The mallification of Hamilton

The city centre of Hamilton, my sweet home town, is dying. Since the 1980s, businesses have progressively moved to the edges of town and two massive malls on the northern fringe have sucked all the retail life out of the city centre.

There’s been a lot of talk about how to revitalise the downtown area. The current solution seems to be fighting the lure of the malls with another mall. The Centre Place mini-malls (part of my life since 1985) is being expanded with another two-storey wing. Farmers is moving in as a key tenant and Ward Street is closing to be part of the outdoor mall experience.


But, ugh, I think the focus is all wrong. Instead of replicating the suburban mall experience – which will never quite work because the central city can never offer free parking – the central city should focus on the cool things it has that the malls could never match. Namely the river, cool old buildings, the atmosphere of places like Ward Street, Alexander Street, a few laneways that are yet to be created, and Garden-sodding-Place. In other words, give people a reason to exit the giant Centre Place megamall. Give them a reason to go outside and walk the city streets and feel elated, not a bit glum.

Above are two artists’ impressions of the mega mall. There aren’t many people, especially compared with the usual bustle of a busy mall. This might seem like a deliberate move, not wanting the ghost people to obscure the buildings, but that’s what Hamilton looks like. There aren’t many people around the city centre any more. It’s all a bit like a ghost town and I’m not sure if the best intentions of a property investment firm can undo that.


Things to do in Hamilton when it’s dead

Hamilton’s spent a lot of time and money trying to convince the country that it is quite interesting and not boring. In the ’90s its city motto was “Where it’s happening”, then later “More than you’d expect”. Then, due to not being able to come up with a decent replacement slogan, they just went with “Hamilton”. Or Hamilton because it’s all on in Hamilton.

So just went it looked like people would start believing that it was, in fact, the events capital of Aotearoa NZ, the coach of the South African rugby team revealed that the Springboks would not be coming to Hamilton in advance of their game because “there is nothing in Hamilton”. Instead they heartbreakingly opted for fun in the sun in the Gold Coast.

But while Surfers Paradise is warm and has a beach, it’s still a bit of a pantswagon. And as Hamilton is a pantswagon too, perhaps we should pay closer attention to the list of the top five things to do in Hamilton, as reckoned by the Hamilton City Council.

Visit Hamilton Gardens.
The Hamilton gardens are quite nice and also world class, both of which are important in this modern world. You can pick your favourite garden and rent it out for your wedding or civil union ceremony. There are a couple of statues of Egyptian gods that were twice defaced by outraged Christians, but you don’t have to have your wedding near those if you don’t want to.

Feed the animals at Hamilton Zoo.
If you’re old, like me, you’ll know this as the Hilldale Game Farm, which brings on a feeling of mild nausea. Hamilton Zoo is an adequate zoo, but it’s hilly (waaaah, I don’t like walking up hills) and if feeding the animals is the best a zoo can offer a visitor, something is wrong with society in general.

Take a walk round Hamilton Lake.
Lake Rotoroa is quite nice. In the ’90s Boney M played an outdoor concert there. I didn’t go, but my friend did and she reported that some crazy lady was yelling at her group for daring to stand up and dance, blocking her view of the stage. “Sit down! We’re trying to watch the Boney M’s!”

A night out on Hood St.
Hood Street, which was immortalised in Katchafire’s 2002 song Who You With is part of the messed-up downtown ghetto of restaurants and bars down the south end of Victoria Street. The only place actually worth visiting down Hood Street is David’s Emporium – one of those wonderful shops that sells lots of stuff that you didn’t realise you needed until you just went and bought a dozen of them, like notebooks with goggle eyes.

The Waikato River Trail.
If you walk along the segment that goes from the Cobham Drive bridge to the Wellington Street Beach, there’s a fitness trail, with all these wooden and metal obstacles to hurl yourself over, through or around. Then when you’ve finished you can go to Hamilton East KFC.

