Gentrification in Parnell
“Not such a bad place, but it’d be better if a man could get a drink. Ever since they started going trendy, the prices have gone up and the service is way down. Just like the buses. In the old days, I could work in Albert Street and get there in 7 minutes. Now, a man needs a helicopter!” – Disgruntled Resident
Over the course of the 1960s and the 1970s, some major changes occurred in the suburb of contrasts. The post-war cycle of economic and residential growth helped turn Auckland into New Zealand’s ‘primate city’, and as a result vast swathes of land were converted to new industrial and residential suburbs. Auckland’s industrial centre was leaving the city proper and shifting to the suburbs. This helped drive the process of gentrification, which took place throughout the central city and its peripheral suburbs. Ponsonby is one of the best-known cases, but Parnell was also fell victim to gentrification. While this helped build up the character which we associate with the suburb today, not everybody was happy about these changes (as the quote above illustrates!).
As the twentieth century progressed, inner-city areas throughout the world faced a process known as ‘gentrification’. Simply put, gentrification is the transformation of working class or dilapidated neighbourhoods – typically cheap, near central urban locations, and in some cases ‘slums’ – into more expensive and desirable areas. Many inner city areas throughout New Zealand faced gentrification during the 1960s and 1970s. In Auckland, the suburb of Ponsonby is often held up as the classic example, and it tends to dominate the discussion. However, it appears that Parnell also underwent gentrification during this time. The suburb itself had been contending with a slumlike reputation since at least the 1940s. Mary McIntyre, who boarded at Baradene School during the Second World War, recalled that Parnell was “one of those run down places where students lived”. Likewise, Michael Willison, who moved to New Zealand in the 1960s, was warned on the boat over that Parnell was ‘a bit slummy in places’. He recalls that the homes running down Gladstone Road in the 1960s were only small workers’ houses – today, the area is dominated by larger homes and medium-density apartment buildings. In nearby Gibraltar Crescent and Cheshire Street, Willison notes there were a number of houses on the verge of falling apart. Some sort of change was long-overdue.
It is important to note that gentrification is not actually a wholly ‘positive’ process. While it has the benefit of improving poorly-developed or dilapidated areas, the original residents do not get to take advantage of these changes. Instead, gentrification pushes lower income residents out, inviting in members of the middle and upper classes instead. Heightened rents and changing amenities contribute to this ‘push’ which forces the original residents to seek homes elsewhere. At the same time, gentrification can threaten the historic character of an area. Some developers choose to demolish, rather than renovate, older buildings. As it gentrified, Parnell did not manage to escape all of these problems. However, through the actions of one of its key ‘gentrifiers’, the suburb did manage to retain a sense of its heritage.
Photo: Rear View of Properties Between 195 and 201 Parnell Road, 1963. Sights like this seemed commonplace along Parnell Road and the streets coming off it. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 580-7865, Auckland.
A New Parnell?
The man responsible for much of Parnell’s redevelopment during this period is Les Harvey. A local property developer, Les Harvey was instrumental in ensuring that the suburb retained elements of its history. During the late 1960s and the 1970s, Harvey purchased a number of buildings along Parnell Road. Rather than demolish them, as many developers may have chosen, he restored and in some ways reinvented these buildings. Harvey’s goal was to recreate the ‘Parnell Village’ and help create or maintain a sense of community in the area. Many of the buildings he acquired were converted from homes to businesses, including boutique stores, restaurants, and open-air cafes. His legacy can still be seen along Parnell Road today. Many of the buildings, while having updated and redesigned interiors, still maintain an external façade which brings to mind ‘old-time Parnell’. Crucially, Les tried to ensure that Parnell’s local residents could take advantage of these redevelopments. Michael Willison recalls that Les constantly encouraged him to start a business in the area. Even when Michael told Les “I can’t do anything, you know”, Les would respond “it doesn’t matter, you’ll do well here!”. The effects were pronounced, with Mary McIntyre barely recognising the area when she returned in the 1980s: “It had a complete renaissance, or what you would almost call a facelift.”
Not all of Parnell survived this gentrification process. Some of the older and more hazardous buildings were demolished during this time. Avoca House, or ‘Paddy’s Puzzle’, was a prime target for demolition. Paddy’s Puzzle had a long history in Parnell, having served as housing for the poor during the Great Depression, and later as low-income apartments typically inhabited by Māori and Pasifika peoples. However, in the 1960s it was finally earmarked by the government for removal. The building was condemned for health violations and general safety issues in 1961. The residents were evicted shortly after. Many of these families were moved on to new state housing developments in suburbs such as Glen Innes. For these families, the gentrification of Parnell was likely a bittersweet affair. While the families would have (usually) ended up in newer homes with modern amenities and greater access to services, the eviction from Paddy’s Puzzle would have destroyed any sense of community which had been built up over time. There was no option for these families to remain in Parnell. Ongoing gentrification would have meant rent was too high, and the possibility of affording one of the homes in area was unlikely. Paddy’s Puzzle was demolished the following year, in 1963, putting an end to one of Parnell’s most colourful residences.
Photo: Auckland City Skyline. This image, created by G B Scott Publications Limited as a postcard, looks across central Auckland from the Fred Ambler Lookout in Gladstone Road, Parnell, some time in the 1960s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 996-75, Auckland.
Ultimately, the suburb of contrasts underwent some major changes between the 1960s and today. In the twenty-first century, Parnell has a reputation as one of Auckland’s most prestigious suburbs. Linked to the central city through a number of public transport routes, including a brand new train station, it is a suburb well-positioned to take advantage of Auckland’s ongoing development. That being said, the changes in the built and social environments of Parnell over the post-war period do not reveal great detail on what living in the area was like. In the next and final article, I explore what living in Parnell over the course of the twentieth century was actually like.
‘This is Parnell’ Recording Promoting Parnell, 1974, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections SA_0033.
Jenny Clay, Oral History Recording with Mary McIntyre, 2013. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, OH-1120.
Jenny Clay, Oral History Recording with Michael Willison, 2013. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, OH-1120.
Oral History Recording with Michael Willison, 2013. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, OH-1120.
Karina Abadia, ‘Statue to Spirit of Parnell’: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/9988527/Statue-to-spirit-of-Parnell
Oral History Interview with Michael Willison, 2013, OH-1120.
Oral History Interview with Michael Willison, 2013, OH-1120.
Oral History Interview with Mary McIntyre, 2013, OH-1120.
Joanna Boileau, ‘Paddy’s Puzzle’, Parnell Heritage Journal, 4, 2014, p. 25.