This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of North & South. Illustrations by Ahu Te Ua.
This colourful essay on the life and times of Auckland’s K’ Rd (“rori” is road in Maori) by Julie Hill was published in the November 2015 issue of North & South. It is the first piece of writing to emerge from the D'Arcy Writers' Residencies, a grant affording writers the opportunity to record and reflect on New Zealand society in long form. Read more about the residencies below.
I was walking down Karangahape Rd near Spaghetti Junction with a friend and her teenage son. As we passed the first of two sex shops on the strip, above which I happen to live, she said to her son in German, “See here, this is like a mini Reeperbahn.”
I live in the Purchas buildings, opposite the Thirsty Dog pub on the corner of K’ Rd and Howe St. The working girls call it the dark end of the street, because some pretty dark things have gone on there, and because the lighting is horrible.
On one dimly lit side is where the older women solicit – one in a long blonde wig who always smiles at me, and who I watch from my flat and send good luck wishes to each time she gets into a car. On the other, even worse-lit side, down by the Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church and the prim, white Māori Hall, are the brown men who dress like women.
Directly under my flat is a 24-hour laundromat, and since it’s always open and warm from the dryers, the street workers gather there between gigs. A man who sleeps under the PI church comes in to eat fish and chips in the evenings. There is always something going on: drinking, fighting, drug dealing, gossiping, partying and, occasionally, even someone doing laundry.
In the late 19th century, this area, far from being a Reeperbahn, was the very clenched heart of Protestant dourness. The block I live in was built by an Anglican minister and doctor named Purchas. It was next door to the Anglican Church of the Epiphany and, along with the usual drapers and cobblers downstairs, were vendors of Christian tracts and Bibles. Where Dick Smith is now was TJ McIvor’s, which sold all the wooden furniture you would ever need, up to and including your casket.
Where the laundromat is was a dolls’ hospital, which operated for a century. A 1950s newspaper feature pictures second-generation doll doctor Don Lawson aiming a hammer at a dolly stuck in a vice. Surrounding him are rows and rows of little white beds, severed limbs and heads, tubs stuffed with nylon hair and eyes. The eyes, he reveals, are hardest to fix.
“Desire lines” are real marks in the landscape, often shortcuts, made by people going where they want to go, rather than following the paths set out for them by urban planners. Buildings, too, bend to the will of the people. And so it was that after Purchas made a mockery of his name by losing all his money in the sharemarket crash of 1887, his palace of holiness ended up home to an escort agency called Stairway to Heaven, two sex shops and a gay bar.
Up the road, Purchas’ local, the old Naval and Family Hotel on the corner of K’ Rd and Pitt St, is now the strip club Calendar Girls, run by Jacqui Le Prou. Her nemeses, brothel barons John and Michael Chow, recently moved in one of their monolithic Mermaid clubs across the road.
Years after the doll doctors moved on, people were still finding eyes in the floorboards. And although it’s not a hospital any more, the laundromat is still fixing broken dolls.
A number of iwi moved over Karangahape ridge then retreated and, trickily, may have used the same names for the same areas but changed their meanings. So Karangahape can mean “winding ridge of human activity”, since Māori and their ancestors used it as a walking route to Manukau Harbour for around half a millennium before the Europeans showed up. It can also mean “shell path”, probably after the custom of sprinkling a road with pipi shells to make it glow in the moonlight, crunch underfoot and ward off evil spirits. But the rock star of possible stories is of Hape and his karanga.
Hape is like mercury. He is mythical, magical and also real. There may be several of him, who over several hundred years became conflated into one person. Taane Mete, director of Okareka Dance Company, was told this version of Hape’s story by kuia Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield, and repeated it to me: “Hape was a great ancestor who lived in the realm of Hawaiki. Hape had brothers and they were all talking amongst themselves about needing a new land.
“Hape was born with a clubbed foot, and in their eyes, being a family of warriors, he was considered not so strong for the journey. So there was a waka that pulled away from Hawaiki and Hape was in mourning, thinking his brothers were leaving him behind.
“For three whole days, he threw his arms to the sky and sent many incantations for a solution to how he would join his brothers. Then he went out onto the shore and he saw what looked like a land mass hovering under the water out in the reef. He swam towards it and as he got to the heart of this great blackness, it rose up, and it was the stingray Kaiwhare, who many said was the taniwha.
“Kaiwhare lifted him up and Hape was on Kaiwhare for several nights travelling. He came to a point in the Manukau Heads – at the time the land masses were pushed together and they were like meeting heads – and the stingray let him off there.
“Hape landed on the shore and he began to search and crawl. He climbed the hills and got to this ridge. There were tussocks; it was almost beachy. He was there one night, then the next morning he saw this waka coming in, and they were his brothers who had come after him. They had seen the imprint of his clubbed foot. From this ridge, he sang out his karanga to his brothers.”
Whatever the version, it seems to me the salient point of this story is that, clubfoot and all, Hape beat those bastards, and his cry said, all at once, in a very K’ Rd kind of way: “Screw you” and “I won” and “Welcome, fellas”.
This year, Mete and his company will take Hape to Edinburgh, via their all-gay-male show K’Rd Strip – A Place To Stand, which opens with Hape’s trip from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. In Ted Dawe’s novel K Road, Hape is re-imagined as a clubfooted drag queen, rejected by her peers, who triumphantly rides a whale on a float after inadvertently getting into the good books of the parade organiser. Auckland Transport’s new City Rail Link, destined for Mercury Lane, is to be built in the shape of Hape’s stingray.
Official K’ Rd historian Edward Bennett knows seemingly every stone, brick, pane of glass and pigeon on the street by name, and has a charming way of speaking in the present tense when referring to the past. He takes neighbourhood tours with titles like “Opium and Optimism” while wearing spats, and could tell you much more about K’ Rd than you will ever read here.
We are drinking coffee at Alleluya cafe in the glorious St Kevin’s Arcade, my favourite cafe in all of Auckland. Built in a neo-Greek style in 1924 by architect Walter Cumming, the arcade bathes in natural light and looks out to the palm trees in Myers Park.
Jewish merchant David Nathan, of L.D. Nathan, and his wife, Rosetta, built a house made of scoria on this site in 1845, at a time when the top of Queen St was still under water. Nathan sold it to bootmaker Thomas Keven, so it became known as Mr Keven’s house. Keven rented it to the government (Auckland was then the capital), which housed General Duncan Cameron, commander of the British Imperial Forces in New Zealand, then the offices of the Royal Irish Regiment.
The Irish nicknamed the site St Kevin’s after a ruined monastery that operated only slightly legally as a pub outside Dublin from the 1820s. Some bright spark had realised it still had its medieval licence to manufacture and sell alcohol, and it was the scene of many shenanigans until it was suppressed by a special act of the Irish Parliament in 1877. Now, the sozzled spirit of St Kevin lives on in this graceful arcade.
Queen St at this point was a sleazy, muddy pirate town, and K’ Rd, with its advantage of wind to blow away the constant odour of horse manure, was quite literally a breath of fresh air.
Next to St Kevin’s was a two-storey kauri home named Verona, which belonged to a Dr Holloway, and was the future site and namesake of the coolest K’ Rd bar of my dark-lipsticky, indie-rock 90s youth. Bennett says the name might have been a tribute to the Shakespeare play or the home’s Italianate style. “John Logan Campbell always said that the Waitemata with Rangitoto was better than Naples with Mt Vesuvius.”
With its clement temperature and spectacular harbour views, the Karangahape ridge was prime real estate for the Europeans. Queen St at this point was a sleazy, muddy pirate town, and K’ Rd, with its advantage of wind to blow away the constant odour of horse manure, was quite literally a breath of fresh air. Within a few decades, it had developed into the chicest shopping strip in the city.
