The narrow streets and lanes a block back from Auckland’s main street were once renowned for their bohemian flavour. Now, as big-name retailers are lured away to posher precincts, High St and its environs are changing once again.
From his tiny High St booth, with its stainless-steel backside nudged into Freyberg Square, coffee guru Neil Morris doesn't miss much. Behind him, The Chancery's polystyrene chic is dwarfed by the looming Metropolis. Back-street foot traffic comes from all directions, watched over by a bronzed Lord Freyberg.
Morris' retro-shiny Johnny Wray's coffee kiosk is pretty much smack in the middle of the back-street zone. High St runs parallel to Auckland's main drag, Queen St, where banks ask customers to remove hats, helmets and hoods, buskers try their luck, and the council scratches its head and tries, yet again, to make the spaces between the office towers more enticing.
Across the road from Morris' booth is one of High St's shabbiest buildings. And perched above is one of the street's bodgiest-looking anagrams: the letters, taken from the giant Paris Texas (the building's previous tenant) sign, now spell The Snake Pit, thanks to a little doctoring and the odd letter turned upside down.
The building's Hong Kong-based owner once had resource consent for a nine-storey building on the site. That's since lapsed and she's letting a bunch of idealistic young artists and fashion designers squat in the building. Sam Thomas (22) and his sister Rosey (19), former Steiner School kids, are running the show.
Rosey was at uni doing science but she quit when The Snake Pit happened. Now, with other young designers, she runs a clothing boutique, Luck/House, at street level. In the space behind, a bunch of artists and students experiment in a jumble of work spaces, producing the clever, creative and downright weird.
Upstairs, Sam and fellow Elam art student James Wylie, 22, run The Snake Pit's gallery. They mount a new exhibition every fortnight - twice as often as other galleries. Says James: "We act under a sense of urgency because we never know what's going to happen with the building."
On cold days, it's chilly inside. The Snakepitters can afford to keep the lights on, but there's no money for heating. Their business plan is virtually non-existent.
"It's not about being in business," Rosey says of Luck/House. "It's more about people having a platform to do what they want in clothes and jewellery."
Rosey makes her clothes on-site - clear polyester waterproof party dresses with pretty lime and aqua tulle underneath. Elam design student Steven Park, 20, makes gloves, working from his tiny apartment in Nelson St. Meanwhile, 20-year-old fashion student Anthea Hayley is knitting a T-shirt on her mother's big, old wooden needles, mixing
alpaca and wool with synthetic fibres. She, too, is idealistic. "It's about production in High St, not in China."
As we talk, a long-time High St resident pops in to see Rosey to lend her a large book on the work of Spanish designer Balenciaga. Rosey accepts the book with the expression of someone who has been handed an ancient treasure.
The man, an architect, disappears upstairs to look at the latest exhibition. It takes him back, he says, to another age when High St was "bohemian", full of young fashion and film people, architects and owner-operated boutiques. Then the rents went up, and the clothing chains and big-name designers moved in.
What does he think of the Snake Pit?
"Well, it's off the wall," he grins. "They're all young and goofy." The admiration is evident is his voice. "A lot of the art is good."
On Friday nights, Sam and James double as bouncers in the gloomy basement below street level. Jowly Auckland baby boomers will remember this big, black hole as the elegant Club Mirage and, later, The Box. Emerald Gilmour, who ran Club Mirage in the early 80s, recalls selling champagne for $25 a bottle and kicking up her heels on the Saturday Night Fever-style dance-floor.
The dress code was "no blue jeans" and clients rang a doorbell at street level. Now young bands play, loudly, and, because it has no liquor licence, teenagers can come to hear music.
Across the road, Morris is putting on a show for his customers - non-stop patter as he hand-pulls the piston down on his seven-bean mix.
He knows the names of the council workers, street-sweepers and the regulars who pass by. Not so long ago, Morris would have been serving a very different sort of clientele. Long-time High St fashion labels such as World have gone, lured down to the swanky Britomart precinct where they rub labels with the likes of Trelise Cooper Boardroom, Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester and Zambesi.
One local landlord laments that the deals down at Britomart were "pretty attractive" to the big names. They were "encouraged heavily" to leave, he says.
The spaces left by mainstream businesses sucked downtown or to suburban malls are quickly filled by pop-ups - shops that don't look like they are staying long. A Korean shop in High St, next to "funkstore" Cosmic, sells fake furs and advertises "New Arrives" in the window. Those who have managed to hang on are more likely to be the street's "bottom-dwellers", who operate out of space below street level.
Down a set of steep stairs is Ute Bohnert, who's been selling new and recycled designer clothing for 17 years. If the Koreans' fake fur doesn't do it, Ute will sell you Ferragamo, Prada, Marilyn Sainty and Catherine Malandrino for only a fraction of their original eye-watering prices.
Ute says landlords are "killing the place" by hiking up the rents. Referring to some of the new imports at High St level she asks: "How are the Asians surviving? I only survive because I'm in the cellar."
Vault co-owner Sarah Solaris has been underground for even longer. She and her husband Philip started their gift shop 21 years ago, when rents were low and they could afford the luxury of holding student exhibitions. Now, though 70 per cent of their stock is still made here, they're "competing with China".
Further along, in Lorne St, is a large Taiwanese bakery, La Couronne, that started life as the Good Luck Bakery in Royal Oak. Then it went upmarket, changed its name and moved to town. Here, chefs turn out a vast array of goodies, each individually wrapped. In a strange combination of Taiwanese-treats-meet-French-patisserie, lunch shoppers can choose between green-bean moon cake or chocolate eclairs, all under metres of cellophane.
It's this very eclectic mix that makes the back streets enchanting. Walk a little further up Lorne St, cut up through Khartoum Place with its Women's Suffrage Memorial, and the acclaimed new Auckland Art Gallery oozes fine urban design. In the cafe earlier this year, diners choose items off the menu named after artworks in the Degas to Dali exhibition.
Down in the other direction, in Fort Lane, developers have created hidden, uber-cool spaces, with the help of $16 million and whizz-kid architects Fearon Hay, in the Victorian-era Imperial buildings.
Two old theatres, abandoned after fire ripped through them in the 1950s, have been transformed into a collection of suave restaurants and chic spaces where the smart set can read the Herald and soak up the free wifi on their laptops.
Imperial Lane co-owner Ross Healy says his company inherited the glamour stores on Queen St - Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Michael Hill - as tenants from previous owners AMP, but the makeover in the space behind was unusable "so we ripped the lot out".
Although Imperial Lane's transformation cost a stash of money, Healy and his co-owners think the investment will be worth it. He hopes other back-street landlords will follow their lead. Auckland's back-street charm is worth preserving, he says. A century ago, the streets were narrow, the buildings low and close to the street.
"You end up with these intimate areas that, if you're walking round any old city in the world, you gravitate to. It's human-scale."
- From The Magazine featured in the September 10 new-look New Zealand Herald.