When you walk up to Everybody Eats at about 6.50pm on Monday, a friendly waiter seats you at one of the many communal tables full of people who may or may not have incomes or homes or regular meals and you sit there silently, steadily dismissing every single one of your standard conversational openings.

"What do you do?" reveals itself as stupid. "Where are you from?" is thoughtless. Your standard set-pieces about the madness of Auckland property prices are obviously obscene.

If you previously thought at all about the lives of the homeless, you thought of them as living in a different world. You thought of them as "them". You thought this as recently as while walking past some outside the Auckland City Mission on your way up here from your office at 6.30pm, darkness upon you and the cold descending.

Now, here, sitting among them, lifting forkfuls of the same food to your mouth they are lifting to theirs, it's much harder to think that way.

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When your meal is finished, you can choose whether or not to pay and how much to pay.

Volunteers use food donated by supermarkets to feed up to 250 people on a pay as you feel basis once a week at St Kevins Arcade, K Road. The project is called Everybody eats. Photo / Dean Purcell
Volunteers use food donated by supermarkets to feed up to 250 people on a pay as you feel basis once a week at St Kevins Arcade, K Road. The project is called Everybody eats. Photo / Dean Purcell

This is obviously important because although the food is mostly rescued and the time of the volunteers is free, there are still significant costs in organising and running a kitchen turning out roughly 250 three-course meals in two hours, and there are plenty of people eating who can't afford to pay at all.

Over the coming days and weeks, you find yourself thinking about the life circumstances of the 250 people who dined alongside you that night, because that is the way life works, and you come to feel the distance between you shrink, which is the way a sense of community grows.

By the end of your meal, you had discovered that your nearest dining companions were in fact a student and a barber but that discovery had required a lot of conversational fumbling and the amount of relief you had felt upon discovering it made you question many things about the way you view the world.

ST KEVINS ARCADE was opened in 1924 and ever since it has had about the prettiest spot in the city to sit on a sunny morning with a coffee and newspaper and think about life and the day ahead. The wall of glass at its end, looking out over Myers Park and across to the central city skyline has pretty much always played host to a cafe or tea house and always should.

There was the golden period of K Rd department stores and there was the arrival of the motorway overbridge and the growth of the red light district, there were the years when Alleluya Cafe thrived as the centre of some sort of bohemian dream, there was the 2015 sale to property developer Icon Group, there was the 18 month, $2.5 million renovation and then there's whatever now is.

The question at the heart of St Kevins Arcade, as with any beloved public space, is: who does it belong to? Photo / Supplied
The question at the heart of St Kevins Arcade, as with any beloved public space, is: who does it belong to? Photo / Supplied

"It's in a transition period," says Lucy Suttor, who two months ago opened a pop-up space at St Kevins called Nicetouch Massage and has also worked behind the bar at Whammy for the past two years. "It's trying to work out what it is again."

The aesthetic of the place is different since the sale. The floor, which used to be made up of 1970s era ceramic tiles, has been relaid with granite and basalt tiles, decrepit timber joinery and plaster have been repaired, brass inlays have been inlaid, signage has been improved, boring infrastructural issues have been addressed. Xanthe White, an upstairs tenant, helped arrange some indoor plants.

Some rents went up and some tenants moved out, some sweet deals were offered and some other tenants moved in. There are quite a few young entrepreneurs now and there are more food retailers: Takeaway joint Lord of the Fries is out the front and Bestie Cafe and Gemmayze Street restaurant are down the back. In the middle are cafes Egg & Spoon and Fort Greene, bakery Tart and bar/restaurant Acho.

Icon Group's Adam Stevenson, who's the man to contact if you want to lease a space in St Kevins, says he doesn't want it to turn the place into a food court. "If it's all just food," he says, "you lose the culture part of it."

There are retail stores and a couple of bookshops. Upstairs are a few offices. Downstairs are some bars. Outside, and regularly coming in to the arcade from both the park and K Rd, are visitors of wildly varying means and with wildly varying desires for what they hope this place will become or not become.

The question at the heart of St Kevins, as with any beloved public space, is: who does it belong to? Auckland? The Icon Group? The young entrepreneurs and others who are trying to build something here? The people who see this place as the centre of some sort of community?

"No one, no subset, has ownership of this place," Stevenson says, "But everyone is welcome."

Courtney MacKinnon, left, and Ash Faithfull, from Egg & Spoon. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Courtney MacKinnon, left, and Ash Faithfull, from Egg & Spoon. Photo / Jason Oxenham

JUST BEFORE

6.30am on Wednesday, several dozen people in predominantly Lycra and Lycra-equivalents are waiting to disappear down the stairs to pay $15 to enter the soon-to-be heaving darkness of Whammy Bar, where noted DJ Chiccoreli is going to be on the decks spinning some premium drum n bass.