Partington’s Victoria Flour Mills and Steam Biscuit Bakery was established on K’ Rd in 1850, going on to harness the Karangahape winds for almost a century. Department store Rendells sprang up on Pitt St in 1884, then relocated to K’ Rd, followed by George Court’s shop in 1900.
By the 20th century, Auckland was modern, clean, hygienic and lit up – and K’ Rd was the jewel in its retail crown. Most large shops had a branch there, peddling clothing, furniture, appliances, musical instruments, radios and bicycles.
You could attend a church from a dizzying array of Christian denominations or drink with your guy buddies at a Druids or Oddfellows. There were dance halls, a plethora of bridal photographers, and, by the 30s, no fewer than five cinemas. On the weekends, police were stationed on the street to prevent overexcited shoppers from spilling out and getting trampled.
The Māori, Brits, Irish and miscellaneous Euros of the 19th century were now joined by Indians and Chinese; over the next century would come Hungarians, Dutch and Yugoslavs, rural Māori, then migrant workers from the Pacific Islands.
After World War II, Pacific Islanders were encouraged by the government to come to New Zealand on visitors’ permits to fill a gap in unskilled labour. By the late 1960s, there were 20,000 Pacific Islanders in Auckland, making it the biggest Polynesian city on earth. Many took up residence in Grey Lynn and Ponsonby, and went shopping on K’ Rd. “I would say you could credit K’ Rd as being the first village marketplace in New Zealand,” says Melani Anae, senior lecturer in Pacific studies at Auckland University.
“When I was a kid running around K’ Rd in the 70s, there was the dolls’ hospital, a shoe place, a fish place, vegetables, everything you’d need in a little town. Clothes, the basics. The hub of K’ Rd was where the shops were: George Courts, Rendells, all those old stores. I think the only store still there from my childhood would be Leo O’Malley’s [menswear, on the corner of K’ Rd and Pitt St, founded in 1935]. It’s cool to see it’s still afloat.
“Sociologists say how the church becomes the village for a lot of Pacific people. But I would say K’ Rd was the village rather than the church per se, in terms of meeting up with people, gossip, catching up with the latest trends, buying food and clothes, and just hanging out. It was packed. There was hardly any walking room in the streets. There were billiard pool halls, so all the young males would be there; there was a pub in the middle, the Naval and Family. It was a mecca that was our town. We wouldn’t go to Queen St, it was always around K’ Rd, probably because it was more affordable and more international, more cultural.”
On Sunday, Anae attended the Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church on Edinburgh St, between the Pink Pussycat and the Pleasure Chest sex shop. She remembers her principal at Auckland Girls’ Grammar trying to ban students from catching the bus outside the Pink Pussycat, K’ Rd’s first strip club, with its shocking-pink colour scheme and lady with flashing nipples. “I never ever stopped to think what I must have looked like,” she writes in her essay From Kava to Coffee: The Browning of Auckland. “A young Samoan girl in frilly dress and shiny black shoes juxtaposed against a backdrop of a white, seductively beckoning nude temptress.”
Down the road, at the evergreen Las Vegas strip bar, one can still cop some nude billboard boobs in the form of the infamous “Vegas girl” painting that hangs above the entrance. Despite a council ban on billboards, enforced after 19th-century teetotaller Joseph Newman was killed when a whisky sign fell on him, the Vegas girl was allowed to stay, and even after the strip club closed down in September, she is still there. But there was no such luck for the Pussycat girl. After the AGGS girls signed a petition, owner Rainton “king of the g-string” Hastie, who reportedly spent £60 on the Pink Pussycat in 1962, and can be heard in a radio programme in the 70s outlining the steps to full nudity to a potential employee (“You know you have to take your clothes off, love?”), had to give his girl a boob tube.
As a teenager, Anae co-founded the Polynesian Panthers, a kick-arse group of young, brown under-20 thinkers in berets (those who could fit them on top of their epic late-60s afros, that is) modelled on the Black Panthers in the United States. To avoid being pigeonholed as a gang, they ran homework centres, took elderly folk on bus trips, delivered community newspapers and did prison visits.
In the early 70s, the government started victimising Pacific Islanders on the pretext they were abusing the terms of their visas, using them as scapegoats for the oncoming recession caused by the global commodity price collapse. Officers would turn up at homes at ungodly hours to catch factory workers before their early shifts, and made numerous arrests. They also raided factories and pubs. “K’ Rd is a huge part of that,” says Anae. “Police harassing Polynesians under ‘idle and disorderly’ claims was carried out in the Naval and Family and in the billiard halls.”
Suddenly, all Pacific Islanders were labelled overstayers, even though most of the real perpetrators were from Europe and North America. The cops began randomly searching anyone of a vaguely brown hue, be they Niuean, Tokelauan or Cook Islander (and therefore New Zealand citizens) or even Māori. People had to start carrying passports.
With the help of young lawyer David Lange, the Polynesian Panthers taught people their legal rights. “We had our people ringing up to find flats. The ones with New Zealand accents would ring up for them. We tried to get our people decent accommodation. And we’d ring up and complain if they had leaky toilets, things like that. We published a legal aid booklet, drawn up by David Lange. Just human rights, really. Things like, did you know a cop can’t arrest you if he hasn’t got his hat on? To stop them shoving us around.”
The Panthers also committed inspired, performance art-style acts of rebellion. In the TV documentary Dawn Raids, member Tigilau Ness remembers driving to Howick at dawn to do a reverse raid on the Immigration Minister, Frank Gill, surrounding his house from two sides, turning on a spotlight, and yelling over loud-hailers: “Mr Gill, wake up, show us your passport!” before shooting off.
The dawn raids ended in 1977. Immigration and the police conceded they had perhaps been a bit harsh. Forty years later, Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised to Samoa for what she called a shameful chapter in our history.
But even now, Anae says, the overstayer image sticks. “There are still the negative stereotypes of Pacific people, communities and cultures that the media wants to exploit. It doesn’t sell papers or books if you talk about successful Pacific people. The stigma remains.”
She says the dawn raids story should be taught at school. “Since the publication of the Polynesian Panthers’ book, we have been getting calls from secondary schools to give history students seminars on our experiences. If not for that book, it wouldn’t be part of the New Zealand Pacific history curriculum.
“A big part of how Pacific students can do better at school is to have a curriculum that acknowledges their identity as Pacific people in New Zealand. And the feedback from our seminars is those kids do exceptionally well at history, just from that little thing of going out and talking to them.”
Like its namesake Hape, Karangahape feistily fought back against numerous challenges to its honour. In the 19th century, it was the only Māori street name in central Auckland, and as such had to put up with Pākehā bleating in the Auckland Star that it was “objectionable and unbecoming”, “a frightful jaw-breaker” and “a monstrosity”, and suggesting unanimously terrible alternatives such as Perambulator Parade, Muddy Alley, Broadway, Jaipee St and Cheapside.
In 1908, there was a movement to rename K’ Rd as Fleet St to commemorate the showy visit of American navy boats. But then everyone discovered the real reason for the trip: ostensibly a gesture of goodwill but, in fact, a spying mission, in case the US felt it necessary to invade us, and the motion was quietly shelved.
In 1953, there was another drive to rename the street Elizabeth after the new Queen, but the town planner played a genius hand by decreeing the name could be changed only if an overwhelming number of residents wanted it, knowing full well none of the bleaters actually lived or worked on the street.
The only sensible reason to rename Karangahape Rd was that it was now no longer a road. It was the 20th century and urban Aucklanders may have wished to rid themselves of this remnant of their rural past. But Karangahape Rd it remained, abbreviated to K’ Rd since at least the 1920s.
Artist John Radford once told me, in excellently un-Kiwi fashion, that when he’s walking up Western Park, near to where Ponsonby and K’ Rds join, and sees Tip, the sculptures of upside-down building edges he made in his 20s, he hears the Rocky theme tune playing in his head.
