Karangahape Road

A journey from west to east

by The Auckland Psychogeographer

It may be loved and loathed in equal measure, but as a strip, Karangahape Road has few if any competitors for ‘character’ in Auckland, or indeed in New Zealand as a whole. Queen Street, Parnell Rise, Onehunga Mall, Broadway, Ponsonby Road, Dominion Road - all the classical ‘high streets’ in the city have a specific commercial tone, whereas K’Road is a jumble of tones, like the counterpoint of a very unruly choir. There is an extraordinary amount of prewar architecture on the strip itself, and along parts of the side streets - some of it beautiful, some of it pedestrian, all of it interesting. And whilst mid-century and contemporary-ish architecture has of course made major inroads here - some crappy, some striking - the overall effect is a ragtag patchwork of aesthetics and scale, with almost a deliberate sense of random experimentation. Often the aesthetic effect is ugly, and sometimes it’s sunburnt and cheerful. But it can’t be denied that K’Road is Auckland’s subconscious, writ large. 

Structurally, K’Road is defined by three important features. As fundamentally a pre-European pathway along a hilltop ridge, the all-important ‘volcanic view shafts’ treasured by Auckland landowners have meant this area has seen little intensive office construction, and barely a handful of properly multi-storey buildings at all - nothing to rival Queen Street certainly. No offices means no office workers, and as a result K’Road service businesses are noticeably much more niche-orientated, so you’re far more likely to find a vape shop than a floral boutique.

The hilltop ridge is also defined by water - behind St Kevin’s Arcade, at the top of Myers Park, was the outpouring of the Wai-o-Horotiu stream (and home to its namesake taniwha, Horotiu). That spot was a collection place for freshwater for Maori, and water lingers close to the surface here, so much so that each phase of new building projects and the much-anticipated City Rail Link engender major geotech assessment works, hunting for the elusive water table below the surface.

The third crucial feature is the infamous K’Road overpass, a mid-century bridge, two thirds of the way along, that was necessitated when much of the Newton suburb was chopped out to make room for motorways. As Newton was gutted, the shops lost their everyday clientele, and the bustling shopping high street - which had been very well-to-do generally, with upmarket department stores and specialist tradespeople - tipped into a holding pattern. The Great Depression had had enough of an effect on Auckland that pre-war progress itself had been faltering, (housing developments like the Espano Flats were left half-finished), and the arrival of the overpass ripped out the local trade that had sustained K’Road. Gradually the fish shops, local furniture makers and fruit n’ veg shops began retreating, along with the garment makers and upmarket / mid-market retailers. Not that K’Rd became a shell - quite the opposite. The neighbourhood became an accessible point of entry for diverse businesspeople, the LGTBQI community, as well alternative culture, music spaces, art galleries and famously of course, much of the city’s red-light scene. But money has always been in short supply here, and businesses have long struggled with stubbornly high city centre rents versus poor to middling foot traffic. The neighbourhood definitely got heavier, and K’Road acquired a ‘reputation’.

In more recent times, K’Rd has certainly adapted and grown busier, but gentrification isn’t quite the word here. Alternative shops, cafes and venues come and go (cue the famous debates over Brazil, Verona, the Lost Angel, Alleluya) but chain stores and family restaurants are mercifully absent. McDonalds vanished long ago, Starbucks was gone within a couple of years, and the nearest chain supermarket is way off in Ponsonby. Only one lonely Subway flies the flag for multinational sandwiches.

Today - and for the foreseeable - K’Road is a place of roadworks, not just for the City Rail Link, but also for a new series of pedestrian spaces and cycleways, planned to reduce vehicular traffic and hopefully add more human-scale liveliness. This makes sense, as K’Road is a place of blocks, and street corners. Bookended by the intersection with Grafton Bridge and Symonds Street on the eastern end, and at the western by a crossroads with Ponsonby Road, Newton Road and out to the Waitakere Ranges via Great North Road, K’Road - as a journey, as a pathway - tells a story of small business, personal dramas, and a culture in flux, a culture of road-building and wayfinding.

Beginning at the western end, the K’Road landscape is dominated by a vast petrol station forecourt and, on the southern side, huge empty shops and a mysteriously desolate Chinese restaurant. Behind there lies the intermittently-active historic pub, the Dogs Bollix. Down Gundry Street there’s avant-garde dance and theatre at the Old Folks Association, and luxury auctions at Art & Object. Back across the road the forecourt actually forms the weird showcase for the newly refurbished VAANA anti-nuclear peace mural from the 1980s. Down the block, on the corner of Hereford Street there’s Thai, Moroccan and Turkish food, picture framers, a long-established cobblers, and then a luxury electric car showroom and wedding dress retailer in a heritage facade mall. 