Whammy is a rock 'n'roll bar owned by industry-leading audio engineer Tom Anderson. There's an illuminated bFM sign on the wall above a Guns n' Roses pinball machine. It's unusual for it to host a dance party, but then St Kevins is an unusual place.

"Party first, work later" reads the T-shirt on co-founder of Morning People Jamie Newman. He's on the door, taking the entry fee and he yells over the music, frequently telling me things he doesn't want me to write about, including the chaos of the coat/bag storage area and the graffiti on the desk in front of him ("Bitches be frontin'. [illegible] dis hoe. Im satan for days."), which, he says, doesn't at all represent the Whammy ethos or the views of its owners.

Dancers get a 6:30am start for Morning People feat. Mamadafunk at the Whammy Bar. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Dancers get a 6:30am start for Morning People feat. Mamadafunk at the Whammy Bar. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Newman says Morning People started with the idea that if you want to dance at a dance party, the experience actually sucks. You're getting bumped into, people are spilling drinks and the dancing itself is much worse than the blitzed participants believe it to be, both rhythmically and creatively.

The dancing by those at the very back is a little cautious but for most of the crowd it's wild and sweaty and non-stop. The instructions to Chiccoreli were basically to take the beats straight to a high level of intensity and keep them there for an hour and a half, which is not the usual way for a DJ to manage a set.

They're serving kombucha and coffee and some doughnuts are coming down later from Tart Bakery upstairs, but the whole thing is officially drug- and alcohol-free.

Somebody in exercise gear asks Newman if she can take her companion in for a look. He says yes, but the companion takes only a quick look before going straight back out again. "You can only lead a horse to water," Newman says.

Chiccoreli plays Fossil by Data 3 and the crowd goes wild. He gets a similar response to Anything For You by Macca and Loz Contreras but honestly he could have dropped the entirety of Engelbert Humperdinck's 2017 album The Man I Want To Be and as long as it was playing at 175 beats per minute there's a good chance nobody would have much cared.

The first to leave are a trio of sweaty 20-somethings, wearing an exercise blend of Lycra and shorts. It's about 7.30am when they come out of the darkness into the morning light and not-yet-noise of K Rd. "Wammmmm!" one of them says, echoing either the music or the ringing in his ears. "That's a good way to wake up, eh?"

More begin to emerge. A young man says, "That was awesome." His companion says: "It was awesome". A 30-something couple come out holding hands. The general vibe of the people coming out is amped.

Lucy Adair, a Plunket nurse and mother of three in her mid 30s, who comes every week, says the crowd seems particularly young today, drawn perhaps by Chiccoreli's massive drum n bass stylings. She says she normally feels about mid-range age-wise.

Newman says the name "Morning People" came to him as he was falling asleep one night and by 2am the whole thing was formed in his head. For about the first six months, only a handful of people came and then all of a sudden people started showing up. Today there's about 100, which is about standard. They've just started Morning People in Wellington.

"If you have a strange idea or a crazy idea and you do it for long enough, eventually people will catch on," Newman says.

A week in the life of St Kevins Arcade on Auckland's Karangahape Rd. Photo / Jason Oxenham
A week in the life of St Kevins Arcade on Auckland's Karangahape Rd. Photo / Jason Oxenham

ST KEVINS

feels like some kind of border town or possibly demilitarised zone where extreme wealth, gentrification and poverty come together. It is objectively beautiful. It is owned by the people who visit, who use it, who love it, and in another more legal way, it is owned by Icon Group.

There is a wave of young entrepreneurs coming into the arcade. Icon Group's Adam Stevenson says there are four new tenants under 30 doing business for the first time. "It's a really nice culture to back" he says.

One of those tenants is Egg & Spoon, an egg-based cafe run by partners Ash Faithfull, 24, and Courtney MacKinnon, 25.

"The look and the feel of it suited what we wanted to do," Faithfull says. "I guess it's a bit of a landmark almost within K Rd. The road has its own charms but St Kevins is a standout. We thought St Kevins being an attraction in itself would help us attract people along as well."

Another is Stalgic Society, a new store selling vintage clothing, with a strong emphasis on denim.

"I think this is probably the best place to have a vintage store," says Stalgic Society owner Sarah Stanford. "It's a really sustainable environment. Everyone cares about recycling and kind of giving back and people are very trendy around here, so it fits in really well."

Stanford studied fashion at AUT and became appalled at the massive waste in fashion, the so called landfill of clothes. She made it her thing to rescue clothes rather than create more. She now travels around Europe and the US finding one-of-a-kind pieces to sell.
Within Stalgic Society is another pop-up, Fresh Vintage, also selling mostly flash clothes from the 90s. Fresh Vintage is run by Benn Rolls-Sheppard, whose DJ name is Chiccoreli.

