One of cen­tral Auck­land’s old­est thor­ough­fares tells a big­ger story, writes Paula Mor­ris.

One of cen­tral Auck­land’s old­est thor­ough­fares tells a big­ger story about our city.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — PAULA MOR­RIS

In 2015, af­ter spend­ing all but 18 months of the past 30 years liv­ing over­seas, I moved back to my home town, Auck­land. My hus­band and I needed to rent a place that had a high stud: we have a lot of book­shelves, and they are

2.5 me­tres tall. In Sh­effield, the last place we lived, our apart­ment was a for­mer cutlery fac­tory.

In Auck­land we found a one-bed­room flat in what was once an old cloth­ing fac­tory owned by Ross and Glen­din­ing Ltd, a Dunedin firm. A friend’s mother used to work here as a ma­chin­ist when she was a teenager. It was con­verted into ex­pen­sive apart­ments in the 1990s and re­named ‘Park Lane’; the du­plexes on the roof have ter­races over­look­ing Myers Park. An old school friend, whose par­ents live down­stairs, calls it an old peo­ple’s home be­cause so many of the res­i­dents are el­derly.

It’s on Greys Av­enue, one of cen­tral Auck­land’s old­est roads — known as Grey Street un­til 1927. It’s steep and straight, climb­ing from be­hind the Town Hall to Pitt Street and the Karanga­hape Road ridge. In the past it reached all the way to Queen Street and was a busy route for horse-drawn carts.

The Lon­don plane trees that line it were planted in 1871, part of the city’s first beau­ti­fi­ca­tion project. Streets like Jer­vois Road in Herne Bay were stripped of many trees by some sub­se­quent ruth­less and short-sighted regime hell bent on wider roads. But the Vic­to­rian plane trees here still flour­ish, a skele­tal arch in the win­ter, a lush canopy of green in the summer.

We wanted to live here on Greys Av­enue be­cause the flat has a four-me­tre stud and a long stretch of wall in its main room, ideal for our bat­tal­ions of books. The lo­ca­tion means we save on bus fares: Queen Street is just down the hill, K Road just up. I can climb through Al­bert Park to my job at the univer­sity. We can walk to con­certs at the Town Hall, events at the Aotea Cen­tre and the Civic, plays at Q and the Base­ment Theatre, Unity Books, movies, record shops, Burger Fuel.

For me there’s some­thing else as well, some­thing about in­hab­it­ing part of the city’s past. Some­times the city’s past is more clear in my mind than its mud­dled present. I still think of the cafe at Smith and Caughey’s as the Cop­per Ket­tle. I still think of Beres­ford Square as the place where the Farm­ers free bus stopped and turned. Be­cause I lived away for so long, I missed many of the grad­ual changes of Auck­land. I wasn’t here when the old houses on the Queen Street side of Myers Park were de­mol­ished and apart­ment tow­ers built in their place. I wasn’t here when the Civic was un­der threat, or the Town Hall. I wasn’t here when the flag­ship Farm­ers build­ing on Hob­son Street closed. The Farm­ers, my grand­mother al­ways called it — short for The Farm­ers Trad­ing Com­pany. When

she took me on the trol­ley bus along Pon­sonby Road to do the daily shop­ping, we were go­ing to The Three Lamps. In the 50 years since I was born, Auck­land has bus­ied it­self get­ting rid of trees, Vic­to­rian build­ings, grand de­part­ment stores, art deco the­atres and def­i­nite ar­ti­cles. In 2016, the 1920s dance hall on Queen Street that housed Real Groovy Records was de­mol­ished.

This part of the city has strong fam­ily mem­o­ries — which means the mem­o­ries are not just mine. My fa­ther used to de­liver the Her­ald on a route that in­cluded Franklin Road and Welling­ton Street. When he col­lected the money due, he’d come to Greys Av­enue, to one of the Vi­en­nese-style state flats built in the late 1940s, and hand it over to a Her­ald em­ployee. Ev­ery­one wanted to live in those stylish new blocks, he said. In those days, our build­ing — right across the street — was still a shirt fac­tory.

In the late ’40s, my fa­ther’s Un­cle Bob and Aun­tie Alice were work­ing in an­other shirt fac­tory on Karanga­hape Road. He was a shirt-cut­ter and she was a ma­chin­ist. My fa­ther at­tended the Camp­bell

Free Kinder­garten in Vic­to­ria Park, Beres­ford Street School, and Sed­don Tech on Welles­ley Street. Be­fore he be­came a print­ing ap­pren­tice at the Her­ald, he was a St John Am­bu­lance driver, spend­ing overnight shifts in the old brick Cen­tral Fire Sta­tion on Beres­ford Square.

