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“The city is a fact of nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban form conditions mind.”
— Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (1938)
The women took my bag of plums, punched a code into the till. Where are you off to, she said, the van parked out front sticking out like a sore thumb. It was Friday afternoon, in a fruit stall just outside Tauranga. The road hummed with cars. To Auckland, I said, smiling, and she looked up, looked me dead in the eyes. Yuk, she said. Why would you want to go there?
It’s a question many ask. Derision sets in somewhere south of the Bombay Hills, and seems to rise in proportion to their distance. In many parts of the country, to mention Auckland is a shame best avoided. It’s too expensive, self-interested, a drain on our tax dollar. Backpackers aren’t much better. There’s nothing to do, they moan, it’s not a real city. Yeah yeah yeah, I wanna say, but where did you go?
I’m not from Auckland, but I have lived there — for seven years, studying, and then working, and then not really working at all — and while there was once a time I agreed with the backpackers, I now hold the other side. There is much I don’t know; indeed, my status is such that I may never know, and yet, the city is one that rewards engagement.
So, without further ado (this is the sort of shitty thing you write when hungover and on a deadline but hey, hi) here’s a non-definitive, semi-narrative, and quite possibly misinformed guide to Auckland by me, one-time resident and now outsider, drifting through a long weekend in our biggest metropolis.
First things first, when you pull into the big smoke you’re going to want to light it up, and nothing gets the party stomping like a sixer of VB and some deep tunes. It’s no Berghain, but Auckland establishment Whammy has recently carved out a new space for those more doof-oriented, and the sweaty walls of Backroom regularly play host to a bevy of talented producers and beatmakers. Last Friday was no exception, with local dance music collective Inky Waves (an outgrowth of the K Road-based zine space Inky Palms) putting on a free gig to celebrate the scene. Free gigs are sick, as is getting juiced with some of the country’s finest froftas. Shouts to Inky for putting it on, Whammy for hosting, and everyone who turned out and frothed hard.
Auckland absolutely overflows with cheap eats and I’d be a fool to claim anything other than a passing knowledge but if you’re juiced and fried chicken’s your thing then you’d be a fool not to check out Ah Ssak, on the top end of Queen Street, just a stone’s throw from K Road (if you’re good at throwing stones). Expect: Korean fried chicken, kimchi, and all the balance so absent from American attempts at the genre — no waffles and maple syrup here, just the contentment of spice, sour, and greasy, delicious chook. Bonus points for cheap beer, late opening hours (’til 3am Friday and Saturday) and the super friendly lady who served us.
One of the great pains of any visit to Auckland is the difficulty of getting around. The sprawl is real, and many of Auckland’s gems lie far beyond the central city (past favourites include: Try It Out, the Vietnamese restaurant in an old library in Otahuhu; Ollies, the American diner of legendary milkshake fame, on the corner of Royal Oak roundabout; and the fish and chips at the Titirangi shops next to the new and excellent art gallery Te Uru, because I once went there terminally hungover and their fish burger saved me, as it were).
I found myself at the top of Dominion Road, half an hour of walking in already, somewhat amused by the prospect of how far I still had to go to get to Balmoral Road. Still, there are worse places to walk, and in many ways Dominion Road is a nice cross-section of the city;its changing faces, here described in merely peripheral fashion, as I saw it, through a haze of dumpling lust.
First up was Dahua, the Chinese supermarket home to Auckland’s cheapest produce, a long-time flatting staple and occasional fridge ruiner ($0.69 for a bag of kiwifruit, of which one will certainly be, ah, how shall I put this: optimally ripe?), closely followed by Target, shitty furniture shop and set for the season of Late Night Big Breakfast featuring Jeremy Wells — its immaturity and talk show spoof rivalled only by Back of The Y Masterpiece Television, the early 2000s piece of Auckland production responsible for introducing me to both Te Puke Thunder and New Zealand’s greatest daredevil stuntman, Randy Campbell. To the left was the Indian-owned Bank of Baroda; on my right was the delicious (and notoriously oversubscribed) Eden Noodles Café, not a single spare seat in sight.
I walked past the Albert-Eden Local Board, where a large poster showed the street in 1915, its pictured tram now nowhere to be seen, just the privately run Sky Bus, shuttling people from the airport into town. On the porch of the next house a woman rolled a cigarette; two kids in red caps played tag in the park across the road. There was a TAB, a pet store, a Wendy’s. Two girls in headscarves stood waiting for the bus, the bench occupied by a man of sprawling proportions, staring aimlessly at the Salvation Army shop. He had a t-shirt on that said: “I’m not always rude and sarcastic. Sometimes I’m asleep.”
