The suburb so hipster it's not even hipster

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of Metro magazine. Illustration: Ivy Niu


I almost crashed my car the day I fell for New Lynn. Driving towards my new house along Rata St, the artery that connects Avondale to Titirangi, I was distracted by a woman shambling along beside the rubbish-strewn, unmown berm. She was a hot mess of leopard-print leggings, fried platinum hair and an expansive diamante-studded T-shirt emblazoned with “TRES CHIC”.

She was well into her 50s, possibly drunk, but she had a kind of trashy, in-your-face anti-glamour that was bracingly refreshing. She was totally hipster and she didn’t even know it. Just like New Lynn.

My partner and I used to live above a shop in Ponsonby Rd and when the din from SPQR became too exhausting, we shifted to an apartment next to the relative calm of Spaghetti Junction. We were used to being in the heart, but, predictably, the search for a home in an economically insane market pushed us away. We went west.

The house we bought was the only one in New Lynn we looked at. We didn’t really know where we were, beyond timing the drive from the Newton Rd on-ramp. Stranded somewhere between the boggy mangroves of the Whau River and the mossy incline of the Waitakeres, New Lynn has more than its share of warehouses, second-hand car lots and big-box retailers, all orbiting the oldest mall in the country.

After the Rata St woman, I saw très chic potential everywhere. It’s in the serrated roof of the brush and mop factory one development away from boutique industrial apartments; the brick archways of the 70s real-estate office, so perfect for a smoked barbecue restaurant; the automotive workshops that would make ideal airy artist studios.
Music publicists, theatre producers and actors are buying in. “New Lynn, it’s the new Grey Lynn,” my partner and I would tell people when we first moved. Half-joking. Half-wishing.

I felt less marooned the more I heard of creative professionals living in the area. Music publicists, theatre producers and actors are buying in. I bumped into one writer at a cafe who had moved there a decade ago when she became a mum. Suddenly, the property-market storm had washed her former colleagues west like flotsam. She smiled victoriously.

“New Lynn, it’s the new Grey Lynn,” my partner and I would tell people when we first moved. Half-joking. Half-wishing. He said we’d know New Lynn had gone full hipster when we saw knitting on the street furniture.

 

On Thursdays there is a night market outside the community centre, which is genius because by that stage in the week I’ve had it with cooking. It sells the kind of food you’d never normally get on a lazy takeaway night — like Ethiopian Wot, slow-cooked curries dished out of crockpots onto giant rounds of traditional injera bread. Piles of Burmese noodles; Chilean hotdogs.

There are no prettily stencilled signs at the market. No food trucks. Meals come on proper crockery and you eat sitting on the grass or inside the hall sharing a big table listening to a long-haired dude strumming folk music.

When you’re done, you take your plates to the volunteers at the washing-up tent who look after things in an environmentally considerate way. It would reek of hipsterdom, except it’s doesn’t, because it’s just not bothered with that kind of self-awareness.

What we really missed was a barista within a 10-minute stroll of the house. There’s a squat stucco shop on a nearby corner with a sign saying “embroidery” that taunts us with its cafe-perfect proportions. Surely an embroidery store is doomed in 2015.

When I opened the door, a bell jangled like it was 1953. There were boxes piled to the ceiling and a giant contraption with threads hanging off it and not a spare inch for an espresso machine. A cheery man with a grey beard introduced his dear wife who remained only a timorous voice hidden by the boxes. The couple have been there seven years.

I left them making insignias for a police indoor soccer team and decided espresso from the stovetop at home was just fine. Besides, cafes are everywhere. Where else but New Lynn can you get your lapel personalised? Across the road is a sewing shop selling craft supplies like plastic animal eyes in tubes, and tassel trims. It’s a cutesy craft bloggers’ paradise.

The universal indicator of a hipster neighbourhood is surely the proliferation of second-hand clothing stores. On this measure New Lynn excels at every level. It’s got all the op shops — Sallys, Vinnies, Hospice — plus bargain megastore SaveMart, which is so immense they have shopping trolleys to push around.

For something a little more curated, I go to Go Jo Recycled Fashion, hidden in a side street of panelbeaters and powdercoaters. It’s in the most unlikely spot for a vintage store, yet former stylist Jo Bratton’s eye for a funky 80s twinset or dreamy 70s maxi and her enthusiasm for creating the perfect look for her customer, be it for a costume party or a wedding, draw you back again and again.

When I need a hit of somewhere that knows exactly how cool it is, I go to Cockspurs. Rockabilly singer Labretta Suede and her husband and bandmate Johnny Moondog set it up when they returned from living in New York.

The tiny shop is packed with cowboy boots, beaded 60s dresses and varsity jackets that you try on in the toilet out the back. I’ve never seen another customer in there, just Moondog reading a book at the counter with his kelpie at his feet.

Cockspurs is surrounded by vacant shops in a street bordering the recently upgraded train station and seems to be holding its breath, waiting for more cool to blow in. A hopeful sign on one awning suggests, “Shop?” Another, “Cafe?”

Change is surely coming. In less than a year I’ve witnessed the opening of the new Maori theatre Te Pou, and Te Toi Uku/The Art of Clay Museum, which is dedicated to preserving Crown Lynn ceramics. There’s been a giggly controversy over a supposedly phallic public art sculpture. The new mall extension with a fancy dining-out lane and eight-screen cinema is due to open next month, and a new housing development of nearly 2000 homes has been announced.

The other day, I saw knitting wrapped around a signpost in Titirangi and scoffed. You don’t get that sort of tweeness in New Lynn. And if it ever arrives, I’ll proudly say I was here back when the suburb was gritty and authentic. But as one fellow resident says, “New Lynn, we don’t want it to change. But we wouldn’t mind a wine bar.”