My grand­par­ents lived on An­gle­sea Street in Pon­sonby, mov­ing in the 1950s to a dou­ble-fronted kauri villa — large, cold and creaky — on the cor­ner of Pon­sonby Road and Dou­glas Street. When I was a small child, Grand­dad worked as a store­man at the Her­ald. Ev­ery year, on the day of the Farm­ers Christ­mas Pa­rade, he would guard a park­ing space on Wynd- ham Street for us. Grandma man­aged the staff cafe at Ren­dells de­part­ment store on Karanga­hape Road. My Aun­tie Dawn be­gan her long re­tail ca­reer sell­ing gloves in Ge­orge Courts, a few doors down from Ren­dells. Af­ter my brother broke a leg off my Bar­bie, she was sent to the Dolls’ Hos­pi­tal fur­ther along the road. The Thurs­day nights of my early child­hood were spent go­ing late-night shop­ping on K Road. It seemed bustling and ex­cit­ing to me, es­pe­cially the clang­ing cage lift in Ge­orge Courts, though I could have done with­out the pun­gent-or­ange Hare Kr­ish­nas, whirling their way down the footpath: they put me off in­cense for life.

Now my stu­dents com­plain about the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of K Road: it must be stopped, they say — en route from an art gallery open­ing to a po­etry read­ing. But K Road was al­ready gen­tri­fied a cen­tury ago, when its sturdy blocks of shops, its tea rooms and ar­cades were built. The de­cline of K Road be­gan dur­ing my child­hood, as new sub­urbs drained the city.

We moved to West Auck­land and

The Vic­to­rian plane trees here still flour­ish, a skele­tal arch in the win­ter, a lush canopy of green in the summer.

even­tu­ally traded Thurs­day late-night shop­ping on K Road for Fri­day late-night shop­ping at Lyn­nMall. It was fresh and shiny in the 1970s, open air and Hare Kr­ishna-free. But dur­ing its in­evitable de­cline it looked even more tawdry than K Road, with­out any art deco char­ac­ter to re­deem it. Now the mall is fresh-faced again, with new cinemas and a trans­port hub; a restau­rant quar­ter called The Brick­works has opened, nod­ding to the neigh­bour­hood’s past as Crown Lynn Cen­tral. The whole sub­urb of New Lynn is be­ing gen­tri­fied. You can tell, be­cause apart­ment blocks are go­ing up and the restau­rants in The Brick­works are re­ferred to as ‘eater­ies’.

My fa­ther said that the shirt fac­tory where my Un­cle Bob worked was above the old Ris­ing Sun Ho­tel on K Road. My fa­ther also said that a Chi­nese restau­rant on Greys Av­enue, just down from where we live now, was no­to­ri­ous for steal­ing and cook­ing cats, so I think my fa­ther was not an en­tirely re­li­able wit­ness. But he did re­mem­ber when Greys Av­enue and all the long-gone small streets to the south and west of the Town Hall were teem­ing with shops and board­ing houses. The Mar­ket Ho­tel still stood on the cor­ner of Cook Street; Wah Lee’s orig­i­nal shop was still the hub of a mini Chi­na­town. This part of Auck­land was busy, thriv­ing and not very re­spectable. There was talk of opium dens and broth­els. Com­pa­nies like Ross and Glen­din­ing had been lured to the in­ner city to pro­vide de­cent jobs for women who oth­er­wise might be led astray. The land for Myers Park was given to the city so lo­cal urchins, including those born to the un­wed moth­ers sewing away in shirt fac­to­ries, could have some­where green to play.

The ear­li­est pho­tos of Grey Street show a dusty, leafy street of picket fences and ve­ran­das and vil­las. If all those houses were here now, Greys Av­enue would be as ex­pen­sive and pic­turesque as Franklin Road in Free­mans Bay. But by World War I, the lower reaches of the street were squalid. Many of the build­ings were board­ing houses, their rick­ety out­houses and droop­ing wash­ing lines a scruffy fringe to the Ed­war­dian or­der of Myers Park.

When the name changed to Greys Av­enue, the old Grey Street was doomed. Slums were cleared, Chi­na­town dis­man­tled. It took a while: Wah Lee’s didn’t move to Hob­son Street un­til the ’60s, when a high-rise block of state flats was go­ing up fur­ther along Greys Av­enue, and the area be­hind the Town Hall was be­ing razed and rein­vented as open space and tow­er­ing civic build­ings. Ev­ery sin­gle nine­teenth-cen­tury build­ing along Greys Av­enue was de­stroyed. To­day, the for­mer Ross and Glen­din­ing fac­tory, built at the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, is the old­est build­ing left on the street.

