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