Naked In Nuhaka 7: The Art Of The Urban Hike
This is Naked in Nuhaka, a weekly rant on identity and place in Aotearoa NZ in the 21st Century. I’m a recently returned emigre who’s just spent five years on the edge of life in San Francisco. I’m now hunkered down in my hometown of Nuhaka, Wairoa District, Hawke’s Bay, Aotearoa New Zealand. Recommended weekend activity: Urban Hike.
Leo Koziol Nuhaka, Aotearoa NZ 31.10.02 http://www.nuhaka.com/
One of the things I have been obstinately pursuing in my new life back in Aotearoa is the Art of the Urban Hike. In San Francisco, you can walk for miles in the city, constantly intrigued by street life and stirring vistas at every turn. San Francisco is a city of neighbourhoods, and walking from place to place one witnesses immense contrasts that strangely -- at the conclusion of each hike -- slowly gel into a singular whole.
Last December, on my last day in Auckland (before returning for the first time here to Nuhaka), I undertook a personal "Urban Hike". An exploration of my own "Te Ara Roa" ("pathway") from the CBD of Auckland to Ponsonby Road. After a meeting at the 1950s monolith Auckland City offices, I stepped out on to Aotea Square to witness a noisy political protest underway (something about free radicals in Southeast Asia?). I traced the old creek down bustling Queen Street, stopped in at the media cornucopia of Borders, did the mad chicken crosswalk shuffle at Whitcoulls corner, and stopped for a kiwi lunch (chicken and vege pie) at the waterfront by the Ferry Building. Dessert was Rush Munro’s feijoa and banana.
I was in an upbeat mood, and continued on to the Viaduct Basin. Having been (mostly) bored to tears as junior committee assistant through much of the 1990s America's Cup Committee hearings, I was keen to see how it had all turned out. I found what I had indeed expected: successful open urban spaces surrounded with new apartments and a buzz of urban life. What I did not expect, unthinking, was a panorama of flags at half mast: Italy, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Large flags. An immense American flag. They were at half mast for the then-recent tragic murder of yachting and environmental hero Sir Peter Blake. But the sentiment of the then also still-recent events of September 11 hung low over the Basin, as well. After my long journey home after all the tragic events of 2001 (Bush inauguration included), I felt weary and burdened to witness Old Glory once again at half mast; here in the South Pacific, in the islands of my home. It's symbolism felt all too real.
I was jolted awake by the accent of a passing American tourist; after a week bombarded with kiwi-talk, it came as a strangely welcome and indeed invigorating jolt of normalcy. I wandered on, across the green of Victoria Park, up towards Ponsonby Road. My maudlin feelings were somewhat redeemed by a stop-off outside a villa in Freeman’s Bay where I had once lived, where indeed I had spent most of my early twenties. It seemed strange to walk up this familiar street, Gunson Street, me so very much changed now, both from the passage of time and the journey across the Pacific to America.
Reaching Ponsonby Road, my journey seemed complete, my goal of Urban Hike achieved. I’d unshackled the car-bound feeling of our South Pacific Los Angeles and found a refreshing state of mind and place. Back in familiar territory, a part of me that will always be Auckland, that will always be a part of this gorgeous sprawling archipelagopolis, felt reclaimed.
Back in the long ago days of the early 1990s, Time magazine ran a rather extensive cover story asking the question: "If everyone is hip, then who is hip?" At the time, I lived in inner-city Auckland, and I sat in my shared Grey Lynn artist's studio thinking: that’s interesting. Living in our biggest city’s hippest burb, with the mediaphile’s hangout of Magazzino just around the corner, I felt both affirmed in my pursuits as well as somewhat unsettled.
When I moved to San Francisco, I ended up somehow getting a nice flat in the chi-chi fru-fru suburb of Noe Valley (Know-EE Valley). Noe’s the Herne Bay of San Francisco, lots of hip thirty-something young couples with overpampered babies and children, along with lots of gays, lots of lesbians, and lots of gays and lesbians with overpampered babies and children. Though the populace of my neighbourhood was mostly white, we rubbed right up against the Mission District, with its large immigrant Hispanic population.