Radford’s Croatian grandmother would reminisce about trips to K’ Rd from out west earlier in the century. It would take two hours, but it was worth it. “She’d walk up through the paddocks, take off her gumboots and put her town shoes on, which she took up in a bag with her, leave the gumboots under the hedge, get on a bus on Lincoln Rd along Great North Rd into the city. She’d have a day of shopping in the city, having cups of teas at the tearooms of department stores, catching up with immigrant friends, dressed like the Queen.”
Radford’s most recent artwork/performance piece/real estate project Graft, encompassing 256 miniature houses, is, he says, a “version of oblivion”, representing the removal of densely packed inner-city residential suburbs around K’ Rd to create Spaghetti Junction, the convoluted convergence of the Northern, Southern and Northwestern motorways.
“I was looking out over the massive concrete walls where the motorway surges up to K’ Rd. I stood on that overbridge and I thought, ‘What used to be here? Why are there concrete walls at the end of this bridge?’ I found archive photos taken by airplane of this area in 1940 and there’s not even a dip in the land. That was a solid ridge of land. So when they built the bridge there, they tunnelled that enormous chasm underneath it, demolished most of the suburb of Newton as we know it and removed all the land.”
This was displacement on a scale unprecedented in Auckland: 15,000 houses in the inner city and surrounding suburbs were compulsorily purchased and demolished; 50,000 residents were forced to move elsewhere; 4100 bodies were disinterred from Symonds St cemetery.
“And where did all those people go? Where did their garden shed go? Where’s the apple tree, the woodshed, the outhouse, the patch of dahlias that the cat sleeps on? It was removal of buildings, footpaths, roads, telegraph poles, street lights, land, beyond compare.
“When you look at the Waterview interchange – holy crap, it’s like Logan’s Run, and that’s only 180 house removals. So times that by 20-plus and you’ve got the level of disruption, and the disinterment of bodies from Symonds St cemetery as well.”
The loss of 50,000 customers had a catastrophic effect on retail in K’ Rd, leading to an economic slump in the 70s and 80s from which it never quite recovered. Where once there were grand mansions and fine stores, there were now damp and dingy squats. The red-light district, formerly the boggy bottom of squalid Queen St, drifted up to K’ Rd and stayed there.
The small shops were the first victims. “There used to be fish shops, fruiterers; a butcher, baker and candlestick maker on every block. The bit we know of Newton now is the pie crust around the edges. Now the pie’s gone, and so are those inner-city, working-class people: the tram drivers, elevator operators and retail staff who all needed to eat. What’s left is the raw, bleeding edges of K’ Rd where the bridge takes out this living artery of retail and commerce.”
But there is an upside, says Radford, in that by the 80s, K’ Rd was such a dump, no one could be bothered smashing up its historic architecture. “In the 1980s, the mirror-glass cowboys galloped through the city, buying up loved and aged buildings like His Majesty’s Theatre, which was levelled at Christmas while people were away on holiday so no sizeable protest could be organised.
“If the red light district hadn’t been on K’ Rd it would have been gold because you’re on a ridge, you’re above the whole city – it would have been mirror-glass ridge. But only a couple of those buildings came up.
“So, thank you, red light district, thank you, motorway, for fucking up K’ Rd so all the people move out and you get a slimy, stinky, smoky Spaghetti Junction grinding away and pumping out carbon monoxide, and K’ Rd survives intact.”
Early articles reveal Karangahape Rd to contain a vocal working class, equally prone to arson and innovation, and sometimes annoyed by people from Ponsonby.
Writing to the Daily Southern Cross in 1865, “An Immigrant” refers the editor to the dangerously muddy and unlit state of the corner of Howe St and K’ Rd leading to the Immigrants Home. This is opposite my flat, aka the dark side of the street. A century and a half later, the lighting is still not the greatest.
In 1870, William Johnston, ironically a baker, is apprehended on a charge of arson after starting a fire in his own home on K’ Rd opposite Pitt St.
In an 1876 letter to the Auckland Star, “FC” bemoans Newton’s lack of representation on the County Council. “It is evident that Ponsonby is the fancy district, when its people are awarded fourfold representation as compared with the less-aristocratic sister suburb Newton. If the revenues of the County are divided in a similar ratio, Ponsonby will obtain the lion’s share, and the crumbs to plebeian Newton will be beautifully small.”
In 1886, a man working on the roof of the Rising Sun Hotel falls off, but is miraculously unharmed. Suicides among the down-and-out are horribly commonplace. On page five of the Auckland Star in 1888, an article is titled “Suicide in Karangahape Road: Rat Poison Again”. In 1895, a thief robs a grocer on K’ Rd but only finds five shillings.
However, as Bennett points out, early K’ Rd was not only home to society’s losers, but its biggest winners, too. “The two weren’t mutually exclusive because everybody still had to walk everywhere, hence they needed their servants to be in close proximity. So the working-class and upper-class bits actually melded in quite closely. You’d have prestigious shops on the main road and directly behind them those tiny cottages and possibly just hovels.”
These places, he says, were fire traps, with poor ventilation, plumbing and sewerage, and full of fleas, rats and bed bugs. “So you had vermin spreading typhus, bad ventilation causing things like TB, regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. We even had bubonic plague here at the beginning of the 20th century.”
Often there was only one bedroom, meaning “you have one big bed and everyone sleeps together, partially for warmth and partially because you can’t afford a second bed or bedclothes. When you read stuff at the beginning of the 20th century about ‘sleeping conditions’ – you would think it’s bed bugs, but what they mean is more than one person sleeping in a bed, all the children or all children and both parents sleeping in one bed, and this is how incest happens. When they talk about ‘sleeping conditions’, what they mean is improving conditions so children get their own bedrooms or at least a bedroom for each gender.”
All of which made it easier to justify the removal of these places to make way for the motorway. “It was an area of crime and disease so, from the point of view of the authorities, you’re killing two birds with one stone. You’re improving the traffic flow of Auckland and you’re getting rid of substandard housing and driving out the criminal class.
“There were protests, but the people who lived there were tenants, so they’re just being told by the landlord, your lease is up. If everyone had been a home owner, they would have had an enormous struggle on their hands trying to put the motorway through.”
There is a lot of ugliness on this ripped-up road. Over the past few years, I’ve noted a big increase in people begging and sleeping rough. On weekend nights, the strip gets sticky and slimy. Once, walking down Mercury Lane to the food court, I had to step over two human-shaped slicks of blood.
One of the street’s saddest stories is that of Jayne Furlong, a teenager who went missing from outside Rendells in 1993. Her body was finally found at Port Waikato in 2012 and an investigation into her death relaunched, but her killer was never found.
A clever, pocket-sized redhead, Furlong diligently recorded her teenage life in her diary. She had been shuttled to various foster homes, and raped at one of them, but found a best friend in Amanda Wolfe (then Watt), who she met at Penrose High School.
Furlong suggested they start working the streets together, so one night they went into town and stood outside the Town Hall on Queen St. Within a year or two, says Wolfe, “We owned K’ Rd, from upper Queen St to at least Mercury Lane, all of that street: McDonald’s, Rendells. Me, Tach [Natacha Hogan] and Jayne overhauled that area. I don’t know how. We were 15 years old. But we were invincible.”
Their guy friends wore black jeans and steel-capped boots, and they were all constantly wasted, on booze and pot and acid and Ribitrol and mushrooms and spray-paint. If anyone gave them grief, they’d go in for a rumble, and if there was no fight, it wasn’t a night. They got arrested repeatedly, for soliciting or rabble-rousing.
One night, Wolfe says, she, Furlong and Furlong’s boyfriend, Danny Norsworthy, went out separately and all ended up in the cells. “I was yelling, ‘You fucking pigs’ and then the next thing, ‘Is that you, Amanda?’ Then Danny’s like, ‘Is that you, Jayne?’”
