Ponsonby Civil Wars

By   /   August 15, 2014  /   7 Comments

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Hostilities have broken out in tree-lined Franklin Road, Ponsonby and may spread throughout the region.

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Hostilities have broken out in tree-lined Franklin Road, Ponsonby and may spread throughout the region.  New Zealand Herald reporter Bernard Orsman broke the story on July 24 (‘Big names in Franklin Rd fight’).  Multi-million property developer, Michael Friedlander, and QC Marie Dyhrberg want the Council’s Unitary Plan to allow the removal of eight villas for more intensive development.  Aggrieved residents include media couple, Bill Ralston and Janet Wilson, Arts commentator Hamish Keith and his partner the acclaimed costume designer Ngila Dickinson, and Franklin Road Chief Spokesperson Ross Thorby.  The latter figure owns a chandelier installation and restoration business and organises the street’s annual Christmas light display.  Their concern is that the top and bottom ends of Franklin Road will be re-zoned from ‘single house residential’ to ‘mixed housing urban’.  Bill Ralston states that ‘commercial creep’ will threaten Franklin Rd’s character and community.  Hamish Keith opines that ‘he has never lived in a street where there is such a sense of community’. For Michael Friedlander, re-zoning the land for intensified development accords with the Council’s goal to increase housing supply.  Marie Dyhrberg notes that the villas in question should be developed as a whole to ‘better serve the property and local community’.

On August 3, Sunday Herald columnist Bernard Hickey threw a grenade at the warring factions (‘Rich and Comfortable Must Make Way for Young and Poor’).  He declared that ‘the missing voice in these fights is the voice of the young and poor who are locked out of home ownership in Auckland by the restrictions and infrastructure fees on development – both out and up – that are stifling the drive for more housing consents’.  In this regard, Hickey inferred that Franklin Rd’s villa protection faction were NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).  At this point, bombs went off everywhere.  On Twitter, supporters of Ralston’s position hurled insults at Hickey.  On Cameron Salter’s Whale Oil, guest blogger Cactus Kate called Hickey’s piece ‘emotive nonsense’ and proposed her own solution to the housing affordability problem, ‘more homes need to be built in Auckland in areas where land is less expensive and there is more space’.  The young and poor should not expect to live in an ‘exclusive inner city suburb that is within walking distance to town’.  Those wanting to live close to town at low prices were advised to ‘buy an inner city apartment’ (‘Houses for Everyone – the Continued Delusion of Bernard Hickey’, August 4).  At the time of writing, hostilities continue with no end in sight. My own position can be simply put; a plague on all their houses (so to speak).  The Friedlander/Dyhrberg and Ralston/Thorby factions, Bernard Hickey and Cactus Kate all miss a larger historical picture.

So… let me start with a few recollections.  In 1979, I arrived in Auckland from Christchurch to take up a secondary school teaching position.  My first stable residence was 4 Franklin Rd, a large two-storied house near the top with a turret overlooking the Harbour.  My ten or so flatmates were a moving assemblage of students, nurses, artists, writers, social workers and the like.  A left-liberal bohemian culture prevailed.  We belonged to an inner city food co-operative; visitors from Coromandel communes were not uncommon.  Large and loud parties at our residence, and at others, affirmed the strong community spirit.  I cannot recall any Christmas lighting displays.  The turret was a favoured location for hedonistic pastimes and intimate encounters.  The Gluepot, on Ponsonby Rd, was a live music mecca – gigs from Hello Sailor, Rick Bryant, Street Talk, The Swingers, Sheerlux, Toy Love, and Midnight Oil remain in the memory.  On Easter Monday 1980, our flat migrated to Western Springs for Bob Marley and the Wailers.  I also have sad memories of the time; an older Ponsonby culture was dying.  Working class pubs disappeared.  At the bottom of Franklin Rd, the Rob Roy made way for the Birdcage.  The Suffolk on College Hill was eventually replaced by the Cavalier.  Downstairs at the Gluepot, the public bars became lounge bars (before the institution itself disappeared).  The Unemployed Rights Centre on Ponsonby Rd closed.  An older generation of Māori and Polynesian families were slowly pushed out to Otara, Mangere ,and Manurewa by the agents of gentrification – banks, property developers, and upper middle class professionals looking to construct a hip, cosmopolitan valhalla of do-up villas, restaurants, cafes, bars and boutique shopping.  Before my Auckland arrival, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn were home territories for the Polynesian Panthers, the Headhunters and the King Cobras.  Their sense of community, one imagines, was no less cohesive, than that of their successors.

