Beyond the valley of the suburbs

The Wellington real estate market is cruel. I make an above-average wage, but I can’t even afford to buy a studio apartment – the cheapest type of property out there. (Hey, is that what “marriage” and “husband” is for?)

But I had discovered that the valley suburb of Wainuiomata had plenty of affordable real estate. In fact – holy crap – I could actually afford to buy a three-bedroom house in Wainuiomata. I’d never been there before, so a visit was in order to check out this hidden part of Lower Hutt.

I turned up to Waterloo Interchange and jumped on the first bus going over the hill. The climb up offers scenic views of Wellington Harbour. Or at least it would have if I’d been able to look in that direction. Sitting across the aisle from me was a dude who, every time I turned to look out the window on his side, would glare at me as if I was trying to start something… with my eyes. Yeah, I got a looking problem, bro.

Right this way

Over the hill and down into the valley, the bus went, leaving me surprised at how close and quick it is to get to.

I don’t think I was quite prepared for how enclosed by the hills Wainuiomata is. Everywhere I looked, there were the hills in the background, encircling the suburb. I felt like an anthropologist discovering a lost village in a forgotten valley. Oh, what secret languages and customs can I learn!

Well, there are lots of outdoor couches in Wainuiomata. That’s one observation.

I wasn’t really paying attention to where the bus was taking me. Suddenly I spied some shops, so I got off at the next bus stop.

I heard loud music nearby, and found myself strangely drawn to it. Around a corner I found the source – Wonderland Records. I went inside and was shocked to discover it was a record shop. I mean, a proper record shop, like there used to be in the ’80s and early ’90s.

There were racks full of CDs, records and tapes. Tapes! Cassette tapes! My stereo has a double cassette deck, but I think the last tape I bought was Darcy Clay’s “Jesus I Was Evil”, back in ’97. I started to imagine all the fun I could have with new tapes. Why, I could listen to Genesis and Steely Dan and the Eagles all night long!

The shop was so full of music that I trod carefully, utterly fearful of taking a mistep and messing up Jim Reeves’s pretty face.

Looking at the new CDs, I noticed they were indeed priced the way new CDs are (were?) priced in shops – about $33. I’ve been buying music off iTunes for a while now, and the idea of paying that much for a CD seems utterly outrageous. For $33, I’d expect Justin Bieber to come to my house and serenade me too, plz.

So I’m not quite sure how a shop like this does business. I’m guessing it’s found a niche for itself and has a loyal customer base who shop there because it can give them what they need.

And, frankly, if a record shop as glorious as that is called Wonderland, it deserves to stick around for as long as possible.

Wonderland

Back on the street, I suddenly realised that I was in the middle of nowhere, sort of. I figured out a direction to walk, and made my way to the hub of Wainuiomata, the Wainuiomata Shopping Centre.

The shopping centre was built in 1970, but it feels a bit older than that, in the way that architectural styles take a decade or so to reach New Zealand. It’s from the glorious autopian era, the post WWII boom times when the automobile was going to change life for the better.

It has a curious combination of strips of little shops next to a larger indoor mall, which now seems to be centred around an unholy trinity of a Warehouse and two supermarkets.

It all felt like it was a place that once wanted to be something magnificent and magical. A shopping centre for the young families putting down roots in the valley, so they didn’t need to make the trip over to the Hutt or to Wellington to do the shopping.

But it also feels like somewhere along the way, that dream was lost and something different took its place. It’s just “the shops” now. You can buy stuff there, if you want. Or you could go to Westfield Queensgate, if you want.

Wainuiomata feels like a mash-up of a small country town and 1950s-era suburb, like you’d find further along the Hutt Valley. And while these are clearly desireable attributes for some people, I wouldn’t want to live in either a small country town or a suburb, so Wainuiomata’s cheap real estate isn’t enough to lure me there.

But Wonderland Records, though – I’d happily go down that rabbit hole again.

Wainuiomata Shopping Centre

11 thoughts on “Beyond the valley of the suburbs”

  1. And the churches! So many churches. Nestled by hills like that, too. It’s rather oppressive.

    I have to go and see Wonderland Records!