At the time she disappeared, Furlong was 17 years old, with a six-month-old baby boy to Norsworthy. She recorded her weight in her diary as 41kg. Wolfe was mad at her, because she had started using heroin.
“There are new crossings, lights, new buildings, new patterns on the cobblestones. It’s not scummy or seedy any more. It’s turned into Ponsonby.”
Furlong was about to testify in three separate court cases: as a witness to an assault on K’ Rd and another in which a crossbow had been fired, and as a complainant in the trial of businessman Stephen Collie, who was later jailed for a string of hideous sex offences, mostly against prostitutes. Despite this, the police hadn’t offered her any form of protection.
Wolfe, Furlong and Norsworthy took a taxi into K’ Rd at around 9pm on May 26, 1993. Norsworthy went to get a car fixed, while Wolfe went away for 20 minutes on a job. When she got back, Furlong was gone.
Wolfe has spent two decades trying to piece together that one night. At her home, she has boxes and boxes of material related to the case. She has a fair idea of who killed Furlong, but that changes. “The cops put something in your head.” She says people are sick of her dwelling on it. They tell her to get over it and move on. But she can’t, because the night remains a mystery. “I thought I was the last person to see Jayne alive, but apparently she was seen running up into a parlour and asking one of the girls to hide her because someone was chasing her.”
Dean Sutherland from 80s band Satellite Spies, of all people, got in touch with Wolfe to say he also saw Furlong on the night she went missing. “He came here and showed me photos of him in his Sgt. Pepper’s costume. He had diaries, bank receipts. He said he talked to Jayne while he had a burger, and a black car pulled up on the wrong side of road. This guy’s having a fit, and Dean says, ‘I don’t think you should go with him’, but Jayne says, ‘It’s all right, he’s a friend of mine, I can handle him’ and then they leave.”
The initial investigation into her disappearance, Wolfe says, was “pathetic. Prostitution was illegal, and she was a prostitute and a drug addict, so who cared? And the police were dodgy, anyway.”
Three years after Furlong went missing, in 1996, Wolfe herself was raped and almost murdered by Hayden Taylor (miraculously, she managed to talk him out of it), who went on to kill pregnant teenager Nicola Rankin. The same year, Natacha Hogan was raped and murdered by Hayden Poulter in the Symonds St cemetery.
Wolfe is glad things are safer now. “At least now everything is legal, girls can report their crimes. So someone can get done, rather than being allowed to do it again and again and again.”
But she can’t stand K’ Rd any more. “I feel so alienated there now. Once upon a time, it was my place. Now it’s got palm trees, the seats aren’t wooden, there’s no McDonald’s, no Rendells. There are new crossings, lights, new buildings, new patterns on the cobblestones. It’s not scummy or seedy any more. It’s turned into Ponsonby.”
Greer Twiss, whose sculpture Karangahape Rocks is in “Pigeon Park”, where Symonds St meets K’ Rd, couldn’t stand the place either for a while. His beautiful 1969 bronze is now considered one of Auckland’s greatest artworks but at the time, it was dysfunctional, badly received and almost killed him, twice.
Twiss, 30 years old and newly returned from a travel grant to Europe to study foundries, was commissioned to make a sculpture incorporating water, but that would not spurt it out or blow it around. He created two figures, which sit among large river stones sliced into three vertical plates. Water was meant to trickle down the grooves of the discs and pool in the nooks and hollows of the figures, to evoke a rocky seaside “and that very New Zealand experience of sitting by the water and dangling your fingers in it”.
But it never really worked. The water just kind of dribbled out of the base. When the fountain stopped working in the 1980s, no one thought to repair it for nearly two decades. Twiss tells me there have since been three attempts to mend it, but “I’ve given up on it now.”
This was Twiss’ first big commission. He didn’t know much about casting, and there really wasn’t anywhere to make such a big work. But that did not stop him. The figures, he says, were “fairly straightforward”, but to make the “rocks” required him to weld together around a hundred pieces of bronze. “You could only weld horizontally, so with each piece you had to lower it, lie it flat, grind it out, weld the part you wanted then heat it with a torch, haul it up, fit it, lower the next piece, and so on.”
One day, Twiss was up on a platform, working on a large plaster form held up by an old bit of rope on a gantry, when the rope snapped. The whole piece dropped on top of him and sliced him as it came down, cracking two of his ribs. Later, another piece fell off and went through his foot, which crippled him for several months.
When it was finally finished in 1968, in the summer of love, the people of Auckland complained to the city council about how much the artwork had cost. One councillor pronounced he did not like it, and that the figures were so thin, they resembled concentration camp victims – an unfortunate analogy since the work had been placed on the Jewish section of the cemetery. “But all my figures were thin like that then… I’d been making athletes,” says Twiss.
All round it was a traumatic experience and, for almost a year after it was finished, Twiss couldn’t go anywhere near it. “I just didn’t want to know about it.” Eventually, he met a pair of homeless men in Pigeon Park who used the sculpture as place to congregate.
“I realised that public works are very important meeting places. I’ve made seven public artworks; there are only two left. It’s sad so many pieces you make disappear from the environment, get ripped down by bureaucrats.”
But not this one. And, as Twiss intended, over nearly 50 years the bronze has warped into a deep sea green, and his spindly figures are now pleasingly splattered with pigeon poo.
Nineteenth century architectural practice in New Zealand was a thing of madness. Despite the unquestionable fact of being in an alien environment, with different building materials and weather, at the bottom of the world, early settlers insisted on recreating the mother country.
On a stroll through the neighbourhood, Edward Bennett points out the red brick façade on the dairy opposite the old Rising Sun. Look closer, he says, and you can see the bricks are just pretend, because Auckland wasn’t producing them then, so the cement exterior would have been iced with ion oxide to dye it red and the “mortar” drawn on with a stencil – the cheap man’s alternative to paying 10 times more for red brick from England. Since Bennett mentioned this, I have seen examples of it everywhere, and now you will too.
On Galatos St, Bennett shows me an old stable block which would have served as a shop on K’ Rd. Here, the builders have fixed corrugated iron horizontally instead of vertically onto the exterior to make it look like less like a shed and more like fancy weatherboarding.
Via a little good luck and heaps of neglect, K’ Rd retains many of its historic buildings. Among those still standing are Kamo, formerly the Newton Hotel, established in 1866; the Rising Sun Hotel from 1884, now a backpackers’ hostel; Naval and Family, now Calendar Girls, built in 1897. At the southern end of the street, over the road from the Thirsty Dog pub (a former Freemasons’ lodge), are the Purchas buildings, built in 1886.
Arthur Guyon Purchas, who arrived with his wife, Olivia, from England in the 1840s to be inducted as vicar of St Peter’s in Onehunga, was described by the Anglican archbishop Alfred Walter Averill in 1953 as “the most gifted man that ever came to New Zealand”. Let’s just go ahead and amend that to “white man”, but the bishop was not exaggerating. Purchas was a da Vinci-like polymath whose list of achievements would be almost sickening if it weren’t for the fact that no one really remembers him.
Purchas designed the fortified church St Bride’s at Mauku in 1853. He surveyed part of Onehunga and designed the first Mangere Bridge. Fluent in Te Reo, he was the official intermediary between government and the Māori settlement of Mangere, where he negotiated the sale of land to local Māori and apparently intercepted clashes.
A singer, flautist and composer, Purchas compiled the New Zealand Hymnal and invented a system of reading music for the blind. He made elegant line drawings of early architecture and portraits of Māori. His friend, the Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, named a volcano after Purchas after he pointed out a peculiarity in its cone formation.
