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September 30, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Cuba Street: Past, Present and Future

Cuba Street is awesome in an almost boring way. It’s got exactly what you expect from an ‘urban’ street: grime, crime, and 400 op shops. But as it nears its 175th birthday, with an earthquake every other week, Cuba’s future is less than certain. Understanding why requires both a look forward and a look back.


When we try to sell Wellington, we show it busy. We show it sunny. We show young professionals in creative industries; we show middle-class families participating in the weekend economy. This Wellington exists, and it makes for great ads, but Wellington is so much more than that. It’s the messily angular streets of the hill suburbs. It’s the biting frost creeping into your shitty flat. It’s the elegant persistence of Cuba Street on a drizzly weekday afternoon.

The indifferent cafés. The cashiers barely tolerating groups of high-school students. The beepbeepbeepbeep of the crossing signal. The yelp of a child skidding across the bricks. Cuba Street is never fully mapped out. The street itself is simple, geometric; the buildings that define it infinite. They sit within each other, on top of each other, a mess of smoking areas, balconies, changing rooms, preserved architecture, narrow stairs, linoleum halls, round windows, wood-panelled bars, exhibiting spaces, of private and public, of culture, of life. Cuba Street feels like someone nearing the end of their rebellious 20s, full of experience but incredibly weary. It’s still going—fighting even—but its past looms heavily above it.

And perhaps it should. For a lane so obsessed with vigour, Cuba Street is fucking old. It’s survived over 170 years, through world wars and bypasses and Kerry Prendergast, but its next 100 remain uncertain. Can a street with so much history resist becoming it?

*  *  *

Cuba Street is named after a ship that barely made it here. Cuba left Gravesend, in England, in 1839, the second ship of the New Zealand Company’s settlement contingent, full of land surveyors and their labour assistants. These were not idle explorers, but full-blown colonialists. 157 days, a detour to Kapiti, and a crewman’s attempted suicide later, Cuba docked in Thorndon, and work began. At the time, Wellington was called ‘Port Nicholson’ by Europeans and a variety of names by Māori. It looked very different. The flat area that makes up the CBD was a marshy plain, known by the local iwi as ‘Huriwhenua’. A creek flowed down Aro Valley and across this flat into the Harbour, meeting it where Manners and Cuba meet today. The surveyors from Cuba got to creating streets, and Cuba Street was born.

Originally, Cuba only extended from Vivian down to Manners, which at the time was essentially the sea—hence its off-grid shape. It was populated fairly quickly, and, some time in the 1850s, extended southwards to where it ends now, on Webb Street. In 1855, a huge earthquake struck which rose Te Aro by about a metre, causing huge destruction to Cuba and the rest of the CBD.

Cuba Street was the centre of the working class. Shops, factories and paddocks lined it in the 1860s, although that creek was still there, crossable by a bridge on Ghuznee Street. A noisy steam tram was introduced to the street in 1878, replaced by horse-drawn trams in 1882. Development ramped up as the century drew to a close—Kirkcaldies even opened a Cuba branch in the 1870s—and by the 1890s, Cuba Street was much longer than it is today, extending north along new land onto Queens Wharf. It was now home to artisans and draperies and fancy hotels, and was considered an important retail area. Between 1900 and 1910, Cuba gained an electric tram, and many of the buildings that still tower there today were built, including the James Smith building, Thistle Hall, Hotel Bristol, the Barbour Building, and much of the block between Vivian and Ghuznee.

For Morten Gjerde, a Senior Lecturer in Urban Design and Architecture, heritage architecture is much of what makes Cuba Street great. “The older buildings are that much richer, they are adorned with details that we either can’t afford or don’t want to do, that are outside our architectural thinking at the moment.” He points to their proportions, and the proportions of the street in general. “It’s got a nice scale of building relative to the scale of the street.” Cuba Street is made up of seven blocks over 1.8 km, but has a huge number of different properties. “It’s got quite a tight rhythm of ownership, which is kind of unique to the time, when the properties were relatively narrow. You can walk past a shop that’s only ten metres wide, then another one that’s only ten metres wide.” The street wasn’t intentionally so well preserved. Development all over New Zealand slowed as the 20th century went on, with two world wars and a depression to deal with, and when it returned in the 1950s, its focus had moved to the suburbs. Cuba Street sat in a time warp.