  2. The best plant nursery in Wellington is out the back of Wainui in an even more hidden valley. They supplied the plants for LoTR; it’s a fabulously quiet, sleepy, and beautiful place to wander around with a warm microclimate of its own.

    I had the same sense of Wainui being like a forgotten civilisation as you come over the hill; it felt like an Enid Blyton adventure, but with mean kids.

    1. Have to agree with you there. A wonderful nursery that has supplied us with plenty of beautiful plants over the years. We have good friends in Wainui and so feel I should defend it a bit. Like any suburb there are the good streets and the bad streets the good elements and the bad. The people I’ve met are all professional who generally work in town or own their own businesses. In regards to the mall, the building of Queensgate in the Hutt was the nail in the coffin. It is now just full of shops for function, but used to have Farmers, Hannahs, Hallisteins, Warnocks, a variety of cafes, Toyworld, Paper Plus and a range of other chains. A sign of the times I guess.
      While you may not be inclined to live there, it’s not all bad and the nursery is definitely worth the visit.

  3. Wonderland Records has been around for nearly as long as I have, but I had no idea they’d set up shop in Wainui — last seen in High Street, Lower Hutt. They’re well known for their significantly optimistic grading of their second-hand records, and significant over-pricing as well — basically the faint taint of the dodge is all about.

    e.g. My favourite Wonderland story is the time I bought the scarce-ish Blast First CD edition of Sonic Youth’s “Bad Moon Rising” for $35, only for it to magically — at some point between handing it over the counter and opening my bag when I got home — turn into the cheap $15 Geffen reissue. That was a long time ago now, though.

  4. And your visit was in sunshine too – wait till you see Wainui in the depths of winter, with the low lying fog that gets trapped in the gully and settles into your bones…. and the ice on the Wainui Rd in the mornings…

    on the other hand, if you want a large section of regenerating scrub, there was an ad on TradeMe last year for something like 10 hectares of land in Wainui for about $300k. Not much good if you’re an urbanite, but great if you’re a sheep lover.

    Figure of speech, I hasten to add.

  5. Oh, I don’t know if it’s just me (I suspect not), but Wainui is one of those places where once you’re in, you can never leave

    Not in a Children of the Corn kinda way, it’s just that it seems to get into the bones 🙂

    It’s not a place I would consider living even though I am in a similar situation as you. I could quite comfortably pay off a decent sized house in Wainui, but I’d much prefer to pay rent in the inner city in Wellington and enjoy my surroundings

  6. Stokes Valley may also not appeal then despite it being next on the rung of Hutt affordable real estate. Has the same hill surrounded small town vibe but with a dose of bogan.

    If you can imagine Frankton (H-Town) surrounded by bush covered hills.

    -S

  7. I grew up in this place in the 1970s. I went back over there for a look recently and I’m sad to say that the Queen St shops and the mall are a sorry shadow of their former selves.

    In the 70s the mall had a hardware store, 2 hairdressers, 2 supermarkets, a record store, toy shop, fabric store, ice cream parlour, plus the studios of the Wainui radio station. Across the carpark there was a garden centre. Then there was the library and community centre. And Queen St had all manner of shops, a post office, cafes etc.

    Maybe rose-tinted spectacles from a nearing-40 ex-wainuiomartian, but it all used to be so much better!

  8. Ive lived in wainui for 12 years, and have a perfect 4 bedroom house and sleepout on a flat 1/4 acre. with about 30 fruit trees. Weve just set up shop in parkway and also run a direct marketing business, which sees us travel the 3 minutes over the hill almost daily. Im not one for bustling cities and wellingtons only 20 mins or so away by car, if i really want to visit. So wainui offers the perfect chill out spot, plenty of clean green but close enough to everything that you dont feel liked youve stepped off the planet, and lets face it, with modern technology doing business internationally is so easy, it doesnt matter where you live. and with online trading so prevalent now adays, Outside of a Starbucks ive got no real need or desire to go mall shopping.

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