Purchas served at the Home for Destitute Children in Mt Albert for 24 years as a medical officer. He did groundbreaking abdominal operations and typhoid treatment, for which he was offered an honorary degree by Cambridge University (he declined). He discovered the Drury coal seam in 1858, the sole source of Auckland’s coal for many years; made a comprehensive list of native flowering trees and shrubs; developed Auckland’s gravitational water system. He and James Ninnis were granted New Zealand’s first-ever patent, for a machine that spun flax.
Not only that, but his grandson, E.H. Roche, contends Purchas invented the internal combustion engine, but couldn’t patent it, as a so-called friend disappeared with the plans.
Indeed, despite his stupendous talents, life did not always go Purchas’ way. Fed up with his not always forthcoming stipend and lack of financial support from parishioners, he moved from Onehunga to the city to set up a doctor’s surgery, in a rebellious departure to secular work. He built a big house on six acres on Pitt St with frontage on K’ Rd, then raised a huge mortgage to create a strip of shops.
Clearly, Purchas wanted to make something handsome and lasting. He opted for scarlet English brick (for the façade at least; the sides are ochre Auckland wannabes) and Oamaru stone for the detailing. But the year after Purchas purchased his buildings, the stock market crashed, “and the depression of 1887 was much worse than the one a hundred years later in economic terms; it was catastrophic”, says Bennett.
“There was a worldwide depression in agriculture. Gold had run out both in the Coromandel and Otago, and it had also started to run out in San Francisco and Australia. The South American rubber boom had burst, there was a crisis in gold mining and diamonds in South Africa, and an agricultural problem in a lot of Southeast Asia, as well. Things were just bad, all throughout the world.”
By the 1890s, Purchas was unable to meet his debts. His grandson records that he accepted his fate graciously and, in a slightly depressing tale of riches to rags, sold up and moved to Epsom.
These days, there is a sign that has hung above one of the sex shops since the 80s: a woman with huge blow-waved hair leans seductively over a guy who looks like a stockbroker.
Sex and K’ Rd are inseparable bedfellows, and a startling fact I discovered is that in Auckland’s settler days, up to 10 per cent of women were prostitutes.
The reason, Bennett says, was literacy. “If a 19th-century Auckland woman wants to be a school teacher, shop assistant or secretary, she needs to know how to read, write and add up, and the moment she’s married she has to resign.”
If not, she could be employed as a servant, kitchen maid, housemaid, cook or possibly a seamstress. And if she “fell” pregnant, she was out on her ear. “So you have a large number of single women working as domestic servants, getting pregnant by their employer or their employer’s son or by the publican or one of the clients – what do you do? As a fallen woman, no one will employ you and you’ve got the child to look after. In a situation like that, you can earn enough to keep you for the entire week on your back in an hour while the baby’s asleep.”
Prostitution by this point had drifted up from Queen St to Liverpool St, Greys Ave and Vincent St, then lined with hundreds of wooden Victorian houses. Women working as prostitutes would live together, taking turns to look after the brats. Street directories also reveal the presence of “oyster saloons” which, though they sound like the most marvellous wonderlands on earth, were really just early cafes and, of course, only for men.
The whole dicey neighbourhood backed on to a bleak, rat-infested gully.
In 1913, former Mayor of Auckland, now MP, Arthur Myers gave the city £9000 to purchase the gully and turn it into a park. Myers had been talking to his sister-in-law, Martha, who had been involved with San Francisco’s progressive Golden Gate kindergarten and was influenced by the American “reform park” movement, which provided safe, green spaces for children to play in.
A kindergarten was built on the park to give women somewhere to leave their children. The shirt factory Ross and Glendining’s provided them employment. So Myers Park was a municipal gift to the poor that especially benefited the city’s prostitutes.
The Pacific village of K’ Rd in the 70s and 80s also became a safe haven for gay, lesbian, bi and trans people. In 1979, Auckland’s first lesbian nightclub, the KG Club, moved from downtown to K’ Rd. Chaplin’s, for the boys, sprang up around 1988 and Legend in 1991. In 1992, the Hero Parade was established, which ran down K’ Rd and finished in a party on Queen’s Wharf.
The street’s tolerance of alternative culture gave dancer Taane Mete the courage to come out as gay in the early 90s. “You still had to take some knocks. There was so much abuse if you went down the wrong street; you had to be careful. But on K’ Rd, you felt safe.” Mete developed his drag persona Kornisha at gay nightclub DTM (Don’t Tell Mama), formerly 1930s picture theatre Vogue, which later turned into The Staircase.
He started winning competitions and becoming an identity in the drag world. “No one taught you how to do the makeup. You just had to watch and learn. There was no giving away of secrets, it was all hush-hush. You had to discover, find, go shopping and hustle your way in.”
Around this time, publicist and party organiser Julian Cook also arrived on the ridge. “I was a young gay guy of 18 or 19 and I was taken under the wing of one of Auckland’s greatest drag queens, Bertha – or Bertha the Beast, as she was then. When the clubs closed, Bertha would take care of me and we’d sit in the lounge and listen to Montserrat Caballé and drink wine.”
In the 90s, Cook ran big club nights at DTM and smaller ones at Calibre, where the Wine Cellar is now. “It was a very late, late, late, late, housey, clubby scene. It was a low-key vibe whilst you were also speeding a million miles an hour, because it was the height of E use in Auckland.
“Those clubs encouraged a mixing of people and cultures. It was really integrated and that’s what made it interesting. That scene has split now: you have the rich white kids on the Viaduct and poorer brown kids up on K’ Rd still, along with some indie-rock freaks.”
The transgenders, transsexuals and prostitutes “became a really defined and hierarchical structure within a really short space of time. ‘Scene’ doesn’t really sum it up. It was a kingdom – a queendom – a sisterhood.” At the head of the hierarchy were Hina and Kelly, the “head girls” of K’ Rd.
“The street was initially run by Hina’s grandmother, the oldest of her kind, as Hina used to say. When she was too old, she split the street in two. She split the light end of the street from ‘the gash’ or the gully down to Symonds St, including Beresford St, which was where the boys would work. She gave that to Hina to run, because she’d created a relationship with the gay community and drag queens like Pussy Galore and Bertha, and was seen as more progressive.
“Then the dark end of street from the other side of the bridge right down to Ponsonby, including Gundry St, she gave to Kelly, and that was where the older girls would work. It was a really structured society and there were rules about which areas you could work and what you could charge. If a girl got caught undercutting the other girls, she would get the bash.”
Today, a huge mural depicting Hina as a goddess can still be seen on the back of Kamo from West Terrace. “Hina was a phenomenal storyteller. She told a story about how transsexual culture arrived in Auckland, and how the waves washed it in and there were different waves washing it in at different times. It started down at the ferry building on Shortland St, she used to say, with the first rent boys. Then it washed up the hill to the Town Hall area, then the next wave washed them all up onto the rori.”
Cook later moved to a flat known as the House of Flax, across the road from Verona. One of his favourite neighbours was possibly K’ Rd’s most famous vagrant, the impossibly tall, flaxen-haired, ciggie-pinching Margaret Hoffman, who died in 2011. “Margaret was an icon. There are so many stories about her and that’s part of the joy of the mythology around her. Some of them are pure urban legend, but K’ Rd seems to attract that. Margaret’s stoop was at the bottom of our stairs, so I’d see her every day and give her a cigarette every day, and get barked at every day.”
Across the road, above Verona, lived another K’ Rd identity of that era: a “big, brassy, blonde, buxom” Irish dominatrix named Miss Kitty. “I did a few party nights with her at places like Squid. She had a gimp that she took on tour and she would pull his scrotum through a hole in a piece of wood then get a nail and hammer it to the wood. Or she did wax shows, whipped people, that kind of stuff. Fetish parties had just come over-ground for the first time then, so it was quite shocking.