At the top of Greys Av­enue, on the cor­ner of Pitt Street, there’s the Cen­tral Fire Sta­tion, built in the 1940s. Next to it, sprawl­ing down the park side of the street, is the Greys Av­enue Sy­n­a­gogue, which dates from the late ’60s, and also houses a Jewish school. Dur­ing one school hol­i­days, my mother took us in there to look around; she was al­ways try­ing to il­lu­mi­nate and ed­u­cate us in new and ex­haust­ing ways. At 100 Greys Av­enue sits the char­ac­ter-free Amora Ho­tel, and next to it, at num­ber 80, is the DDB build­ing, lo­cal home of the in­ter­na­tional ad agency.

I’ve spent a lot of time stand­ing there, in front of the en­try to the Amora’s park­ing garage, try­ing to work out where 90 Grey Street would have been lo­cated. In 1911, num­ber 90 Grey Street was a board­ing house. It was prob­a­bly de­mol­ished some time af­ter World War II. I’ve never seen a pic­ture of it.

All I know is that in 1911, ac­cord­ing to the elec­toral roll, my great-grand­fa­ther David Mor­ris lived there. It’s his last­known ad­dress in New Zealand. Af­ter 1911 and the house on Grey Street, he dis­ap­pears with­out a trace.

When we moved to Greys Av­enue, I didn’t re­alise that David Mor­ris had lived on the same street. None of us know much about David Mor­ris at all. His main sig­nif­i­cance in our fam­ily is his last name. He mar­ried my great-grand­mother Sarah An­nie Wy­att on 17 Fe­bru­ary 1897 in the Auck­land reg­istry of­fice. He was a ship’s cook, and one of the wit­nesses to the mar­riage was an­other sea­man, a man called Sav­age. The other wit­ness was the bride’s sis­ter.

Sarah An­nie was twenty-six, one of the mighty Wy­att clan of Omaha who sailed from Portsmouth in 1864 on a ship named Queen of Beauty. They owned the sawmill up at Leigh. David Joseph Mor­ris had ar­rived in New Zealand more re­cently. The ear­li­est trace I can find of him is 1896, when he was liv­ing on Nel­son Street.

His mar­riage cer­tifi­cate says he was thirty-four, born in Lon­don to an­other David Mor­ris, a brick­layer, and his wife, Jo­hanna.

In Jan­uary 1898, their first son was born, my great-un­cle Bob, who grew up to be­come a shirt-cut­ter and served in France in World War I as a ma­chine-gun-

ner. In July 1899, my grand­dad, Alf, was born on North Street in New­ton, on the wrong side of K Road. Most of that old New­ton neigh­bour­hood was de­mol­ished when the mo­tor­way gob­bled up the gully.

We have a stu­dio pho­to­graph of David Mor­ris and his two sons when they’re both still very small, pale-eyed and an­gelic. David Mor­ris has dark hair and a jaunty mous­tache. He looks ro­bust and lively to me; his eyes seem to sparkle. He’s dark in a Welsh way, and I won­der if his fa­ther was Welsh: the name is, al­most cer­tainly. He looks a bit like my brother.

It’s a happy pic­ture, but the fam­ily wasn’t happy. By 1905, Sarah An­nie and David Mor­ris had sep­a­rated. He was liv­ing in a Sailors’ As­so­ci­a­tion Home in Ep­som. My fa­ther said Grand­dad never spoke of his fa­ther; it was a sub­ject that could not be dis­cussed. There was no di­vorce, but Sarah An­nie moved on. In 1911, she was liv­ing in Arch Hill with Fred­er­ick Wil­letts, an iron worker five years her ju­nior, who even­tu­ally be­came her sec­ond hus­band. They had two chil­dren to­gether, half sib­lings to Bob and Alf: Vi­o­let in 1911 and Len in 1913. I’ve seen Aun­tie Vi­o­let’s birth cer­tifi­cate. It reads: il­le­git­i­mate.

Alf must have liked Fred­er­ick Wil­letts, be­cause my fa­ther’s mid­dle name was Fred­er­ick. My fa­ther re­mem­bered him fondly, and called him Grand­dad. The only story he knew about David Mor­ris is this: when Bob and Alf were boys, a man ap­proached them down at the wharf, say­ing he was their fa­ther. The boys were hus­tled away and told that the man who ap­proached them was a very bad per­son. The men who hus­tled them away may or may not have been their Wy­att un­cles. I don’t know. My fa­ther didn’t know.

