High St is a treasure trove of historic buildings, intimate businesses and city memories. At this year's Auckland Writers Festival it will play host to Walk on High, a sampling of festival talent and a chance for patrons to take a stroll through a range of literary experiences.

The street's origins lie in its role as a service lane for workmen and workshops. From the 1860s the area was home to publishing and printing houses, and the Queen's Ferry and Occidental hotels in Vulcan Lane became favourite haunts of writers and journalists. Today the street is alive with small businesses, increasing numbers of cafes and recently a large construction site remaking Freyberg Place.

It's this history and intimacy that attracted festival programme co-ordinator Susanna Andrew and her team to base their free event there, on the evening of Friday, May 18.

"I originally looked at K Rd, because it's such an iconic street, but these sorts of things do need to be contained, and we couldn't contain it up on K Rd," Andrew says. "I went down to High St later that day and I suddenly saw the compactness of it, and its literary connections."

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There will be a variety of 15-minute sessions at venues along the street.

At the northern end of the street is the historic Hotel DeBrett, where festival-goers will be treated to a performance of a scene from Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, based on its opening lines: "The twelve men congregated in the smoking-room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met."

The Hotel De Brett.
The Hotel De Brett.

Just up the street is the subterranean Michael Holmes Optometrist, where poets will perform live, but in the dark. At Trainers, now a shoe shop but once home to Alfie's, an Auckland nightclub icon in the 1980s frequented by the gay community and underage drinkers, spoken word artists Randa, Simone Kaho, Rewa Worley and Tourettes will be sharing their work.

"High St has a whole series of bunkers and underground spaces - it's very Victorian," Andrew says.

Further up the street, eighthirty Coffee Roasters will host a multimedia event, at which writers will discuss projected images they have taken at either 8.30 am or pm, based on the theme of "things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape", a quote by festival guest Teju Cole. And, nearby, a "Couture Karaoke" session will be held in vintage clothing shop Tango, hosted by Jess Holly Bates.

The Occidental.
The Occidental.

Other features of the event are a series of literary-themed shop windows decorated by Elam graduate Theo Macdonald, and pop-up performances of the Walk on High Choir.

"We want to fill this little street up with words and take books outside the festival at the Aotea Centre," says Andrew.

"It should be a really nice start to the weekend and will 'bookend' the festival."

Here, three of the writers involved in the Walk on High event share their thoughts on and memories of High St:

POET IAN WEDDE

Launches his Selected Poems collection at the festival

"As a student [in the 1960s] I ate Tony's cheap pasta with butter and garlic in Khartoum Place and was aware of the senior writers hanging out in Vulcan Lane at the Queen's Ferry, but that was about it. Over the years on visits I saw High St become one of a very few that began to edge Auckland out of the one-main-street small-town model (a work in progress).

"These days I like the bustle, the cheap Asian food, and of course Unity Books. Between 1992 and 1997 there was Teststrip, the artist-run space that defined artist-run spaces; more recently The Snakepit where Paris Texas used to be, now demolished, a demise as inevitable as the rising rents that hasten the embourgeoisement of funky little streets."

Poet Dominic Hoey, aka Tourettes. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Poet Dominic Hoey, aka Tourettes. Photo / Jason Oxenham

LANA LOPESI

A writer and critic based in Auckland, and the founding editor of #500words

"When I was in my third year of art school, I apprenticed at a tattoo shop on High St. It was fairly new to the street and brought a whole new demographic to the area. We mostly tattooed tourists who wore three-quarter-length shorts and Velcro sandals, who had come off the cruise ships looking for a little slice of New Zealand to take home with them.

"I quickly realised that I liked the ideas behind the art rather than the practical side of things, which a form like tattooing requires. I remember one day just packing up all my stuff and walking out of the job - if you can even call an unpaid apprenticeship a job. Though I wasn't there for long I still have family members with permanent reminders of my time there."

Randa. Photo / Cameron Robinson
Randa. Photo / Cameron Robinson

JONOTHAN CULLINANE

His first novel, Red Herring, is set in 1950s Auckland at the time of the Waterfront Strike

"The area around High St - Vulcan Lane, Shortland St, O'Connell St, High St itself - feels like a big city, like Auckland seemed when I was growing up in Wellington in the 60s. It's a vibrant neighbourhood. It feels loved. Interesting people work and live there. Britomart has taken some of its retail glamour - good riddance - but who lives in Britomart? Who works there? In fact, who goes there?

"New Yorkers have an expression for the inhabitants of New Jersey and Long Island who stream into Manhattan on the weekend: "the bridge and tunnel crowd". There are no bridge and tunnellers around High St. They're all locals. It's a small, charming, extant pocket of the real Auckland."

Lowdown

Walk on High, 6.30pm-8pm, May 19, High St, Auckland.
Make a night of it by starting with drinks at Hotel DeBrett and at the end, make your way up to the Heartland Festival Room in Aotea Square, which will be operating as a bar from 8.30pm.