Some of my best friends in San Francisco dwelt in the Mission District, so I indeed spent a lot of time there (my current intensive care-level Burrito Withdrawal Syndrome is yet to be salved). I also spent the better part of my last year in SF working admin for a biotech in the rough north Mission neighbourhood. Prostitutes, condoms, used needles, poops and pee-pee on the sidewalk were par for the course in this part of town. I loved every bit of it.
Each year, I grew increasingly charmed with the Mission and the melange of people it attracted. I loved hanging out at “The Cell”, a nonprofit hangout for the Burning Man crowd where art and community events took place at a regular pace in an old disused warehouse. I loved the liberal latino Modern Times bookshop on Valencia Street (apparently Dave Egger’s about to set up shop next door). But at the same time, the dot-coms were burning a swathe through the Mission -- with somewhat less attractive consequences -- and overall an ongoing process of “Hip-ification” was underway, as property prices skyrocketed and the original Hispanic populace moved out to the suburbs (much like the PI’s in Ponsonby).
One of my friends dwelt in the Outer Mission, where the process of gentrification was yet to fully hit. Over the two years I knew him, even his neighbourhood began to change, with the opening of an MP3 music studio, hip restaurants, and groovy bars. The new moniker for this neighbourhood was “Mission Hill”, or “Lower Noe”. We sat louche in his lounge disapprovingly watching the yuppies in the “Lower Noe” apartments across the road driving home in their sparkling BMWs and SUVs.
My friend Scott had spent a similar ten years in New York City trying to escape what he called: “Hipsprawl”. He told me about how he lived in the depths of Alphabet City, a rough and tumble part of town with dirt-cheap rent. When he left in 1990, it was all hip cafes, chic restaurants, and trendy gay bars. Now he found himself in San Francisco, after a similar period of time, suffering from a similar level of hipsprawl malaise. In 2000, he and his roommate gave up, and they moved to the low-rent district of verdant Mill Valley, across the Golden Gate in Marin County. I myself made a similar escape to another “yin” to San Francisco’s “yang”: Nuhaka.
Five years away allows the senses to be heightened when looking for signals of social and economic change. Returning to these sentient islands, I find a New Zealand emergent as a melange of European, American, Asian, and Pacific flavors, a hipsprawl emergent across the landscape that has brought lattes to Levin, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc to the Carterton pub, and Mother Jones and Yoga Monthly to the newsstands of Wairoa.
I’ve expressed reservations in this week’s column about the trend of “Hip-ification” or “Hipsprawl”, but I find the blend in Aotearoa NZ somewhat more satisfying than over the big ditch in California. Over the past year, my urban hikes have covered such diverse ground as Te Atatu Peninsula (heartland of Maori urban renaissance), Titirangi, Matamata (aka Hobbiton), Rotorua (cafes and great Korean kai), Gisborne, Wellington (awesome, but too many drunk 18-year olds), Palmerston North, Woodville (antique heaven), Napier, and Wairoa (best pies on the planet). At all the locales the signs of hipness were everpresent; from the “westside” cafe district of Palmy to the cute little Workmans cafe bar in Matamata; from Maori art and clothing boutiques to New Age stores at every turn.
Urban hiking is an art because it encourages urban dwellers -- from the biggest cities to the smallest burgs -- to see their habitat from the “ground up”. Outside of the bounds of our cars we can be entertained by the variety of street-life, spot all the small details of history, and read the fascinating changes taking place that are all reflections of: Us.
This weekend, pick out a neighbourhood or small town you haven’t been to before (or, one you think you know, but usually just drive on through or stop for one or two essential errands) and go on an Urban Hike. Think of all the identity tribes you might or might not belong to (a long list that I can’t even begin to start on...) and look for signs of those tribes in the place you visit as you wander aimlessly through it. Let your mind wander, let the pace of time slow -- grab a latte, or sip wine in the sunshine -- and as the long summer day wanes concentrate as hard as you can on thinking about nothing, as you slowly absorb the so many things you now realise that you never knew.
Te Ara Roa: The Website http://www.teararoa.org.nz/
Workmans Cafe, Matamata (Beware: garish colours, excellent content) http://www.workmanscafebar.cjb.net/
My Trippy Hipsprawl Poem http://www.nuhaka.com/oshie/hipsprawl.htm
On SF Urban Hikes (Note: Some Mature Content) http://otherstream.com/stream/1999f.html
PAST COLUMNS Are available linked from my website: http://www.nuhaka.com/