Of course, most of us don’t see all this. We walk in these buildings’ shadow, we enter their modern street-level storefronts, but we don’t look up. Lekk Porter works on Cuba Mall, and loves it, but when I asked her about Cuba’s character, she didn’t mention any buildings. “I don’t pay much attention to architecture.” But Fiona Gunter-Firth, who runs a blog/art project called The Cuba Street Project, argues that the heritage architecture affects us all, even if we don’t notice. “I do think if Cuba was all steel and glass and reflective it would be different. The effect is almost subliminal.”

There is a more recent architectural feature that’s impossible to miss: Cuba Mall.

Much like Cuba Street itself, Cuba Mall almost didn’t happen. By the 1960s, a few respectable stores remained near Manners—particularly the huge James Smith department store—but the street itself had lost much of its elegance. This transition seemed complete when the electric-tram tracks were ripped out of the street in 1964, but then, abruptly, the street showed new life. Why? Well, while they were removing the tracks, Cuba Street was temporarily closed to cars, and a temporary pedestrian mall created. Businesses reported much better sales, and a strong public campaign began to keep it pedestrian, permanently. Mayor Frank Kitts responded well, and Cuba Mall was opened in 1969.

Cuba Mall was quite the innovation: the first pedestrian mall in New Zealand, attracting considerable international interest. Originally, it was called “Cubacade”, a title that still adorns a few signs. Graham Allardice’s Bucket Fountain was, of course, opened along with the Mall, and caused a bit of a stir. Huge signs stood at each end of the street (see photo), as high as the buildings, and welcomed visitors.

Cuba Mall revitalised the area, but it was too late for Cuba to build a very sophisticated audience—Wellington already had Lambton Quay. A more alty character developed, with a burgeoning sex industry and a bevy of foreign restaurants. Gunter-Firth worked at a flower stall in the Mall during the ‘70s, while she was a student at Massey. “It wasn’t exactly the fashionable end of town,” she claims. “It was considered to be a little rough around the edges. All the prostitutes, the transvestites, the gays, they lived above the shops.” Two modern art galleries sprung up. Thistle Hall was the home of Wellington punk, and the Royal Oak Hotel contained Wellington’s premier LGBTQ bar. Homosexuality was illegal, so “they would often enter looking like heterosexual couples”. Thistle Hall stands today, but the Royal Oak burned to the ground in 1979, replaced with a “temporary” building which still stands today, housing The Body Shop.

Diane Burns grew up on Cuba Street during the era. “My parents said to treat people as you would like to be treated and we always said hello to the ‘people of the night’ and treated them with respect.” Burns’ mother worked in the James Smith department store, and her father worked at the Te Aro Meat Company, a butcher where El Matador resides now. Her mother was trusted by the sex workers, and they were only served by her in the department store, as she “treated them with respect”.

* * *

40 years later, much has changed, and much has stayed the same. The strongly opposed bypass now runs through upper Cuba, bending slightly to avoid a stubborn heritage home. Real Groovy’s gone now, and upper Cuba is a bit dead, but from Abel Smith down it remains vibrant, slightly alty, and is mostly made up of the same buildings. The sex industry has retreated into legality and the suburbs, while the hospitality sector has grown exponentially. Fidel’s and Havana take advantage of the ancient architecture, using the fading paint to evoke another location stuck in a time warp: the real Cuba. Wigan Street, with a recently added cinema, offers what Gjerde calls “the quirkiness of Cuba Street” in a quieter atmosphere. Liquor bans have moved the homeless out of the spotlight. Cuba’s safe now, a place for the prototypical Wellingtonian to stroll down when she’s a bit done with the expense of Lambton or the thump of Courtenay.