Since leaving Ponsonby, a new wave of gentrification has swept through.   Villas worth two to three hundred thousand in the 1980s now go for seven figures and up. Seller windfalls mean higher entry costs for new buyers.  The seriously wealthy are squeezing the upper middle class.  Meanwhile, as Auckland’s population grows, city authorities seek to lessen suburban sprawl and intensify residential development closer to the city centre.  Low-to-medium rise apartments and improved public transport systems are now imperative.  In this environment, overseas investors, developers and their local cohorts are looking to exploit the new Unitary Plan zoning regulations.  The likes of Ralston, Wilson, Thorby, Keith and Dickinson thus appear as a beleaguered minority defending community values.  Friedlander’s claim that re-zoning allowances will increase Auckland’s housing supply is of course nonsense.  His investment priorities are up-scale apartments and commercial amenities.  The so-called NIMBYs on Franklin Rd and elsewhere are well-meaning, but blind to the ironies of history.  After third wave gentrification, the commercial greed of Unitary Plan manipulation will destroy the fragile aesthetics of Christmas light displays.  The sense of community involved is threatened by the same profit-seeking imperatives that displaced earlier communities.  Hickey’s position also denies history.  When younger and poorer families were, in fact, resident in Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and Freeman’s Bay, there were available jobs nearby; in light manufacturing, on the wharves, at Auckland Hospital and thriving ribbon shopping centres – Symonds St, Newton, Grafton, Karangahape, Ponsonby and Great North Roads, etc (before motorways and shopping malls).   In the 1950s and 1960s, rentals were cheap, unions were stronger, and overtime pay rates gave disposable income to multicultural working class families.  All of this has now gone.  In today’s harsh economic environment, allowing more inner-suburb building consents for low income housing construction will not work in isolation.

The nationwide realities of social inequality and wealth concentration need to be confronted across all policy fronts; taxation, union rights, employment creation, health, education and transport infrastructures.  As for Cactus Kate, her solution bespeaks the underlying prejudices of first wave gentrification.  The inner city suburbs belong to us, keep the riff-raff in the poor outer suburbs, where they belong.

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  1. Lara says:

    So Cactus Kate thinks poor and young people should not expect to live close to where they work. She tells them they must endure long commutes on public transport, or in cars in gridlock to then pay exorbitant inner city parking prices.

    Nice one. Only the rich get to have comfort. The poor can suffer the effects of increasing population density.

  2. My early 90s memories of Ponsonby in this era are coloured by memories of whatever it was that used to be on the site where you’ve now got the apartment block and New World supermarket. Some brick building maybe? I remember anarchist graffiti down the side of it – presumably from the College Hill crusties at the anarcho-punk live venue and pseudo-commune which is now an auto repair place for late model European cars.

    I particularly recall one instance where they’d written ‘Grunge Hippies Must Die’ in letters about 3 feet high down the side of the wall. That’s the Franklin Road I knew. Now Bill Ralston lives there, proudly displaying a National Party billboard on his fence.

    • mark says:

      The housing shortage is being used as tactic to remove heritage protection in Auckland in the pursuit of profit rather than anything to do what the local community wants or needs.

      But hey its Auckland who gives a shit. *sarcasm*

      @Cemetery Jones – where the New World is located now, used to be the old Auckland Gas Works gas tanks, which where in ruins in the 80/90s. See the below link.


    • Groucho Marxist says:

      And Janet Wilson dresses very liberal/casual in the photo when compared to the rightie PR trout outfit that she wore when she was trying to discredit Hager on the Paul Henry show.

      Ralston and Wilson make a lot more noise when it is their own rights and freedoms being threatened.

