I once knew some lads who lived in a house on Randolph Street in Newton, Auckland.
It was this house, in fact:
Only back then it wasn’t so nicely done up. It was a bit run down, and they paid heaps in electricity due to the house being in a commercial zone. The neighbours were all businesses, in soild, sensible commercial buildings built in the mid-20th century onwards.
Because back in the ’90s, Newton wasn’t really a suburb where people lived. Though most of the people who did reside there inhabited rundown old villas.
But it wasn’t always like that.
Newton used to be a bustling inner-city suburb. It looked like this:
There were lots of houses, businesses, schools and churches. It was, like neighbouring Ponsonby, a solid, working-class surburb.
Then in the 1950s, it was decided that Auckland needed a motorway, and the best path for it was right through Newton. The houses were getting old and run down, so it was easy enough to convince people of the need to pull down the slums and replace them with a big-arse motorway.
Why live in crappy old Newton when you can move out to a dry, spacious modern new house in the suburbs, commuting to work along the new motorway?
And besides, the threat of a motorway coming nearby is a pretty good incentive for a landlord to stop doing upkeep on an already rickety old house.
It took a few decades, but eventually the houses and streets of Newton were bulldozed and replaced with a big-arse motorway.
And when you look at it on Google Maps, it looks like this:
Yet if you look between the motorway roads, you can still see the property boundaries of the old pre-motorway sections, as well as the gaps in between where the old roads went.
You can trace the invisible path between France Street and Mercury Lane, reunite West Street and West Terrace, loiter on the corner of Montague and Cobden Streets.
The remaining bits of Newton soon turned from residential to commercial. The old houses were pulled down, replaced by commercial buildings.
Nearby Ponsonby survived. It avoided the motorway (and it was, at one stage, the preferred route from Newton to the Harbour Bridge). Ponsonby’s villas, like Newton’s, were old and rickety. But eventually Ponsonby’s inner city location got the better of it and people with money moved in, fixing up those old villas, plank by plank, until they were sufficiently nice.
Could a Ponsonby-like fate have awaited Newton if, by some miracle, the motorway had gone some other way? Could Newton be a gentrified inner city suburb now?
The few old villas that remain in Newton, including the one in Randolph Street, are getting fancied up, lived in by people with money.
Though on the K Road side, there are still a few old rundown villas, wedged between panel beaters and mysterious businesses in old unnamed buildings.
Of course, a few old villas are used for business purposes, such as the infamous Pelican Club on Newton Road. It’s had so much done to it to protect the privacy of its clients that it’s accidentally taken on a quirky postmodernist look, managing to disguise itself to avoid looking like what it is – a windowless sex box.
And Newton gives us the King’s Arms. A former corner pub (France St & Edwin St), serving the locals, it now divides its time between hipsters who come for the live music, and the old drunks who hang out in the unhip bar in the old part of the building.
While the motorway may have done its best to eradicate the old residential, suburban Newton, the ghosts of that Newton linger in the remaining villas, the street names, the old bluestone curbstones.
And a curious thing is happening. Slowly over the last 15 years, people have started living in Newton again. It’s not in villas, though. This time it’s in apartments and townhouses. The ghosts of Newton have reminded us that at its heart it’s an inner-city suburb and, actually, not such a bad place to live after all.