“Nobody seems to know what happened to her. There are stories about her going to find the nun who abused her as a child. But again, this gets into the mythological areas of K’ Rd.”
Cook laments the recent loss of several gay bars. “There’s been a global change as gay culture becomes more mainstream or goes online more, so those venues are not supported. But I hope they come back, because there are lots of reasons why they’re different, musically and culturally.” And he wishes there was a bit more shock now. “My generation did push the boat out. Today’s kids are quite conservative.”
In the early 90s, photographer Ann Shelton arrived on K’ Rd just as the art world was getting interesting.
She had been working as a press photographer for The Dominion in Wellington, and recently befriended the charismatic artist Giovanni Intra, who worked at the City Gallery, and who was fascinated with surrealism, including the intrigue of “utilitarian photography”. Shelton had just exhibited Don’t Push Me, her documentation of Wellington street life, at the Dowse Gallery.
“I wanted to turn the camera on my own social groups, as opposed to photographing other people,” Shelton says. “So when I moved to Auckland, I started documenting my own life and my own friends. We all lived around K’ Rd and everyone was able to live in these massive spaces. One friend of mine was a costume designer and she had a massive library of costumes. Now I guess all those buildings have been chopped up and made into apartments.”
Shelton lived near a butcher on the same block as Verona. “We basically almost lived at Verona. We were down there three times a day. They threw amazing parties just to celebrate existing; they’d go all out to decorate the place. There was a really rich culture then. It’s an amazing thing about K’ Rd that you have all these different groups of people living there simultaneously.”
The year before Shelton arrived, Teststrip gallery on Vulcan Lane had opened, “and I arrived smack bang into this scene”. Founded by her friend Giovanni Intra – along with artists Kirsty Cameron, Judy Darragh, Gail Haffern, Denise Kum, Lucy Macdonald, Daniel Malone and Merylyn Tweedie – Teststrip was an independent, artist-run gallery at a time there was no other in New Zealand.
The artists put a lot of their own funds into the space, and there was a “100 bucks” annual fundraiser. Combining Intra’s love of surrealism, Darragh’s anarchic tendencies and a pinch of punk, the gallery was “irreverent, nonsensical, endlessly referential to different manifestos and movements in art”, says Shelton. “There was a definite link to European art history, but it came through in all these different sorts of activities.”
They did performances, like the one where Malone stuffed relish into his sock and drank it, and another where Intra smashed up a whole lot of old cameras. “Then there were slick shows like Waiting Rooms, a collaboration between Intra and Vicki Kerr, where they got rid of every white angle in the gallery and made it into a nice curve, and cleaned everything with disinfectant. It was a comment on the deified white space of the gallery, but also on medicine and cleanliness.”
The Test Strippers were furious documenters, creating satirical “spliffs” on current issues or artists, publishing micrographs and hand-drawing invitations. They had multiple identities. There were multiple printing presses: Crushed Honey Press, Starve My Ego Productions. They did Dada dinners, poetry nights and happenings.
“One night, I remember being on Kitchener St and Giovanni decided to read the Scum Manifesto, by Valerie Solanas. This really upset the ardent feminists so someone went up and pulled his pants down, so he was left standing there in his Jockey Y-fronts. No one knew whether it was planned or just happened.”
The artists exhibited their own work to begin with, then began incorporating neighbourhood musicians, writers, fashion designers and filmmakers. In 1995, the gallery moved into K’ Rd, into what is now Whitespace, where it began showing artists from Australia.
Shelton says Teststrip had a huge impact on the current art world. “By the time it finished, all these other artist-run spaces had popped up around Auckland: Fiat Luxe, Room 3. So it paved the way for a whole lot of people to start their own spaces.”
In 1997, when the age of the selfie was but a distant nightmare, Shelton made a stunning book of photographs called Redeye. Taken with a snapshot camera, often around K’ Rd, it’s what she calls a “social diary: an open invitation to look”.
In poorly lit corridors and dodgy flats, her friends get ready for parties, do shows at Teststrip, pose with blow-up dolls. They have bad skin and wear cheap neon wigs and PVC. There is bad architecture, spew in a urinal, a pierced skinhead covered in blood. It’s a depiction of K’ Rd that is as honest as it comes.
Comparing Shelton to the high-society photographer Georg Kohlap, critic Justin Peyton wrote in a Listener review that “Shelton, a kind of K’ Rd Kohlap, lays bare the tribal rites of an urban demimonde that aspires not to caviar and Volvos but to the cruddy glamour of bohemianism, the scungy allure of the city’s seedier corners: fabulous nobodies, armchair outlaws, gallery groupies, new dandies, fashion casualties, would-be refugees from the straight and narrow.”
Giovanni Intra died at just 34 in Los Angeles. He had moved to the States on a Fulbright scholarship to study art theory in Pasadena. There, he discovered that “Los Angeles, just like New Zealand, is most significantly intrigued by the development of its own artistic mythology”. So he brought a bit of K’ Rd magic to downtown LA.
With two others, Intra founded an art gallery called China Art Objects in a disused shop. “I just got an invitation to its 16th birthday in the mail,” says Shelton. “Giovanni is someone who took New Zealand art to America and exhibited it in his gallery, then became responsible for a resurgence and reinvigoration of that area, which is still populated with a lot of art galleries.”
On a cold Tuesday night on K’ Rd, I look out my window and across the street into the dinner-and-drag cabaret Caluzzi. Inside, I can see half a dozen queens, dressed in multicoloured versions of a sort of I Dream of Genie outfit, doing synchronised dance moves while lip-syncing to “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga.
They open the door and come out on to K’ Rd – this is their party trick – and I notice something vaguely unsettling about them, as if they are in an Yvonne Todd photograph. One has a stripy T-shirt on under her sparkly top, while another wears trackie bottoms under her skirt. Then I notice there’s only one person in the audience, and I realise this is a rehearsal: a new number, the making of little more K’ Rd history.
A few weeks later, I’m out the back of Caluzzi with Miss Cola, who’s been performing there for more than a decade. I tell her that, from my place, I watch taxi-loads of corporate-looking folk roll up to Caluzzi on weekend nights, pissed as, literally falling into the street. Some nights it seems like a zoo where straight people go to look at gays. “Oh, yeah. I feel like a clown most nights,” she says.
Miss Cola is roughly twice my height. Tonight, she is dressed in a blue gingham frock, with a dollop of blonde beehive and eyelashes like garden rakes. She has poured me a red wine right up to the brim. She tells me the Caluzzi performers include a trainee lawyer, a hairdresser and someone who works for a freight company.
Miss Cola’s inner ego, William, works for an airline. “When I’m out of drag, I like to just blend in. I get judged too much as a drag queen, where people are looking at you and they expect you to pull out a joke, to do something funny. It takes its toll sometimes. So it’s good that on my rostered days on I can just be myself, which is a totally opposite personality.”
William grew up in a small country town in Hawke’s Bay. He’s not super-keen to go back. “If I went back like this, gosh. There’s a lot of Mongrel Mob back where I come from. I’d be put on the block.” William was Mormon, didn’t smoke or drink, and was a “dragophopic”. He met his first drag queen in Hamilton, which fascinated but also terrified him.
Then a few years later, living in Auckland, it just happened. “People from work were having a girls-only night and they said, ‘You can only come if you dress in drag.’ So I made this big pink fur outfit and turned up in a tuk-tuk to the Longroom and drove right in. And I realised I could do things as a girl that William couldn’t do.”
When he discovered legendary drag queen Bertha was also Mormon, that was that. His mum found out eventually, although she was a bit slow on the uptake. “She saw me doing the Canteen ad, driving a jeep over the beach lip-syncing to ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’. She saw me on Suzanne Paul’s ad being Miss Kiwifruit. Then she saw an interview I did for Māori TV about being Māori and growing up, and I was dressed like this, and she was like, ‘I think I know that person.’”