The source of the story was, ap­par­ently, Aun­tie Vi­o­let, who wasn’t born un­til my grand­dad was twelve and didn’t wit­ness the in­ci­dent her­self. It’s all hearsay. Ev­ery- one who was alive then is long dead.

The year Aun­tie Vi­o­let was born, 1911, is the year David Mor­ris was liv­ing on Grey Street. Then — noth­ing. The story I heard, prob­a­bly from my mother who was al­ways gos­sip­ing with Grandma and con­sumed a steady diet of hearsay, was that Sarah An­nie fi­nally went to the au­thor­i­ties, who­ever they might have been, and asked for the mar­riage to be dis­solved. No­body had heard from or about David Mor­ris for decades. He prob­a­bly left New Zealand while work­ing as a cook on a ship. As a mem­ber of the crew, he was much harder to trace than a pas­sen­ger.

On 16 March 1929, at the age of fifty-nine, Sarah An­nie was de­clared a widow. She and Fred­er­ick Wil­letts were mar­ried two years later. Aun­tie Vi­o­let’s birth cer­tifi­cate was amended with a stamp and a sig­na­ture. At the age of twenty, she was ren­dered le­git­i­mate. This, I sus­pect, is the rea­son they got mar­ried.

Bob and Alf kept the sur­name Mor­ris. Un­cle Bob and Aun­tie Alice had no chil­dren. Grand­dad passed on the name to his two chil­dren, my fa­ther and my Aun­tie Dawn, who never mar­ried. Now my fa­ther is dead, there are just two of us left with the name: my brother and me. My brother and I don’t have chil­dren. When we’re gone, the last traces of David Mor­ris’s name and legacy in New Zealand will be gone as well. Maybe he had an­other fam­ily, the way Sarah An­nie did, in an­other place. Maybe we have hordes of dark, ro­bust Mor­ris cousins in some other coun­try. Maybe he died at sea.

Maybe his name wasn’t David Mor­ris at all. In those days, you could say any­thing; you could be any­one. You could say you were from Lon­don even if you weren’t. On the other side of the world, you could tell peo­ple any story you liked.

I’ve been mar­ried twice, and both times didn’t con­sider changing my name. It is my name, af­ter all. But there’s not much to it, re­ally. The name ‘Mor­ris’ may have been a guise.

All other sides of the fam­ily bris­tle with thick­ets of an­ces­tors. On my grandma’s, a rich and de­tailed whaka­papa. On Grand­dad’s, count­less Wy­atts stretch­ing back to English church­yards and har­bours. My mother traced eight gen­er­a­tions of her fam­ily in Eng­land, coal min­ers on one side, shoe­mak­ers on the other. But

In those days, you could say any­thing; you could be any­one. You could say you were from Lon­don even if you weren’t.

the Mor­ris name, the one that’s on all my books — noth­ing.

Build­ings are de­mol­ished in Auck­land; names are changed. Grand­dad was born on North Street, now Galatos Street. David Mor­ris lived for a while on Wil­liamson Street, now Mar­got Street, in Ep­som. Sarah An­nie and Fred­er­ick Wil­letts lived on Rus­sell Street in Arch Hill, now Cooper Street. Un­cle Bob and Aun­tie Alice spent their en­tire mar­ried life liv­ing in the same house, but the street name changed from Bath Street to Wells Street to Winn Road. For many years, Auck­lan­ders lob­bied to change the name of Karanga­hape Road to King Ge­orge Street, Fleet Street or Cheap­side.

These days, the ground floor of Ren­dells is an Asian food hall. Ge­orge Courts is an apart­ment block, its cage lift gone. No­body sells gloves any­more.

My grand­par­ents’ house on Pon­sonby Road, that beau­ti­ful dou­ble-fronted kauri villa, was knocked down in the 1970s. We had din­ner at the restau­rant Mex­ico on Pon­sonby Road re­cently, and I re­alised we were sit­ting in what was once my grand­par­ents’ front gar­den. My grand­par­ents were new­ly­weds when Grey Street be­came Greys Av­enue. In the course of their mar­riage all but one build­ing in the street — ours — was knocked down in an at­tempt to make the street mod­ern and re­spectable.

