I love Pt Chev for many reasons – not least, because it’s literally got a point: it’s a near-perfect triangle, about as wide as it is tall, leading to a tree-clad promontory into the harbour. I love that you can walk it end to end in half an hour, or dip in and out of the cul-de-sacs to rack up your 10,000 steps. I love the way local kids can learn all the streets. I love the grey herons and magpies who shout at each other in the nearby Norfolk pine by day, and the lonely ruru who visits by night for a quiet hoot. And I love the way you feel yourself exhale as you get north of Meola Rd and can sense the beach within reach.
I especially love the deep living memory of local history. Once upon a time not so long ago, you could buy fruit and vegetables grown on a farmlet just around the corner from where I now live. Schoolboys would go door to door, each with a display tray of sample veg slung around their neck, and would take each household’s orders back out to the horse-drawn cart, to be bagged up and paid for.
Sometimes, around 5pm when the traffic grinds to a halt between Meola Rd and the Pt Chev shops just as I need something for dinner, I wish a veggie lad would knock on my door! But if I jump on my bike and brave the ‘door zone’ between the queued cars and the parked cars, I can make it to the shops and back inside half an hour.
Or I send one of the kids, who tend to prefer the footpath – fair enough, given the traffic. Like every other parent, I tell them to go slow and watch out for sneaky driveways, especially the ones with tall walls. This is the elephant in the street: on average, 16,000 vehicles a day go up and down the bit of Pt Chev Rd between Meola and the shops. Footpath cycling isn’t ideal, but many locals of all ages make the calculation and decide to swap close shaves in traffic for dodging around driveways and pedestrians.
A quicker option is to walk or bike just down the road to the friendly dairy…
…or the gorgeous new mini-grocery, Mars Salt & Sweet. The latter used to be a sweet little bookshop, and a very long time ago was a pharmacy run by my mum’s cousin (he has wild stories about being plundered by certain long-haired musical types!). It’s been lots of things in its time; we’re delighted by the newest incarnation, and hope it sticks around for a good while.
As with the shop fronts dotted up and down the two kilometres of Pt Chev Rd, this one dates from a time when the neighbourhood was a lot less populated but a lot more reliant on local commerce… like that long-gone vege farm, which I know about thanks to my neighbour Joe, whose uncle it belonged to.
Joe has a brilliant story (actually, he has many brilliant stories) involving the old horse-trough on the corner of Johnstone St and Pt Chev Rd, where the farm’s draught horses would tank up during their delivery runs.
The story goes that on summer Saturdays in the 1930s and 40s, Joe’s older brothers used to sail over to Northcote with friends: “All us boys had a boat or a bike, and if you were really rich you had a boat AND a bike.” The young men would buy beers at the Northcote Tavern, then bring them home and hide them in the horse trough to stay cold… so they could nip out from the Saturday night dance at the Sailing Club on Joan St (music by The Hula-waiians!) for a bit of Dutch courage.
One night, young Joe woke up to find the bedroom light on and his brother standing there soaked to the skin: apparently, while he was bent over retrieving his beer, his mates had pushed him into the trough for a laugh. No worries – he dried off, changed his clobber, and went back out to the dance.
That very same horse trough features on the first page of a fabulous book called Pt Chevalier Memories 1930s-1950s (published in 2010 by the Point Chevalier Historical Society, in partnership with the local library), in a winning anecdote from Cyril F. Bell, called My First Bike:
Even in 1929, Farmers Trading Company had ‘specials’. I waited all day sitting on a horse trough at the top of Johnstone St for it to arrive. The bike, a Monarch Special costing 8 pounds 7/6, was delivered by a Mr Norris on a horse and cart, his one weekly delivery to Pt Chev. The machine was a gleaming black and gold with Bosch front and stop lights and front and rear brakes. The special for the month of June was the light set, which ran off a dynamo wheel on the rear tyre.
Now every time I catch a bus from that corner, I picture Cyril waiting on the horse trough for his bike.
There are bikes all the way through Pt Chevalier Memories, as a favoured mode of transport for young Pt Chevians since ages ago. That’s something that hasn’t changed – the local school bike sheds still brim with bikes in impressive contrast to the plummeting proportion of kids biking to school nationwide. A quarter of the kids at Pasadena Intermediate ride their bikes to school, for example; at the primary school, it’s 10-15%, depending on the day.
“At about 1950 – 10 years old, I got my 2 wheel bike given to me. The streets were my playground. No traffic worries back then.” June Golding, nee Green.
“Sunday afternoons my friend Margaret Spencer and I would often have long bike rides.” Colleen Jansen.