ADAM STEVENSON says the culture of the arcade already exists. What Icon wants to do is retain it.

"People care about this place," he says. We've got a responsibility to ensure that it stays a place that welcomes the community."

He points out that Everybody Eats, which plans a permanent site in the suburbs to appeal to families, is nothing to do with Icon Group and neither is Morning People or most of the other events that take place there.

"We've only got a small amount of control," Stevenson says. "Random stuff happens here we don't even know about. It's awesome to see. We'd love more random acts of creativity."

But it's naive to think that Icon has no control or even only a little bit of control. The things that happen in St Kevins happen because the tenants who Icon allows or encourages to take space there want to do these kinds of things. Tenants can change. Since Icon took over, many tenants have changed. Is change a good thing or is it a bad thing? Is it just a thing?

"It's always going to be evolving and we're always going to be listening," Stevenson says.
"And we're not going to be c***s," he says, laughing.

"'Not the c***s you think they are' he says. "That should be our tagline, eh?"

ON FRIDAY night, in the disorienting network of bars and rooms including Whammy Bar and fellow legendary venue Wine Cellar, was a large and difficult-to-define event called The Experiment.

On the right hand side, on the few dilapidated concrete steps inside the door at Wine Cellar, there were three small handwritten signs on wooden boards. The first read, "FREE ENTRY. DONATE ON EXIT", the next "KEEP OUT!!!" the third, "F*** OFF!!!"

I was still dealing with the confrontation of the signs as the noise hit me. I looked up and saw a dude right in front of me, just inside the door, whaling on his guitar. Opposite him was a drummer whaling on his drum kit. To get into the room I had to walk between them, which was a very confrontational entrance.

Later I would learn the guitarist was executive director of the Arts Foundation Simon Bowden, who had flown up from Wellington for the event and whose experiment — and every artist on the night was encouraged to have an experiment — was that everybody who entered the event had to pass through his wall of sound. His hypothesis and conclusion remain unknown.

The surprise and sensory overwhelm of the situation was so intense that I was hardly able to think, let alone process the scene. It was mostly dark, with just a low green light that suffused the whole scene with a 1950s monster-movie feel. The room wasn't full but it was busy.

To the right of the bar was a screen live-streaming a simultaneous The Experiment event being held at a bar in Melbourne. Out the back of the bar was a hallway labelled "The Graveyard", which featured a series of art installations, including a short video on repeat and a little curtained booth titled "Puffy Lush". A young man and woman were just coming out and I was too scared to go in. I later learned there was a screen in there also running a short film.

Out the other side of The Graveyard, connected in a series of essentially unfathomable ways were The Ballroom, The Master Bedroom and The Crypt, each of which did service as both art spaces and music venues. One of the rooms — which one? — was more or less coated in tinfoil and had multi-coloured neon tubes either suspended from the roof or standing on the floor.

Bands seemed to be playing everywhere. The general feeling was WTF, and if I had to characterise the look of attendees in a single person, the closest I could get would be Chloe Swarbrick.

How to digest something like this? More than 100 people would be performing during the night, either musically or artistically. After a while I walked out into the arcade to try to make sense of it and by the time I tried to get back in, the venue was at capacity. Within 10 minutes or so, there was a queue of about 50 people back up the stairs and it wasn't even 9pm.

This was the fifth year of The Experiment and the second at St Kevins Arcade.

"It's such an iconic building. I don't think it's going to lose that, or change too quickly," says Karl Sheridan, who is both organiser of The Experiment and director of creative agency Monster Valley, which shares a wall with St Kevins Arcade and until recently also had a gallery inside the arcade.

"I've been here seven or eight years and I'm still a newbie," he says "It's really hard to change ownership of a place like this and keep everyone happy."

ON MONDAY night, Everybody Eats founder and organiser Nick Loosley looked out over the diners his volunteers were feeding and said, "This is in my opinion the best place to do what we're doing in the whole of Auckland."

"It's an arcade so it's a public space, there's no door, Myers Park is obviously quite a common place for homeless and that community to be spending time, K Rd's obviously very bohemian, diverse, but also we're a stone's throw away from some of the wealthiest real estate in the city. So we can attract all sorts of different people here."

Sarah and Mandy enjoy a morning coffee at Bestie Cafe overlooking the city. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Sarah and Mandy enjoy a morning coffee at Bestie Cafe overlooking the city. Photo / Jason Oxenham

He wants the crowd who eats there to be as diverse as possible, he said — not just a mix of the in-need community and the comparatively well-off, but a mix from across the divide of every imaginable societal division.

"This isn't just about people getting fed," he said. "This is about community. This is about building trust and breaking down social barriers."