Later, Miss Taro Patch joins us, half-man/half-queen, wigless and wearing a black slip but in full makeup. She and Cola reminisce about the 90s. “You’d be standing at the bar with a cigarette,” says Miss Cola. “Ding-ding, the soup’s ready, so we’d go and get the soup, then pick the cigarette up and keep smoking. We never had the nip pourers, everything was free pour. Those were the good old days.”
They recall a game called Cup of Love, where “you pulled a guy up on to the bar, a good-looking guy with a lovely stomach, and you lifted his shirt off and poured vodka into his navel”, explains Miss Taro Patch. “First of all, Miss Cola would demonstrate how it’s done. Then you’d do a navel shot. Nowadays you’ll get that one guy who’s a show pony and he’ll get up. But you don’t get as many of those people any more.
“K’ Rd’s lost a lot of the edge it used to have,” she says, “that outside of the square, bizarre thing.”
Campbell Orr, Caluzzi’s manager, comes outside to ask Miss Cola which song she wants. Miss Cola wants “Lick It”. Orr concurs with the others: “New Zealand has become more conservative,” he says. “The first time I walked into Caluzzi it was in full flight: lesbians, a dominatrix with leather straps. There were these underground fetish parties in warehouses, people strung up by hooks, out-of-this-world kink. I would say it was an era of acceptable erotica fetish experimentation. It was an era where you could go and safely experience something unusual.”
“Everything’s gone online now,” says Miss Cola. “You can go online and get a call girl; it’s all very discreet. You can go click, click, click and do it all in the privacy of your own home. There’s no reason for them to go out any more. They’re all on fetish.com.”
The queens at Caluzzi end every set by dancing into the traffic. It’s a free show I enjoy every weekend night: a Hape-esque “screw you” and “welcome, fellas”. Miss Cola even used to board a bus dressed as Wonder Woman.
I ask her if she gets much aggro. “Lots of aggro. I’ve had BB guns fired at me from cars going by, a handful of nails thrown out, bottles, eggs. We get abuse as they go past. But you’re on K’ Rd, what do you expect? If you don’t like it, go to Queen St.
“One of the girls got beaten up on the road when she was coming in a cab from a club downtown. Two guys came across the road and started kicking her, so she ran down the middle of the road, but they continued to whack her. And people just drove past in their cars tooting their horns and saying, ‘Get off the road.’”
Which brings me to Karen Ritchie, aka the K’ Rd mother.
Ritchie organises, revolutionises, informs and cruises around in cop cars trying to keep the street safe. She has always been this way. “I remember being in the original Legend nightclub and I saw police manhandle a transgender, throw her in the car. So I ended up in a confrontation. I made it clear I wasn’t leaving the station and that I didn’t appreciate how they manhandled her.
“When it comes to the gay community, a lot don’t have family support, so I guess I fill a role in the sense that I will give support as mothers do. It’s a respect I take on with great honour because people see me doing a lot of work in the community.”
Ritchie moved to Australia as a single mother in the 80s. “It was very difficult to get work in those days. New Zealanders didn’t have a good name in Australia for working. After about five months of going through my resources I thought, to hell with it.” She became a prostitute, and on her return to Auckland set up her own premises off K’ Rd.
“Back in time, it was a very exciting street. You’d be crossing roads, you knew everybody, somebody would be going to a club and you’re going to another. Everybody worked together, partied together, enjoyed their nights. Nowadays, there’s a bit of ‘I’m head honcho here or there’, even in terms of certain roles on the street. There are also a lot of rough straight bars that don’t tend to mix well in a gay arena, which saddens me because K’ Rd was always the street where the gay community has been relatively safe.”
Ritchie is a champion for the LGBT community, because they accepted her. “It was never the straight community that accepted that side of your life, it was always the gay community that did. For me it was like, I don’t care, I don’t have to justify myself to the straight community or anyone else. That enabled me to understand stigma.
“There has always been that ‘Let’s drive up here and see if we can see a tranny sex worker.’ They’ll drive around just for the purpose of being an arsehole, yelling and screaming out the windows. On big sports nights like the World Cup, I actually don’t like K’ Rd because you’re always getting people who come up here, drunk. ‘Let’s go and spot a hooker or a drag queen or a poof.’”
As head of K’ Road Community Safety, Ritchie rallies police and politicians to make the street safer. “I met [then Justice Minister] Anne Tolley before the election. She sent a letter out saying they couldn’t help; it’s not as bad as it was, which is a whole lot of rubbish. But we do have more police out on the road. And I tell people it’s really important to make a complaint, because without complaints there are no stats, and without stats it’s hard to prove things.”
Ritchie’s friend, Courtney Cartier, was a drag queen at Caluzzi who died aged 32 after contracting HIV. “Whether in drag or not, it was like bees to a honeypot with Courtney. She had a beautiful soul. I promised her I would walk the journey with her to the crossover, which I did, and she died in my arms.”
Ritchie then rarked up the community to give Courtney a decent send-off. “We had buckets in bars and we raffled off some of her drag, which was what she wanted. She had the most amazing funeral at St Matthew’s. There were drag queens for Africa doing shows in the church, helium balloons. It was like a club, a celebration. Even I lip-synced a number!”
The fundraising effort turned into the Cartier Bereavement Charitable Trust, which pays for funerals for people with HIV-related illnesses.
Ritchie has since worked for the New Zealand Aids Foundation and was a member of the Prostitution Reform Bill committee. “It’s important people look at it that sex work is work. It’s work to pay your bills, to get ahead, to put your kids through school. The bill has been positive for workers in the context that they have rights they never had before. So if you are beaten up and you report it, they have to take that seriously now. Back in the day it wasn’t like that.”
We discuss the case of Jayne Furlong. “I don’t think it was followed through in the fullest capacity. The stigma and people’s perception was that if street workers were raped, if they were boys or girls, oh well, it’s not an issue. Those remarks, that I’d heard throughout my years, appalled me.
“Now, sure, there’s still stigma. Legislation doesn’t necessarily change stigmatisation. But from where I see it, it certainly changes life for the people working.
“I won’t lie down till I get recognition for what we need: safety on K’ Rd. We want to become the eyes and ears of police, make sure if someone’s drunk they get a taxi, or if there are any fights, ring the police, to try to stop people getting beaten.”
Some folk will have you believe that K’ Rd runs on vice, while others will tell you it’s art. But neither is true, because what it really runs on is coffee.
Cafe culture emerged on K’ Rd in the early 90s and evolved at warp speed. These days, options for a brew on and around K’ Rd are ridiculously plentiful. In relative order of excellence, there are Alleluya, Eighthirty, Miller’s, Johnny Feedback, Revel, and a great deal more, and no doubt more to come. “It’s astonishing! How many cafes can an economy support?” asks Bennett.
With such an embarrassment of caffeinated riches, this is one neighbourhood where Starbucks’ famous modus operandus of “cannibalising” other cafes in its path failed to cut it. Over a decade, locals stayed away from the franchise and its watery, overpriced coffee in droves, and it closed its doors in 2014.
Theatre-maker, music video director and former cafe owner Simon Taylor arrived on K’ Rd in the early 90s, when “there were greengrocers and fruiterers, all run by Chinese; the Dallies and Greeks ran the fish shops, and there was a big Polynesian contingent getting primary produce to cook”. He and his brother Dominic worked at K’ Rd’s first proper cafe, Urbi et Orbi (“for the city and for the world”), where Caluzzi is now, before opening their own place, Brazil, in the Norman Ng building around the corner from Mercury Lane.
Brazil was built in 1926 as the K’ Rd entranceway to Prince Edward Theatre (formerly the King’s Theatre, later the Mercury Theatre) on what was then France St. It was a long, skinny, two-storeyed Roman vault, outfitted with marble stairs, oak panelling and a fabulous arched ceiling.