As we cross Edinburgh Street, there’s a series of brick buildings, fragile like false teeth. Little galleries, a famous 24-hour coin-operated laundry, hair salon, fancy cake shop and numerous apartments with ramshackle window-boxes and fire escapes, and the recent addition of modern apartments tacked onto the end of the block. In scale it works, though time will tell if there's true integration on this corner.

One empty unit next to the bottle shop was once home to the famous K’Rd dolly hospital; recent renovations unearthed lots of little pairs of eyes between the floorboards. Back on the northern face of the road, two nightlife institutions in the form of the Thirsty Dog pub and the Caluzzi drag venue and restaurant abut the Merge cafe, home of outreach services and affordable meals in the neighbourhood. At the end of the block, a bleak office building of estate agents and payday loan sharks look out over the motorways towards Hopetoun bridge and the Harbour bridge.

The overpass has long-blighted K’Rd - a determined stretch of nothingness, just anonymous bus stops and high, grimy perspex anti-suicide walls on either side. Contemporary urban design is certainly cheering it up, showcasing the views of the harbour to the north and Mt Eden to the south, and this remodelling does perhaps lend it a sense of expansiveness, excitement even. In one direction it’s the ramp that leads you up towards the west, and to the sun. In the other direction, the overpass ushers you down into the delights of the main drag.

K’Road properly accelerates at this point, past the overpass, heading east. Here there’s a cluster of forward-thinking independent contemporary restaurant / bars (including one that has joined forces with a backpackers to remake the notorious Rising Sun pub) that have made this segment of the street buzzing. So much so that many nights of the week it’s the saner and classier alternative to the east end.  Meanwhile for less bourgeois tastes, there’s famed Malaysian food, sex toys, gaming bars and an old fashioned family-run superette, still resolutely stocking ciggies, chippies, huge tins of dog food and jazz mags. Further along towards East St the army surplus store has finally given up the ghost and the strip club / brothel is now a backpackers, but a high-end ‘rough luxe’ antique furniture and homewares store is doing a fine trade, near to Ivan Anthony and Artspace galleries. Down East Street, past the needle exchange, is the famed dance hall on Galatos Street, a weekend backpackers vehicle market, an electric bike retailer, and a desolate church beginning the transition into - one assumes - hipster cafes and co-working spaces.  

We arrive at K’Road’s elbow - on the northern side marked by Samoa House - anonymous from the frontage, but with a huge fale-style meeting space and venue inside, plus tenants including theatre companies and an art library. South Indian street food and craft beer is nearby, and across the road is a potent mix of haute cuisine, karaoke and head shop -  a far cry from the fish and chips of yesteryear. The elbow is also deep rainbow in flavour, with Family, Saloon Saloon and Eagle all flying the flag. 

By now we’re at the business end of K’Road, at the unholy crossroads with Pitt Street and Mercury Lane, watched over by countless CCTV cameras. This lopsided spot has as much of a quick-draw pioneer town atmosphere as when it was traipsed over by muddy boots and horses. The old Naval and Family edifice still stands - today a strip joint and gaming lounge - to some minds the precise opposite of a community space, to others perhaps its pure epitome. The huge awnings are actually a modern addition - originally the pub’s exterior was open to the elements, to discourage loiterers from waiting for a cheeky beer to appear at the window. Next door there’s a Japanese-fusion restaurant with an extraordinary example of stained glass hidden in their rear courtyard. The greatest view of the crossroads is still from what was once an entrance of the Mercury Theatre, then Norman Ng’s veg shop, and latterly cafe Brazil (then a long, long list of modestly attended places), which looks straight across K’Road towards the shapely door of the Pitt St Methodist Church. The Indian vegetarian place there now offers a sunny vantage place on the street, and within, a recently renewed stain glass ceiling that’s a showstopper; perhaps Auckland’s most exquisite place for an onion bhaji. 

On the corner of K and Mercury, The George Court building is one of the handful of properly great architectural legacies on K’Road - although as a mere department store it has always been commercial rather than artistic. Today it is predominantly apartments, with a series of eclectic shops (vintage guitars, Chinese remedies, tattoos) in a foyer that boasts a grand staircase.  On the eastern corner of K and Pitt one era of menswear (the three-piece suit) has been finally eclipsed by another (the pastel t-shirt combo) as Leo O’Malley’s has finally hung up the trilby.

Grander - certainly more glazed - than George Court, the La Gonda Arcade is a gorgeous piece of architecture, sunny and a tad glam. Today it’s home to designers, jewellery makers, photographers and, on the ground floor, charity shops and burger flippers. Nearby the long-standing Indian vegetarian restaurant Rasoi - site of a thousand thought-provoking masala dosa’s - has finally ridden off into the sunset, yet the Little Turkish Cafe burns on relentlessly, their greasy late night offerings ingrained in the K’Road culture.  This is the bustling side of the street - charity and vintage shops, record and book shops, retro photography gear, incense, Indian grocery shops and the mighty St Kevin’s Arcade. The latter is today a place of perpetual commercial to and fro-ing - successive landlords and successive tenants rock back and forth robustly between competing visions. Is there case for maintaining a grungy stasis - represented by legendary live music joints Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar - or is upmarket hospitality the winning direction? The present oversupply of food businesses - and the attendant storage, waste and transport issues they generate - certainly does smaller shops no favours, and their turnover means the arcade has an uneasy edge of impermanence, with little encouragement to browse or linger. Multiple empty windows is never a good look.