“In 1943, I went to Pasadena Intermediate. I was given a 2nd hand bike for my birthday and rode to school with friends, or if wet, caught the tram. Mr Astrella rode around the streets on his bike, ringing a bell and selling ice cream from an ice chest – very welcome on a hot summer day.” Jeanette Jones, nee Harrop.
“My bike, trams, and buses were my best modes of transport. With no family car, bikes and walking took us all over Pt Chev. Cycling down the Zoo hill always a dare, and peering over the wall to the wildlife.” Denis Reidy.
Bikes meant independence for kids in more than one sense, especially in a time when money was tight:
“I was 11 years old and wanted a bike. My working class family were trying to recover from the depression years when for three of them my Dad was on relief work. At school, I learnt that a paper run would give you a regular income, but of course you needed a bike. A Catch 22 situation.
Under Dad’s guidance and guarantee, I bought a bike on time payment from Comet Cycles in Karangahape Road, complete with a card to register my weekly payments of 3/6d. The Herald paid me 6/-.” Ray Woolford.
As you leaf through the stories of old Point Chev, you realise that they’re not just about what there was – market gardens, regular public transport in the form of trams and trolley-buses, thriving small corner shops, spaces for kids to roam – but also what there wasn’t:
“There were only two people in the whole street with cars and so most people caught the tram.” Jack Sakey.
“Most children walked to school, a few came on the tram from the Hall Corner or Pasadena, and one or two rode bicycles, but no one came by car. Even the staff didn’t have cars. To see a car pull up at the school gates was a very rare sight indeed.” Valerie Wood.
“Trams and bikes was the transport, not many people had a car.” Gordon McLean.
“Everywhere we went around Pt Chev was either walking or by bike.” William B. Norman.
“We didn’t have many cars on the road during the days of trams; they were so handy for traveling, easy and fun, seemed to be cheap. The conductors helped when traveling with children and old. Hills grocery shop delivered by bicycle, or you took your trundler.” Gladys F. Sanders.
The other thing there wasn’t, until the 1940s, is a car-friendly connection to Westmere. Meola Rd used to be two dead-ends connected by a rubbish dump and a footbridge. Now, it sees about 13-14,000 vehicle movements a day, as a major alternative route to Great North Road and the motorway.
In these historical stories, the flip side of the absence of cars is the palpable presence of people:
“Growing up in Pt Chevalier in the 40s and 50s was fantastic. Perhaps all people think that about their childhood, but there seems to be in this time none of the pressures of today. We could roam all over the Point without the dangers of today. Take traffic, for instance. There wasn’t any, or very little. I think there were only about 3 cars in our street, so the street was our playground. There must have been at least 25 children who would congregate usually outside our place for a game of cricket, rounders, or bullrush.” Marion Prouse, nee Welch.
Seriously: when was the last time you saw 25 children gathered in the street, unless they were being shepherded along by walking-bus supervisors in hi-viz vests?
I know, I know; the past often glimmers as an impossible golden age. But rather than made hazy by distance, these reminiscences are full of solid specification of exactly how and why the old days felt so golden. Story after story describes in detail a community created (and reinforced) by the way people moved around for transport, leisure, and shopping:
“Few people had cars during the years when I was growing up; everybody knew each other, partly because we walked everywhere, to school, the shops, the pictures, the beach and the parks. Everyday shopping was well catered for with a range of small shops situated along Pt Chevalier Rd.” Marilyn Harpur, nee Solomon.
Which is not to say that sense of community is entirely gone. One of the reasons Joe and I enjoy regular catch-ups is that we both like to walk around the neighbourhood. But our first chat is etched in my memory: he described how hard it can be to get to know your neighbours now, with so many of us arriving and leaving by car and then disappearing inside our houses, behind big front fences.
Thinking about Auckland’s first round of intensification, and the tall walls we’ve thrown up everywhere, I wonder – as the Unitary Plan kicks in and we see more concentrated housing – whether we might see something like the brownstone front-stoop vibe that I loved about living in the northeastern United States. Front porch culture which used to be a feature of old Pt Chev life:
“Our family spent many hours sitting on the front steps. Mum and Dad would pass the time of day with neighbours walking up to the shops.
On Saturday nights just on dusk, several of the older members of the family would make their way up to Mr Winter’s tobacco-and-news agency to away the arrival of the 8 o’clock sports edition of the Star. It was a great meeting place for locals as they stood around gossiping while waiting for the van to arrive.” Valerie Wood.
What’s so striking about all these descriptions of neighbourly streets buzzing with people is that they come from a time when the suburb was much smaller and quieter, a beachy township where locals mostly relied on foot, bike, and public transport. Every older resident can reel off a laundry list of all the shops that used to be here, and how popular they were. Of course, they went further afield for shopping, too; there’s many a story of a trip to the big Farmers in town on the trams or, later, the buses. Still, the smaller but cosier Point Chev thrived, its own little Busytown.