I waited at the lights, looking up at The Dominion’s fresh paint and the inscription that proudly announced the date of its construction (1912), the sign that proudly announced the price of its jugs ($20 — between 4pm and 6pm). Across the road I could see legendary junkshop Geoff’s Emporium, with Australian-owned Countdown just visible in the distance behind it, the car park, as usual, full. Not far along on my right was the vape-shop VAPO and its industrial white decor, a new addition and proof (had you considered otherwise) of the success of literary staples such as The Vaping Advocate (seriously, this is a real magazine — look it up).
I continued on, past Love-A-Duck Hong Kong-style BBQ and dumpling empire Barilla’s second restaurant (a literal display of how far they’ve come — their first a jam-packed, colour confused affair after Balmoral Road, infamous for both the food and how long you’ll wait for table), on past The Best Souvenirs, their signs for honey and a single awning-mounted sheep, past the vintage shop and their somewhat ridiculously niche but still somehow viable stock of “Mid-Century Scandinavian Furniture”, past the requisite Liquor Spot and the soon to be closed Nosh, gourmet supermarket and home to some of the best dumpster scores in Auckland, past the Tongan Methodist Church and Bilbo’s, one-time infamous fish and chip shop, now remodelled (“AND WITH CHINESE FOOD”), a far cry from the dive a friend’s father recalls working in. His best story was one of an ounce of weed that the young stoners had tried to dry on the grill before selling, with perhaps expected results.
On I walked, my belly rumbling: new townhouses, the old freemason’s centre, a pharmacy; past the RSA and queue of cars in the KFC drive through, across a busy Balmoral Road and, the rain really coming down now, into the sanctuary of New Flavour, no longer new and just one of the many options on offer, but still all I wanted: cucumber and dried tofu salad, pork and chive dumplings (fried) — sometimes it’s better the devil you know.
It’s an oft-repeated fact that Auckland has the largest population of Pacific peoples and there’s no better place to check it all out than Pasifika, the yearly celebration of the different islands’ lineages and cultures, held over two days in Western Park. The festival is divided into 11 villages, each representing a different nation, and it was with dusty steps that I passed through Niue and into the Cook Islands. The crowd was thick, and after the previous night’s froth some serious feeds were (again) in order. The guys in front of me had similar plans: “fuck that watermelon looks all good aye.” And in that way that knowledge directs attention, it suddenly seemed as if everyone had one — huge watermelons cut in half, precariously topped with scoops of ice cream, melting in the sun.
I got a mixed plate to start and was barely into my first piece of taro (#bulking) when out of proverbial nowhere Bill English gets up and it’s the usual blah blah we are of the same blood and we look out for you bullshit that’s so at odds with National’s policies that it’s almost insulting that he has the balls to stand up there and say it, but I guess that’s what you get in our world of post-fact and fuck me taro is filling isn’t it and Bill finishes to barely audible applause and some other MP gets on and soon he’s dancing and the music starts up again and it’s almost like Bill was never there.
The next act was a group of secondary school students, winners of a Polyfest category I didn’t quite catch: drummers on stage setting the pace and in front a sea of flowing hips and patterned skirts, rolling drums, sharp starts and stops, the beat toe-tapping, starting and stopping, the drummers and dancers perfectly in time, stopping and starting again, skirts swirling to the speed of the beat.
Over at the Aotearoa stage they were serving up mussel fritters and fry bread and not for the last time did I wish I had another stomach, but no luck there, just a crack-up MC working the crowd: “this next artist is taking us to the Caribbean, we’re gunna take our waka up because we can and because we’re voyagers” and then she’s on, Silva MC, dancehall and raps, rolling bass and lyrics that call out the culture, the privatisation, the loss of land while a group of her friends stand to dance and I feel a welling joy, to know the struggle lives on, in song, in dance, to see the spark and see its history, our part in the global play.
We walk past Tonga, where a toddler is being taught some dance moves, the roll of the teacher’s wrist poignant and full of grace, the crowd laughing, the toddler clapping, and on, into Fiji, where there are different dancers again, men this time, chest slapping and foot stomping and it is muggy, oppressively muggy, so we wander to Samoa and retire to the field, eat ice cream and watermelon, picking the grass out (collateral from its spill on the way there but who cares), brush it off, eat it down, watching the high school kids practising their performances, school uniforms on a Saturday, blazers and shirts complete with lava-lava and tapa cloth, a different world (for me) but one that is part and parcel of the city, part and parcel of its appeal, the chance to explore, join in new knowledge: Tāmaki Makaurau, isthmus of a thousand lovers.