I’m just surprised that the list has left out all the interesting things that Hamilton’s rich and vibrant downtown area has to offer the visitor. Oh, wait…


The day I flew into Hamilton Airport, there was a photo of me in the Waikato Times. These two events were not related (the photo accompanied a story originally from the Dom Post on the popularity of traditional pastime activities, including the bowling league I was part of) but it was a little spooky to find this unintentional welcome back to the city where I was born.


I left Hamilton in 1997 and after my parents moved to Raglan in 2002, I haven’t really had any reason to go back there. But one of my all-time favourite Hamilton bands, Mobile Stud Unit, were having their 15th anniversary/final show, so I decided to spend a couple of days in Hammo, revisiting.

Growing up in Hamilton in the ’80s, it was pretty bleak. In the classic science fiction film The Quiet Earth, the only man and woman left on earth end up in Hamilton and there’s a brief shot of Bruno Lawrence wandering around a totally deserted Garden Place and Alexander Street. At the time, I remember thinking, “Oh, they must have filmed that on a Sunday,” because that’s what town was like on a Sunday – as deserted as a post-apocalytic landscape.

But Hamilton got better. By the time I left, the centre of town had a lively strip of bars, cafes and restaurants. There was a good live music scene and Hamilton was a fun place for its size. So the whole time I’ve been living away from Hamilton, I just assumed that stuff would have kept on progressing and improving. Sadly, though, it hadn’t.

Something strange has happened to the core of Hamilton. All the main shops are now focussed around four malls – Centreplace, Downtown Plaza, the K Mart plaza and the new Warehouse. But strangely when the malls close at night, the streets of Hamilton seem to close too. At 5.30 on a Thursday, town was eerily deserted. Does no one even want to see a movie?


And it gets worse – back in the ’70s, Hamilton dubbed itself “Fountain City”. Not so much because it had a lot of fountains, but because it sort of wanted a name and, uh, if you name it, they will build them? Well, the fountain in the middle of Garden Place has just been ripped out because it was leaking, but with no plans to repair or replace it. No one cares.

I bussed out to Westfield Chartwell, né Chartwell Square, which has been turned into even more of a mall than it used to be. I caught the wrong direction Orbit bus back and ended up going on a journey past The Base, a giant big-box shopping complex that has been built to car scale, not human scale. There’s even a shuttle bus that will drive you around the place because it’s evidently too big and unfriendly to pleasantly traverse on foot. Damn you bone-machine humans and your puny stamina!

Grey town

At a time when people in cities are moving back to the city centres and away from far-flung suburbs, it seems that Hamilton is still sprawling. It feels like a city that’s been allowed to grow with a really strong focus on suburbs. It’s as if a bomb has been dropped in the centre of the city, causing everyone to flee to the outskirts, only to return to the city on the weekend, after dark as boozed-up zombies.

I get the feeling that if you want an effortless existence in Hamilton, you’d have to be sort of person who’d enjoy settling down and getting married and living in a house in the suburbs with your kids, Bella and Jack.

Kick up your heels

The people I know in Hamilton who aren’t playing by that script, they’re the ones who are doing really cool creative stuff. Some of them end up leaving, but others stay on and hopefully make the city a better place.

I’ve always liked the idea of never living somewhere where you’re too comfortable – a bit of geographic grit in your oyster to help form the pearl of your character. Hamilton provided me with enough grit, but then it got too gritty so I got out.

But even after being disappointed with Hamilton’s lack of life, my visit was all suburban oppression. On Friday night at the Mobile Stud Unit gig, I caught up with some old friends and had a brilliant night out as MSU gleefully rehashed their classics. It was sad to see the end of MSU, but perhaps that’s a good enough point to finally close the Hamilton chapter of my life… if that’s possible.

More photos

Nothing better

bFM’s music documentary series Inside Track recently looked at the Hamilton music scene. Yay.

It was interesting listening to it, because it sounds like things changed quite dramatically around the time I left Hamilton.

Back in my Hamilton gig-going days (1993 to 1996), there were two main venues – the Wailing Bongo at Waikato University, and the Exchange Tavern on Victoria Street.

The Bong’ could comfortably accommodate popular touring bands (Supergroove, Shihad, various Flying Nun artists), but also worked for local bands. For example, Mobile Stud Unit’s Superstar Extravaganza packed out the Bongo bar with all local bands in 1995.