The 1940s flats across Greys Av­enue are framed with scaf­fold­ing at the mo­ment, get­ting a fresh coat of paint. I stood out­side our build­ing the other day mak­ing a call: I was wear­ing a striped skirt. ‘Oi, stripey!’ one of the painters shouted at me. The flats are even more de­sir­able these days, per­haps, now that it costs so much to live else­where in the in­ner city. The up­per Greys Av­enue flats, how­ever, have aged badly since the ’50s. The block looks mouldy and un­kempt, painted in sludge colours, like a sad piece of scenery in an episode of Z-Cars.

Our front win­dows face the street, and at night it can get noisy. Groups of drunk peo­ple stag­ger by on their way back up the hill to the YMCA hos­tel or K Road clubs, or down the hill to­wards Queen Street. They laugh and carouse; some­times they ar­gue. One Christ­mas Eve, an an­gry man, off his head, made re­peat per­for­mances in the mid­dle of the road, shout­ing and swear­ing at no one in par­tic­u­lar.

A young cou­ple who live in the up­per Greys Av­enue flats like to have fe­ro­cious rows in the street, ei­ther out­side their build­ing or up and down the road. Gen­er­ally they stage their ar­gu­ments around seven o’clock on week­end morn­ings. The woman is al­ways the most en­raged and in­co­her­ent. One evening I heard an­other woman across the road scream­ing for help, so I ran out to our tiny bal­cony, clutch­ing my phone, ready to call the po­lice. The po­lice were al­ready there, out­side the lower Greys Av­enue flats, ar­rest­ing her. She was scream­ing be­cause she didn’t want to get into the po­lice car.

In 2015, not long af­ter we moved here, a young Slo­vakian man named David Cer­ven, wanted on charges of ag­gra­vated rob­bery of liquor stores and a dairy, told po­lice they could find him in Myers Park. He was stand­ing un­der a tree be­hind our build­ing. When he told the po­lice he was armed — a lie — they shot him dead.

Drink, drugs, poverty, men­tal ill­ness. In­ner-city Auck­land is the same as in­ner cities ev­ery­where. Some peo­ple live in apart­ments that cost more than a mil­lion dol­lars; some peo­ple live on the street. For­mer politi­cian John Banks says he was home­less as a teenager, sleep­ing in his Mor­ris 8 in the Do­main. Now his cen­tral Auck­land apart­ment — on Al­bert Street, about ten min­utes’ walk from us — is on the mar­ket for $5 mil­lion. His first busi­ness, in the early ’70s, was a cof­fee bar called Becky Thatcher in a Karanga­hape Road ar­cade.

We like liv­ing here, but I never walk through Myers Park at night.

Greys Av­enue is a street of mostly mod­ern build­ings, just as the city plan­ners wanted — no opium dens, no board­ing houses, no Vic­to­rian hov­els. The plane trees planted in 1871 give the street an ele­gance its new build­ings lack. They were there when David Mor­ris lived at num­ber 90; they’re still here, more than a cen­tury later, when his great-grand­daugh­ter lives at num­ber 68. At some point he left this street, just as one day I’m bound to leave it: if our land­lords de­cide to sell our flat, we can’t af­ford to buy it.

The plane trees of Greys Av­enue will re­main, turn­ing with the sea­sons, flour­ish­ing in the sun and the rain. They’ll out­last me and my name. What­ever hap­pens next to this street, what­ever bold new vi­sion is de­vised for Auck­land in its next in­car­na­tion, what­ever his­tory must be jet­ti­soned along the way, I hope no­body ever cuts them down.

Some peo­ple live in apart­ments that cost more than a mil­lion dol­lars; some peo­ple live on the street.

An ex­tract from Home: New Writ­ing, edited by Thom Con­roy (Massey Univer­sity Press, $39.99). Nov­el­ist and short-story writer Paula Mor­ris is a se­nior lec­turer in cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Auck­land and founder of the Acad­emy of New Zealand Lit­er­a­ture.

OP­PO­SITE— Grey Street in De­cem­ber 1904. ABOVE— Greys Av­enue to­day. The ho­tel at right is at num­ber 100. In 1911, Paula Mor­ris’s great-grand­fa­ther lived at num­ber 90.

ABOVE— Grey Street to the right in the 1870s, run­ning from Queen Street up to Pitt Street.

ABOVE— The Ross and Glen­din­ing cloth­ing fac­tory in 1928 (left) and the same build­ing to­day. It was con­verted to apart­ments in the 1990s and re­named Park Lane.

RIGHT — The Greys Av­enue flats, on the north­west­ern side of the tree-lined street.

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