“Shops in Point Chev? Well, on a Friday night it was FAR MORE busy in the 1950s, early 60s than now – true. When LynnMall opened about 1963, more people had cars than before, so they travelled out to New Lynn for the exciting new adventure, and St Lukes was the kick in the guts we didn’t need. Progress I suppose. Further down Point Road, dairies and groceries shops abounded. You can still see them today.” Donald Welch
You can still see them today, even though so much around them has changed in the decades since as a consequence of more people in the area, and “more people having cars than before”. We’re the same people, though. Or are we? I’m impressed by the casual oomph with which they undertook journeys that feel epic to modern eyes – like Noelene Sutton’s father, who managed the Farmers branch at New Lynn “for nigh on 40 years” and “used to bike from Pt Chevalier out to New Lynn with his bag on the handle bars.”
Were they that much harder than we are? Are we that much softer than they were? What did they do when it rained – did Noelene’s father get a staff discount on a raincoat? She goes on to say that as he got older, he’d leave his bike at Hall Corner and catch the bus (it’s good to have options). Still, he must have been fearsomely, casually fit, her dad. Today, he’d probably hop in the car. How long d’you reckon it would take him to drive, park, and get to his desk? If you did the maths over, say, a decade, what sort of numbers would you come up with? How much time would you have truly saved… and how would you have spent it?
This isn’t wistful nostalgia; I’m not trying to romanticize the past, although bits of it do sound pretty great (free range chooks, free range kids, all that making-your-own-fun). I’m just really, really interested in how we move around our city, how we balance our time and health and freedom, and how we cope with change – what we cling to, and what we embrace.
And people can be pretty clear-eyed about progress. Donald Welch’s thoughts on the old trams, as recorded in the book of local memories, are bracingly honest: “Well anyone who reminisces fondly about the good old trams, phooey! Seats hard as hell, lurching along at bicycle speed, cold as Invercargill in July, forget it.”(“Lurching along at less than bicycle speed,” I think to myself sometimes as I bike past the 030 bus stuck in evening traffic on Pt Chev Rd.) My friend Joe has an unexpectedly sunny view on the Waterview Connection: he says he can’t wait to see the cars pouring down those flyovers at night with their lights on: “I think it’ll be a bit like Disneyland.”
The thing is, change tends to look inevitable in the rear-view mirror. But if you’d asked Pt Chev locals back then to extrapolate the world they knew into the future, I think they’d have pictured twice as many people walking and biking, and assumed more and busier local shops, buses running twice as often. I reckon they might be surprised to see how quick so many of us are to jump in our cars and zoom through our cosy, walkable ‘hood – and how accustomed we’ve become to streets largely empty of children, and quiet at night. (No more hijinks at the horse trough, except on the days when festival folk fill the streets en route to Coyle Park…). None of this was planned, as such, at least not by the people living here… it just sort of happened.
As we squint into our own future, with more intensified housing on the horizon, the imminent opening of the Waterview Interchange, more Aucklanders and more cars arriving every day, and a pretty clear climate crisis on our hands that makes me think twice before busting out the car for short trips – I’d like to think we can be more deliberate about what kinds of travel we’d like to encourage through our neighbourhood. All of our neighborhoods. I hope we can be imaginative and engaged in our response to the possibilities.
You know, there’s an alternative universe out there in which Pt Chev Rd up to Meola Rd is about to be widened to four lanes with no parking, matching the motorways that have expensively widened in all directions to accommodate the expected Waterview tunnel traffic ($50m for the stretch between Waterview and St Lukes alone). It would have been a perfectly logical response. (Don’t believe me? Drive the back way to Te Atatu via four-lane Great North Rd some time, and keep your eyes peeled for a place to pull over… yellow dashed lines everywhere.)
So I’m very glad that in this case, Auckland Transport has opted for a much more inclusive approach on a much more human scale. Around the world, a walkable, bikeable, strollable, scootable main street within cooee of the CBD is increasingly something to aspire to. And, done well (I’m keen for visual beauty when it comes to the bike lane protection, for example) this project will be a shining example for every neighbourhood across Auckland that wants to reshape its streets for the better.
The last word goes to local lad Donald Welch, who didn’t miss the rattly old trams, but did love the advent of buses (“What a revelation”):
“People often ask me what is different then from now… I think the biggest change to Point Chev has been physical… the biggest change has been the advent of infill housing… It started as a trickle and turned into a flood. OK. That’s all right, if more people want to live in P.C., fine – best place in Auckland to be.”
He’s not wrong – and I think he’s about to get a whole lot righter.
For background on the Pt Chevalier to Westmere cycling and pedestrian improvements, read our earlier blog post. Feedback closes on Sunday 23 April, so jump in and have your say!