Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Rudman's city: Tinkle of laughter on a city corner

By BRIAN RUDMAN

Who said bureaucrats don't have a sense of humour?

Yesterday I joined a select group at the corner of Victoria St and Albert St for the unveiling of an Auckland City plaque commemorating an illegally planted tree.

Under the heading "The Harvey Tree," the tongue-in-cheek bronze tribute from his old sparring partners captures perfectly the irreverent attitude the late property magnate Les Harvey had towards officialdom.

"This Oriental Plane tree, propagated from one beside a Montmartre pissoir, was planted by adjacent landowner Les Harvey.

"Appropriate sustenance for the young tree was provided by Mr Harvey and his family from time to time."

Mr Harvey was the more acceptable face of development in the 50 years up to his death in 1994 - a time development was too often synonymous with demolition.

He built his multimillion-dollar property empire by renovating old Auckland and, when that was too late, by trying to recreate it.

Best remembered for his colonial-Disneyland rebuild of decaying Parnell, his hundreds of properties included addresses throughout the inner city and across to Ponsonby.

He was also something of a storyteller. Which will become apparent as this little tale unwinds.

A few years before his death, Mr Harvey and George Farrant, Auckland City heritage manager, were walking past the tree in question when the developer turned to the bureaucrat and said: "I planted that bastard."

He continued the story in a nearby cafe: how in his youth he'd lived on the edges of the Paris Bohemian set, Jean Paul Sartre, Henry Miller, the lot. Great days.

Much later in the 1960s, he said, one of his old Parisian friends, now a New Zealand diplomat back in Paris, sent him a memento via diplomatic bag.

Delicately wrapped in moist tissue was a tree cutting and a note telling Mr Harvey he would well remember the parent tree. It was one he queued alongside so many times in former days.

Mr Harvey said the note told him to plant it in a spot he loved and to give it a little bit of what it was used to.

Wife Zena, and his three children, Tom, Nancy and Kevin, were smilingly non-committal about this story yesterday, but they all agree that one day in the late 1960s or early 1970s, Les took it upon himself, without consulting the council, to dig a hole in the busy central city pavement and plant a tree.

Mr Harvey told Mr Farrant that he had bought the corner property and called it Martha's Corner in honour of a famed madam of the Depression years. She had spent the profits from her upstairs brothel on the site in running a soup kitchen for the destitute down below.

In an interview before he died, he recalled the corner was also a popular haunt on his way to and from school.

"The old Maori ladies with their moko used to sit in the street smoking their pipes and selling kumara plants, and, in season, mission peaches.

"The earthy smell of the kumara and the sweet ripe peaches and the tobacco smoke ... Oh, it was marvellous." He took them fresh blackberries from Cox's Creek and they gave him their over-ripe peaches.

What the children do remember clearly is being involved in regular pruning sessions as the tree grew.

Mr Farrant remembers during the 1970s and 1980s noticing an "insane-looking, ball-shaped tree clipped into a perfect sphere with a trunk hanging out the bottom." Somehow council officers let it be.

And presumably no one caught Mr Harvey, late at night, carrying out the watering instructions.

Today the tree is well above verandah height and is no longer trimmed. Tom, the gardener in the family, still visits to spread fertiliser. But after all these years the council seems ready to adopt it as one of its own.

A city arborist has declared it "not happy." To nurse it to good health, the city plans to open up the surrounding footpath, and give it a good feed and a prune.

As to the tree's true parentage, Mr Farrant is not too fussed. Since he heard Mr Harvey's version, he can't walk past the tree without a smile. He hopes the plaque will have the same effect on others.

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