Cuba Mall overflows with furniture and street performers, which, argues Gjerde, has hurt the space a little. “When you walk through J.J. Murphy’s, it feels like they own the whole footpath and you’re intruding onto their space. I think the Council have allowed that to be filled up with stuff.” Further along Cuba, past Manners, the newly ‘mallified’ space hasn’t been much of a success. “It’s meant to be a shared surface but they’ve paved it as a street,” asserts Gjerde, “and the furniture is pretty ordinary.” Gunter-Firth has complaints too—for her, lower Cuba Mall has become a little too commercial, a little too “Lambton”—but the main focus of her project is the geological elephant in the room. Earthquakes.

After the 1931 Napier earthquake, some of the more decorative elements of many buildings were pre-emptively dismantled. Cuba Street lost many of its spires. Now, with what feels like a stronger shake every few months, and Christchurch looming over our collective consciousness, earthquake safety is back to the fore. Unsurprisingly, many of the historic Cuba buildings aren’t very safe. Some would be much cheaper to simply demolish and start again with, than bring up to standard. But Cuba Street isn’t just a collection of heritage buildings: it was registered as a heritage area as a whole, its “coherence and collective value transcending its less interesting parts”. Can we really expect every building-owner to put money into keeping the area cohesive as a whole?

“I think there’s some responsibility, some obligation,” argues Gjerde, “that comes with owning a building.” But he recognises that “we’ve got to be practical as well. This is such a fraught area.” Gunter-Firth is a bit more bullish. “It’s the working-class history of the city … it’s not just a building, it’s an entire area.”

Last year, 80 fourth-year Architecture students embarked on a huge project to design a future for Cuba Street. They strove to respect the historic nature of the buildings, but still make them as safe as possible. The project was generally considered a success, with a wide variety of innovative solutions to the problem, but these would-be architects weren’t hired. It’s up to the people who own the buildings to bring them into the new millennium. Which can be, once again, ridiculously expensive.

If building-owners have to spend crazy amounts of cash to keep their buildings standing, they are going to have to raise rents. “It’s not like they are big evil landlords,” asserts Gunter-Firth, “that’s just how it works.” But if rents are raised, will the charm of Cuba be maintained? “If it pushes prices up to the point that businesses that appeal to the people who frequent Cuba get pushed out, then we might lose a lot of the charm, the character,” asserts Gjerde. Gunter-Firth agrees. “If rents go up, Cuba Street will change.”

If they can’t afford it, perhaps we, as ratepayers, can. “Ultimately,” argues Neville Brown, Manager of Earthquake Resilience at the Council, “it is the building-owners’ responsibility to ensure their building is compliant with the Building Code.” But he acknowledges that this may be difficult. “We do have a Built Heritage fund to support owners who own a Heritage Building who are seeking to commence strengthening.” There are, of course, a lot of other things the Council is wanting to spend its money on lately, from flyovers to runway extensions, and with so many buildings that need help, the bill could get higher than ratepayers are willing to shell out.

“When it comes down to it, we probably can’t afford everything” admits Gjerde, “and we need to have a safe environment.” He’s a fan of the Council—“I don’t own a building, you don’t own a building, they’re our only voice”—but thinks society needs to step up a little. “How much do we want to pay to keep our heritage? Do we need a ranking system? Do we need more direct funding? Do we need tax incentives? There are a lot of things being done overseas that aren’t being done here.”

Cuba Street is by no means perfect. There’s Leather Direct. There’s that magician. There are 34,235 pigeons and at least as many drunk teenagers. It’s ‘alty’ because it wants to be alty, because that’s its brand, not because of some sort of divine hipster calling. But it isn’t meant to be perfect. It’s a ramshackle collection of the grand and the gratuitous; the elegant and the cheap living side-by-side. It’s a walk through our city’s history like no other. We probably can’t afford to keep it exactly how it is, or make it the best it could possibly be, but we can afford to do something. It won’t be easy or cheap or immediately rewarding, but it will be worth it.

Research assistance provided by and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

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  1. Simon says:

    You poor deluded teenager
    Cuba street used to be a place where fringe dwellers feel at home
    Now it’s a hipster haven

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