The Exchange was a much smaller venue, decorated in ye olde Hamiltonia style. It suited local bands more, but I remember Garageland packing the place out in 1995.

There are other venues like the Hillcrest Tavern (more mainstream) and the Downunder Bar (bogans) and Governor’s Tavern. And the vile Outback Inn was rumoured to host bands, but the only music I ever heard there was cheesy European dance music. And Kenny Rodgers’ “The Gambler”.

Anyway, according to the people interviewed on the Inside Track doco, the Waikato Student Union was taken over by a group of right-wingers who promptly sold off the Wailing Bongo and student radio Contact FM. Without a venue and a means of promotion, the scene took a few blows.

But despite this, there are still a whole lot of really good bands coming from Hamilton. In the documentary, Geoff from the Shrugs says that because Hamilton is so small and everyone knows everyone, you can’t be a rock star – everyone will see through it all – so the only thing left is to be a musician.

Another thing that comes up in the documentary is the feeling that some people look back at the live scene in the mide ’90s as a golden age, and wish things were like that now.

But back then, there weren’t always good bands playing. Sometimes all there’d be to see was some lame bogan rock covers band. Sometimes staying at home was a better option than going out.

My main complaint with growing up in or near Hamilton was that it was so boring. There was nothing to do. But the good thing about this is that rather than relying on some vibrant arts and culture scene to entertain me, I had to learn to make my own fun.

I think this is situation is still around in Hamilton, and it’s still one of the reasons people get together and form bands and create music. Because it’s Saturday and there’s nothing better to do.


Interesting things have been happening in the places where I grew up. First there was a P lab found in the old Matangi dairy factory, and now there’s just been a huge explosion at a cold-storage facility just across the road from Tamahere Model Country School (um, yeah, that’s its name, but it’s really just an ordinary state primary school) – one of my old schools.

Now, Tamahere is very close to Hamilton City. It’s about a 10-minute car ride from Tamahere School to the Hamilton suburb of Hillcrest, and you’d be in the city centre in little over 15 minutes.

But Tamahere is not in Hamilton City. It’s in Waikato District. It’s rural. Like this:


And yet the Herald is currently reporting that the cold-storage facility is located in “suburban Tamahere on the southeast outskirts of the city.”

Suburban! City! If only! My childhood would have been approximately 70% less miserable if I had gone to school in a city suburb and not the bloody country (or so I’d like to think…)

This is what most of Tamahere looks like – not suburban, rural:

(Photo from Judemay on Flickr)

But, then, Tamahere never felt like a rural settlement. It wasn’t like neighbouring Matangi or Tauwhare where there was a little village or definite centre. No, Tamahere was more like a rural suburb of Hamilton, where rich Hamiltonians lived when they wanted room for their ponies. So perhaps in getting it wrong, the Herald actually got it right.

Digging around on Flickr has revealed some amazing photos taken by people near the explosion and also from Hamilton.

Tamahere Fire, as seen from Hillcrest Park, by Easegill

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Today’s been pretty maniacal. I woke up at about 10.30 am, then I realised that my watch was still on Australian time and that it was actually 1.30 pm. So I dragged my tired arse out of bed and went to the gym and managed to get all my washing done just before the Chinese laundry closed.

I felt like just blobbing out on the couch all night, but instead I got in my car and drove down to Hamilton for the Mobile Stud Unit’s 10 Year Anniversary Extravaganza.

Recently the British band suede played a series of shows where they played the songs from all of their previous albums, one album per night. That’s impressive, but that’s not as impressive as what MSU did tonight.

All previous members of MSU were gathered together to recreate previous MSU line-ups. Then each line up played a typical MSU set from that era. Starting from the shithouse days of early 1993 when no one could really play their instruments well, through to today when the musicianship has improved and the songwriting is strong and solid, it was a totally fun evening. All this was held together by the superb frontman skillz of Rohan “Marxi” Marx, the one member of MSU who’d been present in every line-up, and who ties it all together with his green jumpsuit of pleasure.

