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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

A place to belong Print E-mail

Photo by Dean Purcell
For some the choice to live in a particular area has more to do with philosophy than proximity to the workplace. Alan Perrott visits three Auckland communities where neighbourhood watch takes on a whole new meaning.




















Real communities are obvious and there are more of them dotted around Auckland than you might realise. Hidden in plain sight, these discrete little pockets enable lifestyles that aren’t quite the same as what goes on further along the road. Mostly they just keep their heads down and get on with loving where they live, which isn’t to say they have found nirvana, because real communities always react in a real way. Enjoying a similar lifestyle to the bloke next door doesn’t guarantee you’d enjoy sharing a cup of tea. Csnvsd has visited three such communities. Each is as unique from opthers as they are from the rest of Auckland and each has developed for different reasons. Out west we found one built on intellectual idealism; to the east, life is dictated by geography; while down south spiritual values battle on.

Doug Armstrong by Brett Phibbs
Karaka Bay

It doesn’t take long to identify the Karaka Bay stayers. Not that there’s anything unwelcome in the greeting you may get from these Glendowie residents, it’s all down to ther attitude to their footpath. The steep, twisting pathway leading down from their Peacock Street parking area is the only way in or out of this historic beach-front community. Everything from mail to new fridges and old rubbish must make the journey, no matter the conditions. On a good day it’s a boon as the noise of suburbia makes way for the sounds of the sea with every tree-lined step. But on a bad day … that’s when some start thinking about jacking it in.

“It usually sorts people out within six months,” says one of the longest residents, former surgeon Joan Chapple. “A lot of people have strong emotional connections to Karaka Bay, it’s a beautiful place to live, but life isn’t always comfortable. It’s very different to the rest of the area, you’re forced to deal with the weather and the tides  and the fact of the walkway.”

Not to mention each other. Everyone knows everyone’s business down here.

But even if the footpath is often cursed, it is also blessed. If getting here was any easier, the 10 homes and seaside gardens squeezed into this sliver of urban bach-lifde would have succumbed to developers long ago.

So instead of identicalk town houses the 20 or so residents wke up in homes where elements of the baches from which they have grown still show through. Well, there is one flash-Harry home which was rudely plonked on top of a charming old relic, but the people here seem to cope by ignoring it. That’s how life is, you do what you must to get along. It’s a fairly eclectic community made up of doctors, scholars and artists. Most have been here for decades, but they all profess a deep love for the bay and a different story for how they found it.

“It might sound a bit arrogant, but intellectally, it’s quite a high-powered little hamlet,” says Doug Armstrong, former Unitech CEO and current Auckland Cit councillor.

The tiny bay was his favourite childhood haunt when growing up in Kohimaramara so when, in 1976, he saw some building going on, he lept at the chance to buy the last empty property.

“I saw building work and thought”you can buy property here? This is where I want to live. And we’ve been here since. Other people have their own idea of what goes on, but we’re not a group of alternative lifestylers, it’s a group of successful, qualified people who have chosen to live in an area that’s different from the rest of Auckland. Take the walkway, that’s such a defining characteristic, it means that we’re all clustered together and we’re almost forced to interact because we have to walk past each other’s houses every day. That’s created a sort of community really. But it doesn’t suit everyone, most of us can look back on the days when we built our homes and lugged things down the hill in wheelbarrows. It’s not easy.”

With all those individualists and egos squashed together, it’s no surprise that as communities go, this one can be as odd as its roots are old – even if its oddest, hell-raising velvet artist, Charles McPhee, is long gone. For starters, Karaka Bay had a long history of Maori occupation, chiefs of the Ngati Paoa assembled on the beach twice in 1840 to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, an occasion now marked by a broken water fountain. then it became an isolated holiday spot for Aucklanders in the days when Glendowie was considered out-of-town, a sleepy status which allowed what long term resident, former university lecturer and slf-styled pot-stirrer Tony Watkins calls “slow growth”.

First, holidaymakers built simple structures – such as the boat shed still standing on his property – that became social meeting points, then baches began to appear. These slowly evolved into proper, if unorthodox, homes for proper, if unorthodox, people and for a short time, one very large pig. Changes becomes noticeable only after years, not months.

Watkins settled in the bay 40 years ago after creating two maps, one showing his ideal locaions and the other showing areas where development would always be difficult. Karaka Bay topped his shortlist of people sharing each.

“The stories here go way back to our earliest history, they attract the people who come here, fall in love with it, and want to keep those stories going – the children’s swing used to be the drying net for sprats and maybe that mattere or maybe it doesn’t, but it’s fantastic to know the story. Karaka Bay also attracts people who only see potential and want to change everything to fit in their own view of how things should be. That’s about control, but Karaka Bay, at its best, is about not having control, it’s about diversity, uniqueness and eccentricity. Social life is reinvented with every party and every battle that is fought is fought hard. If you want safe, secure and mediocre, you’ll have to look somewhere else. This is a place where you can feel alive. I’d like the whole world to be like Karaka Bay.”


All text by Alan Perrott

Published in the Canvas supplement to the New Zealand Herald 30 August 2008











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