In 1992, the same year Auckland City Council renamed France St Mercury Lane, the theatre company couldn’t meet its rent and had to close. “When I arrived, the Mercury had just been closed down by force,” says Simon. “The accountant was arrested, and police raided rehearsal rooms and evicted [the acting company] from the premises.”
The K’ Rd entrance had been separated from the theatre in the 1960s and sold to greengrocer Norman Ng, who displayed the legend “Wing Kee motto: small profit, big turnover” out the front. By now, Ng was opening the shop only once a year to sell firecrackers, so the brothers leased it from him cheaply.
The fittings, says Taylor, were made of “piecemeal and chance”; collected from ditches and dumps. They found the dishwasher on the side of the motorway. They assembled a bar out of a six-metre piece of jarrah and two huge blocks of limestone from a demo yard in Newton Gully. Their friend, artist Lindsay Fogg, found an old staircase and fitted it in to create a mezzanine floor.
They splashed out on a San Marco espresso machine from San Francisco, with signature giant handle, because it was the only one they knew how to use from their days at Urbi et Orbi. When that broke down, they recovered their original machine, sitting unused out the back of Caluzzi because it made the drag queens break their nails.
Brazil had its opening party at the end of 1994, then promptly closed down as “council wouldn’t let us trade. We had no building WOF, nothing. But then we found a friend at council; a guy who was prepared to front the council stuff for us.” Whereupon they opened officially and went on to trade for 12 years.
Former über-regular John Radford still raves about Brazil’s use of space. “On the left of the room was this break-neck staircase that gave access to the mezzanine floor up above, and I don’t think anyone in the whole time it was there fell down it, which is a miracle because it was like you were climbing into a tree hut.”
Patrons could sit outside, on the ground level by the bar, at a table upstairs or out the back on a lower level decked out in 1940s bus seats and a Mars Attacks pinball machine. “I went travelling to France, Italy, London and Amsterdam,” says Radford “and nowhere did I find a place that was so interestingly laid out, with such amazingly integrated usage by all these different fields of people: painters, sculptors, poets, TV people, filmmakers, doco makers, lawyers, prop makers.”
According to Taylor, regulars also included junkies, “friendly methadone users”, gang members and a man known as Rat. “He was about six foot, stitched into skinny black drainpipes. He was like the character in the Lou Reed song: he’s all dressed in black, but instead of a big straw hat he had a black leather cowboy hat. He was amazingly kind and generous. I have a great image of Rat turning up in an old Kingswood, and it had caught fire directly in front of Brazil, and there’s this tall, black, dreaded dude emerging from a cloud of billowing smoke.
“We had a lot of old geezers coming in saying what it was like in the 50s. This one guy with yellow nicotine-flavoured hair told me about the Friday night riots. There was so little to do, apart from the coffee bars and jazz bars, which were of course non-alcoholic, that they used to get together and have a riot: take the chains off their bicycles, sharpen them, run down Queen St and try to knock over a tram. It totally puts paid to the notion that Auckland has ever been anything but a pirate city; a violent, temporary place.”
Taylor and his brother “weren’t big druggies and we weren’t tough. We were weedy white boys from the middle class. Yet we gained enormous respect from this weird and wonderful mélange of people, with gang members and junkies sitting next to artists and suits. It was an eco-system; it was really nice.”
After a decade, Norman Ng proposed a huge rent increase, which they couldn’t afford. “No one else could run it because every part of it, from the dishwasher to the plumbing, was totally specific to the business. So we ended up completely gutting the building. If it was going to die, we’d rather kill it and let the legend live on, than see it slowly die with new owners who would neither understood its idiosyncrasies nor the community to whom it was home.”
This year, John McRae from John & Tim’s Hairdressers across from my building, between Caluzzi and the gash, entered his last year of hairdressing after 57 years, 30 of which have been on K’ Rd.
In late 1950s Perth, Scotland, McRae’s friends nicknamed him “Sweeney”. He could do college cuts, Perry Como cuts, Tony Curtises, brush cuts, crew cuts, flat tops and ducks’ arses. He came to New Zealand for the climate. “I didnae know anybody here. But it was a Scotsman [Sir John Logan Campbell] who started the first business in this town, built the first house, the first bank, the first brewery.”
McRae is a crack-up. Outside his shop is a sign: “All hair refunded if not totally satisfied.” He’s also sort of famous, and steeped in the knowledge of his trade. It’s from listening to him on Radio New Zealand’s Afternoons show that I learn the swizzley barber’s pole stems from medieval times, when village barbers were also surgeons. The red symbolises blood, the white bandages and the blue disinfectant, and the pole was what patients gripped when undergoing procedures.
McRae’s partner-in-hair, Tim Murray, is a newbie, having served for a mere 18 years. He has an English accent but is half-Scottish, “which is how he got the job”, says McRae. The pair made the news on TV3 in 2014 when they voted against each other in the Scottish independence referendum. “Toffee-nosed Englishmen coming up and interfering, we want to get rid of ’em!” shouts “yes” voter McRae gleefully in the segment. He quotes Mel Gibson in Braveheart – “Freedom!” – and declares, “If I win, he’ll have to call me sir, and he’ll have to have a visa to come across to my part of the shop”, before presciently adding, “but I think [the yes voters] might just chicken out at the last minute”.
McRae says life’s hard for little shops on the wrong side of the bridge. “People feel intimidated coming up this part of K’ Rd. The press doesn’t help. There was an assault here about 18 months ago and the headlines were, ‘A serious assault in notorious K’ Rd’. It’s always had that bad name.
“In the past few years, the little shops have gone and the big office buildings have emptied out. We’ve lost a lot of customers, office workers. In the Telecom building, there used to be 1400 people working there. Chubb closed down, Baycourt shifted to Victoria St. There used to be lunch bars and things; now the place is dead. The rents are too high.”
McRae’s prediction for the rori is that it’s about to climb the property ladder all the way to the top. “Within five years, it’ll definitely be residential. It’s the last place that can really be developed. There are beautiful views up here. They want to try and make it the last Ponsonby Rd.”
Standing in his shop, looking out onto the dark side of K’ Rd – in the exact spot “An Immigrant” complained about the lack of illumination 150 years ago – McRae says the one thing the authorities should get onto is the lighting.
“Up here, it’s terrible. They should brighten up the place.”
Main image: Getty.
Auckland writer Julie Hill's "Dark Side of the Rori" is the first to emerge from the D’Arcy Writers’ Residencies. Chairman Gordon McLauchlan explains how this opportunity to record and reflect on New Zealand society came to pass.
The D’Arcy Writers’ Residencies were designed to encourage the writing of two major essays each year on New Zealand life and culture. Writers have few opportunities to write 10,000 to 12,000-word commentaries on our national life with much hope of achieving publication; so it is entirely satisfactory that the first of these essays should be published by North & South, one of the few and certainly the most widely read publication supporting long-form journalism in this country.
Two essayists are chosen each year by an administration committee from a number of applicants. The winners spend three months in a house at Onetangi, on Waiheke Island, supported by a monthly stipend and a transport grant. The residencies are sponsored by expatriate New Zealanders living in New York, Mark and Deborah D’Arcy, and administered by the following committee: writer Gordon McLauchlan (chairman); book blogger Graham Beattie; North & South editor Virginia Larson; writers Hamish Keith and Bruce Ansley; Waiheke community librarian Fiona Kralicek; and a representative of the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN Inc), this year, Jackie Dennis.
Julie Hill wrote her colourful and moving story of the life and times of Auckland’s K’ Rd during her tenure on Waiheke earlier this year. The second winning 2015 essayist, Scott Hamilton, is at present working on Islands Sailing Away, about slave raids by New Zealanders on two Tongan islands in 1863.