On a good day, a quiet day preferably, the St Kevin’s cafe is radiant and vibrant with a view into the city, over Myers Park. On a bad day this neck of the woods can also be the feral heart of K’Road. Many people live out their lives on the street, some down on their luck, others sheltering from some personal crisis, others in the grip of the bottle or the pipe. And some, certainly, on the lam. On Karangahape Road the flashpoints of social maladies are there for everyone to see, often at surprising times - the fist-fighting women falling out of a pub doorway at 2 in the afternoon, the sudden dash of a shoplifter, the streetwalker screaming into her handbag, the brain-fried alcoholic with bloody knuckles and nose, stumbling past a bus stop, after yet another day of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. The national economic squeeze comes to the surface here, and many of K’Road's local gentry must live in doorways, in cars and under trees.

Across from St Kevin’s and Myers Park, K’Road is dominated by the magnificent old Rendells department store, where the upstairs is today accommodation for workers at the Lim Chhour supermarket below. Past the eclectic food court (roast pork on rice, luxury burgers, wholesome Thai, a store trading Manuka honey and sheep placenta products), this family business is presently the only supermarket on K’Road, with the recent demise of the Mercury Plaza making way for the City Rail Link station works. Lim Chhour is the concept of the supermarket through the looking glass. Everything that is discreetly concealed in western supermarkets is richly, pungently on parade here. A display of past-expiry fruit and veg, packets of lung, feet, and chicken skin by the kilo, the rich, sickly aroma of the dorian fruit in summer. The pharmaceuticals aisle specialises in remedies from Thailand and Hong Kong, and the selection of teas, snacks and cookies is vast. Tread carefully AS the floor boasts a good percentage of broken tiles, left broken in situ for years. Lim Chhour also offers one of two ‘skywalk’ footbridges to the Cross Street carpark, making for a disjointed journey for drivers to the area (little wonder you rarely see folk with prams shopping in K’Road.)

The loud Ironbank building caused a stir on construction - it’s certainly the most overt attempt to render K’Road as one giant mixed message - but it has grown into the neighbourhood, despite still occasionally struggling to find tenants willing to pay the rent demanded. The interior courtyard that leads through to Cross Street would be a great, lively space if only it had a good coffee shop. As it is, this is a bit of a wintry corridor - albeit one with an intriguing skyward view.

The Queen Street intersection is dominated on one side by the appalling ANZ bank, and the intensely banal corner of shops and offices constructed in recent years by the Baptist church. The other side features both the old Westpac building (now barely an ATM) and a site that used to home the ASB bank and a famously agricultural dentist. This intersection feels like a vintage example of Auckland landbanking; sites held onto merely for long-term accrual, squatted on by institutions ostensibly for the good of their flock, or their customers, but perhaps more realistically for their shareholders and board members. When the time is right, surely this end of Queen Street / K’Road will feature Newmarket-style mega-malls and parking lots. It’s a waste of a brilliant view downhill, and yet another entry in Auckland’s catalogue of crying shames.

Further east is the afterthought end of K’Road; with few destinations to linger and interact with people, these final couple of hundred metres seem to sit and stare as you pass by, a mute and poignant thoroughfare. There’s a chain store musical retailer in a ramshackle block of shops with a little turret, relatively unchanged over the years. There used to be a large wedding dress showroom here, next to the Jewish cemetery end; presently there’s a wall showing regularly updated murals of dear departed rockers. Over the road is a blighted corner of small shops - takeaways, dairy, etc - although there is life in the studio of a long-established fine tailor, and the redoubtable Ken yakitori restaurant.

The very final northern ridge block of K’Road is as funereal as the southern (which is at least blessed with quizzical sculpture). Remnants of 1980’s hotel buildings and carparks squander an area that was once home to a large windmill. With no imagination or care for street life the development can only muster a smart Portuguese bakery to create the faintest hint of a scene. Homeless men slump with cardboard boxes, sandwiches and glue bags. The last stop for them, and Karangahape ridge walkers alike, is the Grafton cemetery, tumbling down the hill to the motorway. 

Historic, gothic, dank, this bookend of K’Road is a treat for the senses. At least until the sun sets. Intrepid travellers can then carry onwards from here via vertiginous Grafton Bridge to the hospital, and to Grafton, Newmarket and the eastern suburbs.

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