It was great to be able to yell out the chorus from “Old Cunts” along with other people who also knew the words. Yet “Old Cunts” took on a weird tone with the realisation, as Marxi pointed out, that, um, we’re turning into those old cunts that we mocked when we were 19. Bald heads, wrinkles, fat bellies. Hey, how did that happen?

MSU’s first recording, their 1994 self-released tape “My Pajamas Smell Acidicky” has been rereleased on CD, along with a whole bunch of other tracks from their history. Yes, now I have a digital, albeit fuzzy, version of “Brian Fuckhole”.

But what really made the night bloody excellent was the surprise reforming of Bwa Da Riddum. Like Mr Hodad said, ska bands really need lots of practise or they sound shit. So Bwa Da Riddum, who hadn’t played since they broke up seven years ago, did sound kinda clunky, but I didn’t care. I recognised all their songs and it brought back lots and lots of really good memories of all the times I saw them live. Plus, Clinton the bass player is still really cute. OMG.

There’s an MSU song on the soundtrack for Greg Page’s debut movie “The Locals”. That’s cool – hopefully the soundtrack will sell well and they’ll get lots of royalties. Mr Page was there so I went up to him and asked him if he remembered me from the music video making course he took and I attended at Waikato Polytech summer school back in 1996. He did. I remember during that course saying how cool it would be to make music videos for a living. Back then it wasn’t a possibility, but now it is, and that’s what he’s doing. Music videos, TV ads and, oh, the occasional feature film. So I have much respect and admiration for Pagey because he’s doing what he loves and getting paid for it. He is livin’ the dream, maaan.

Ok, now I need some sleep to prepare myself for the zinestravaganza tomorrow.

O dirty river

I went to Hamilton today to see my dermatologist. When I arrived at reception there was a prisoner handcuffed to a guard while another guard stood by. When they left the receptionist made a comment about how the Department of Corrections were always slow paying their billz.

I was randomly driving around Hamilton and I had an urge to drive up a hill, like I’d do in Auckland. But Hamilton doesn’t have a lot of hills, so I ended up going to the lake and watched the dark grey water under the light grey sky.

It was strange driving around Hamilton. It seemed like there should have been more traffic on the streets. Intersections controlled with stop signs or roundabouts seemed like they should have had traffic lights with cars backed up for blocks.

It took me about an hour to drive from Hamilton to Manukau, and over two hours to get from Manukau to Mt Eden. Heavy rain, Bruce Springsteen and the rugby (mate) all contributed to the slowness. I finally made it home and it was cold and dark any rainy and all the close parking spaces had been taken by rugby spectators, but really that doesn’t matter.

Street clean

I went to the Waikato Museum of Art and History (yes, all that together under one roof). There’s an exhibit of some Len Lye stuff. The best things were the metal sculpture things. (I’m using the word thing a lot because I don’t know exactly what to describe it as.) My favourite one had a long thin piece of metal, about 50 cm wide and a couple of curly bits of metal attached to it. It was hung down from a black metal box which shook it and caused the metal to make a big loud noise, not unlike thunder (and “thunder” was in the name). It caused such a delightful ruckus that two women in their late 30s went to investigate the ruckus but quickly walking away, pulling “I’m not sure if that’s really art…” faces.

I miss the old Art Museum on London Street. It was like a boning 1960s office building but one floor had the museum. Yeah, an office building with a great big old Maori war canoe in it. And the old Art Museum had permanent exhibits about Hamilton’s history. There was a slick early ’80s slide show with images of Hamilton throughout the years. My favourite thing was the old post office franking machine. There’d be pieces of paper that could be franked and souvenired.

Now that building has many franking machines as it’s now the Waikato Mail Centre and in the late ’80s the museum got a new home in a classy building. The canoe now overlooks the river, well away from the old windowless room in London Street.

Hamilton gets better every time I return.

Oh yes, word on the street is that nicknames such as “Hamiltron” or “The Tron” are terribly passe and using it only makes you look like an out-of-town dork-arse who’s trying to be with-it.

I got some I.D.