  3. Tiger Mountain says:

    Ponsonby was ok in the 70s early 80s but never enough parking and garages for us V8 boys to live there, good party place though before it went yuppie (still an active term out West). Ivans was an actual eating house not a poncery.

    Know what Wayne is talking about and it is interesting to see the new unwanted strata includes dear Hamish Keith. Tony Fomison used to live there as did all sorts of local treasures and eccentrics.

    When whole areas can be turned inside out like Waterview and developers commit socio ethnic cleansing as in Glen Innes for a glimpse of water one has to be very careful if you have the luxury of choosing; where to settle.

    But yes heritage status and community need are sure up for grabs.

  4. Dean Parker says:

    I’ve lived in and around Ponsonby for forty years or so. Ten years of that was spent dossing around from flat to flat. The last 30 years has been in Vermont St, which is the sort of western extension of Franklin Rd and the holiest street in Auckland with a mosque, a flagellants’ nunnery, a Catholic church, an old priests’ home and flats for Holy Cross seminarians. I live in a crumbling dwelling bought for $48,000 with a 3% Housing Corp loan. Next door are the local Housing Corp flats, generally visited by the cops once a week, and recently transformed by a tenant who’s a bit like that bloke in Ronald Morrieson’s PREDICAMENT who was building a strange, tapering tower out of timber off-cuts in his front yard. But in this case he’s turned his front lawn into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Over the road is an old family house where three brothers used to live until they died off, one by one. Four students now rent it. One of them called over some time ago. I know his father who’s an organiser with the EPMU. Up the road is an old place whose basement car port has been walled in to extend accommodation and which has always had Pacific Islanders in it as long as I can remember. Further up is a ramshackle place that’s still the city base for a group of Coromandel hippies. On the other side lives an old Dalmatian who used to run his radiator repair workshop from out front when the street was semi-industrial. He had an engine-hoist there. In his shed at the back he has framed portraits of Michael Joseph Savage and Norm Kirk. Further up, over the road again, is the family home of an old artistic lady who used to do pamphlet deliveries. Her son Wally lives with her. He used to help out in the radiator repair place.
    The big day in Vermont St is bin day, Wednesday. Wally from up the road wakes early, dons a high-vis jacket, a hat and big gloves and heads out into the street. There he meets up with his newly-recruited right-hand man from the Housing Corps flats who too has a high-vis jacket. They proceed to line up all the bins in the street, awaiting the garbos. When the garbos arrive in their big trucks the Housing Corp tenants line up with great jollity and cheer Wally and his helper on, and as the bins are hoisted up and emptied we all raise our arms in unison and cheer. Hurrah! Bin day!
    Germs of old Ponsonby live on, like the plague bacillus.

  5. Dean Parker says:

    While I’m in the mood, now I’ve opened another bottle, let me write more of Vermont St. Over the road from us is a small park. A century ago it used to be an orchard. The orchard owners lived in the old house that still stands beside it; they bequeathed the land to the city council, when people used to do that sort of thing. Community bonfire nights used to take place there on Nov 5; health and safety regulations put an end to that in the 1980s. Further up from the park are the remains of the old Marist school. It was a public hospital during the big flu epidemic of 1919. A number of the nursing nuns there contracted the flu from their patients and died. Crossing over the road, beside the mosque, is a long driveway to an old off-street family house. This was owned by trade unionist Frank Barnard’s family and was used as an illegal meat depot during the 1951 waterfront lock-out. Just down from Frank Barnard’s was a technical school that produced more kiwi league internationals than any other in the country. Carrying on down to the Housing Corps flats, the great stone retaining wall beside the flats—part of my backyard—was clearly put in place in the 1930s by the same depression labour that did all the stonework at Western Springs. Coming up to more recent times, on the wooden fence outside the flats is a bronze plaque to one of the tenants, Peter Varley, an actor who died in the 1990s and “trod the boards, lit up the screen and played Lust’s hand-maiden rather well.” And over the road on a concrete block wall is another plaque, commemorating the phone jack there, the last phone jack attended by a lineman named Steve Green “before being laid off by bloody Telecom when it was privatised.”