't even going to be considered to remain in the arcade have been offered leases.

"So I don't think we've really that much to worry about. And that again is the strength of the street. The people, my customers, are the business and these landlords want business. You are what pays the hundreds of thousands of dollars rent they get each year. It's not people in Remuera or Parnell or Ponsonby, it's you guys. And they are from all over the inner city and they are not the flash crowd. They are just ordinary Aucklanders who like to breathe in and out and don't worry about what type of shoes they're wearing."

Ian Hughes, longtime resident:

"I've been living on K Road since the 90s and from what I've seen in 25 years is that it gets better and better. Back when I was first living here there were none of the trees, none of the paving – it was brutal place that still had all the echoes of the terrible town planning decisions of the 60s and 70s that really destroyed it."

Renee and Damaris Coulter, the owners of Coco's Cantina:

Renee: "I'm optimistic by nature. I think that with really strong leadership, if we can fill that gap in between the retailers and the landlords and the developers, the ones making the decisions … I'd like to see a mission statement about what we want K Road to be."

Damaris: "The artisan, owner-operated creative hub for Auckland. When anyone comes to this city, if they want something alternative – whether it's goods or practices or restaurants or cafes or gigs – then that's where they go."

Jonty Rutherford, owner of the Thirsty Dog:

"We have what I call my lunchtime corporate locals, who come in for lunch and a bit of a chat. We have our high-vis locals who are guys who've started work at six and knocked off at three. Our locals aren't necessarily geographical locals, but having said that, I can see that that will build. Wednesday night is a night where the oldies from the apartments that already here come up. They have a sense of community.

"I'm a publican, not a councillor, but what I would hope is that the area can grow, that the empty shops can have something in them, but that we can retain some of our grit.

"Up our end, it would be nice if we were a little less windswept and a bit greener. In terms if transport strategy it would be nice if there were scooter parks and bicycle racks. That’s not happening."

Adrian Hailwood, fashion designer and retailer:

"Retail has its ups and downs, but there's a real sense of community with K Road, more so in the last two or three years – and especially up this end, because we were always forgotten about. I'm glad I stuck it out.

"We do a garage sale every two weeks or so at the weekends down at Coco. Eveyone brings a can of food to give to the food bank. It's really cool. And we all sort of look after each other and use each other's services. Damaris and Renee are a big driving force behind the whole community thing. They do so much for K Road."

Tito Tafa, owner of Rebel Soul Music in Samoa House Arcade:

"It was only ever going to be K Road. It was the only place I looked, really. I've always loved K Road and it's always been the artistic and musical heart of the city. When I was a student living in Grey Lynn, I'd walk along to K Road to the university.

"It would be good to have some more life here. I've tried to gee up a few people to take over the space next door. It's a little bit dull with a travel agent and church offices at the front."

Dom Glamuzina, architect:

"Things fail all the time on K Road … it has this turnover and that's the thing that keeps it in its state. It's got the scale and capacity to fail. The antithesis of that is downtown, with big pub spaces. It drives me crazy, these massive restaurants and pubs with million-dollar fitouts. Why not allow something smaller? Small-scale failure is important."

Daniel Friedlander, K Road landlord:

On the unlet tenancies in the Friedlander family's Ironbank building:

 "That is changing. It has now turned around and it's 80% full. But that has been a long process. It's what happens when you're looking out that far – you make some decisions that the area wasn't ready for. But it's now coming into its own."

 On Bizdojo's importance in setting the character of Ironbank:

"There's a range of tenants in there now – architects, IT firms – but they were important in bringing a lot of people to the building and we have a very close relationship with them."

On K Road's future:

"It's going through a transition. There are a lot more apartments going in, there are going to be a lot more people walking around the area. It will in my view be the next Ponsonby. But not for the next five or six years. We look out quite a long period – we have a 10 or 20 year plan. And I think K Road has a great future.

"People don't like change. I accept that. But the area is changing and that's what happens when a city grows. It's one of the last areas in Auckland near the city that is changing. K Road has been waiting for its time for the last 15 years – and now it's slowly coming.

"A lot of immigrants are moving into the area, a lot more young people, artists, galleries. When it grows, you do get change.

"The creative element is changing – it's becoming much more commercial. It's changed from some guy just wanting to open up a gallery to professional gallery owners in there – Starkwhite and auction houses. It's becoming a Soho of Auckland, I can see looking forward."

Paul Reid, new owner of St Kevins Arcade:

"In terms of K Road's culture, I don't necessarily believe it's because of cheap rent. There's always a place in every city where there's a fringe arts culture. Silverlake in LA, Soho in London – although that's probably more Shoreditch now. 

"One of the things I've found is that it tends to happen where buildings are quite beautiful, or have been neglected. So maybe you're right and cheap rent is a function of that. But certainly the reason it became a red light district was when the resident population was decimated as the motorway went in. It was hard to find tenants and the tenants of last resort were strip clubs, and so they ended up leasing to them.

"There's a certain scale and intimacy to the buildings too, which is quite nice. Which you don't get in Ponsonby or Queen Street. It's a nice feeling."

––

The response to the story has been overwhelmingly positive – except, it must be said, from Paul Reid himself. It does contain some things he'd prefer not to read about, but perhaps he'll come to see that I reached an optimistic conclusion of which his role is very much part.

I really do think things have turned out pretty well at the arcade. I hear only good things about the people behind the two new hospitality businesses, Bestie (formerly Personal Best) and Gemmayze Street. After long negotiations on a new lease, Whammy Bar is still there in the basement. Some plans may have changed along the way, but I think it's going to be okay. Paul and his tenants, new and ongoing, have my best wishes for the future.

I made this point in the story, but it's worth making again: the core of K Road is its owner-operators. And that's a fact Auckland Council needs to acknowledge and respond to. It's not good enough to pretty much hand Federal Street to Sky City, with its money and compliance lawyers, but make life hard for the little guys who want to manifest their community on their own street. If the council wants to give meaning to its concept of K Road as the city's edgy fringe – well, there are things it can do and people it can help.

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