My local supermarket, Foodtang Mt Eden, is open 24 hours. It takes, like one, maybe two minutes to drive there and is an excellent source of late night, um, food. I hate going to the supermarket during the day. Night is one of the times where it’s not filled with annoying people.

So I was there tonight and I noticed that I was the only white person there. All the other customers and the staff were Pacific Islanders, Asians and Indians. That is what is cool about living in Auckland. The soundtrack to this multi-ethnic experience was “Friday I’m In Love” by The Cure.

When I was 18 the drinking age was 20. My friend, who I will called Shania, and I used to want to go out and have fun. We’d try to get into pubs. I never had trouble getting into bars – when I was 14 I started getting mistaken for 20 – but Shania looked 18, so chances are we’d get turned away by bouncers.

The solution to this was to go to a liquor store and buy some cheap spumante, Italiano and Bernadino were about $4 a bottle. We’d buy a bottle each and head off into Garden Place, sit on our special park bench, and drink.

Garden Place is quite nice now, but ten years ago it was quite different. In the ’50s it had been a carpark, so the lighting was still high up and left lots of dark shadowy places. There were lots of shrubs and various vegetation that also created little dark corners. Our special park bench was in one of those corners.

It wasn’t totally hidden away. The occasional drunken bloke would see us and invite us ladies back to his farm in Ohaupo (or whatever). But one night we met some guys who we haven’t forgotten about yet.

A bunch of homies came over. Oh yes, homies. Not notorious T.H.U.G.S, not niggaz representing the wesside, but homies. They were, like us, a bit drunk. One of them started talking to us. Shania explained how we’d tried to get into a bar but had been turned away because we didn’t have any I.D.

The homie said, “Ow, I’ve got some I.D. I’ve got some I… [points to eye] D… [points to crotch].” We all laughed at that, and he repeated the joke several times.

Eventually Shania and I grew tired of their hey-babying and wanted to get away. We made some sort of excuse and quickly took off down Alexandra Street. They seemed to be following us, so we went down a dark alley way, which lead to the back of the Herald’s Hamilton office. We hung out around large piles newspaper and waited until we couldn’t hear the homies bragging about their I.D.

And that is why the drinking age should remain at 18.

This is suburban re-invented

(I promise I’ll shut up about Justin Timberlake soon, ok?)

This is what happens when you get three women together who are or have recently been pregnant: they talk about pregnancy stuff (motherhood really does mean mental freeze). Then they get drunk (except for the pregnant one) and they talk about regular stuff and for a while things are like they were when we were 18.

“You’ll be next, Robyn!” they say. Jesus. I hope not.

So we were going around bars trying to find one that had a decent amount of people (no one sticks around in Hamilton at this time of year). There was one bar that usually is a really good live music venue, but instead had an old drunk bogan lady sitting by the bar. We played a game of pool while Incubus and Blindspott were playing on the bar’s stereo. Still searching for a crowd, we went to one bar and there seemed to be a pretty good vibe there. There was an ok covers band and the crowd looked cool. I was at the bar about to buy a beer when the others decided that the bar was “too young” and that we should move on to another bar. Oh my God.

So we went to The Bank and the DJ was playing the greatest hits of the ’80s and ’90s. Occasionally there’d be a song from the last couple of years (but it wasn’t often). But by then I’d had enough beers that I actually got excited when “Groove is in the heart” was played.

But there was a bright spot in the middle of it all: the DJ played “Like I love you”. “Oh my God,” I squealed. “I love Justin Timberlake! I want him to marry me!” At that moment a drunk dude decided that my friend and I needed his company, but then my friend finished her beer and went off to the bar, leaving me maniacally dancing to Mr Timberlake with this lame drunk guy. It was spectacular.

I finally relented and bought “Justified” today. The idea being that eventually I’ll get it out of my system. But I dunno. It’s been over a year since I first got into Nsync and that’s showing no sign of fading. And how can you not love an album with a song called “(And she said) Take me now”?

I saw “Sweet Home Alabama”. I like how the heroine rejects the big phat diamond ring in favour of the dirty, muddy swamp.