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Who wants to be an Aucklander: a tale of two cities

After a week of mud-slinging in the media about who deserves to buy a KiwiBuild house in Auckland, Emma Espiner remembers a time when she would have paid any sum of money to avoid living in our biggest city.  

I visited Wellington six months after we'd moved to Auckland. A barista at one of my regular cafes asked where I’d been. 

“Moved to Auckland” 

“Oh shit, sorry to hear that.”

I remember how good it felt to hate Auckland. Shit it was satisfying. We lived on the south coast of Wellington. Every morning I’d step out into the howling southerly and form a rictus grin as the wind tore through my clothes and into my soul. At least I’m not in Auckland, I’d think.  

It didn’t matter that I’d been to Auckland precisely two times in my life - once as an eight-year-old and once as a 15-year-old. The first time I went with Nana. We got the train because back then it was the affordable option. We played cards and Nana lined up the empty brandy bottles on the table as she finished them. The second time we came by car over the Bombay Hills. We were going to the Big Day Out because back then it was still awesome. My best friend’s dad drove three of us all the way from Wellington. My best friend lost her Roman sandals in the mosh pit for Blink 182 and I discovered that I hated concerts almost as much as I hated Auckland. 

You can imagine it took a bit to convince me to move here. In Wellington (or more accurately, Lower Hutt) where I grew up, hating our biggest city was a competitive sport. Monty Python would have loved it. 

“Would rather live in shoe box in middle of road!” 

"Me, I’d rather live in plastic bag in a septic tank than live in Auckland!” 

It was the fish bowl nature of Wellington’s political scene that did it in the end. My husband worked in political journalism at the time. One too many times, some dude in a suit (always a dude, always a suit) interrupted our meal or quiet drink with a “So what do you think of John Key, eh?” 

One of the first things I noticed was that Aucklanders look at you differently. Right into your face. It’s pretty confronting when you’ve come from Wellington, where the shifty side-glance is a honed skill. Non-Wellingtonians might not appreciate that this trait is essential for survival. There’s no way you’d make it from the train to your office down Lambton Quay or The Terrace without it. The city is just too small and there are too few people and not enough time in the day to acknowledge everyone you know when you pass them in the street. It was in Wellington that I learned how to non-awkwardly ignore close friends and relatives, while passing within ‘I can smell your shampoo’ proximity to them. 

Now, if we listened carefully, she said, you might hear the clink of cutlery and catch a whiff of the sweet scent of property values rising. 

A colleague explained another reason why Auckland streets seemed so strange to us. We rented in Ponsonby for our first year. That wasn’t the strange bit, although it’s true that there’s nowhere else in New Zealand like Ponsonby. This is a suburb where there are more expensive design stores and chic cafes per capita than any other, but where you can’t buy anything practical. True story - once we had to go as far as Grey Lynn to purchase a mop. Oh, the humanity.

Anyway, this colleague told us that Auckland streets were quiet because everyone had busted out the back of their villas in the ubiquitous ‘reno’ and that’s where they all hung out. Spending time outdoors on one’s property was not an activity we’d been able to engage in frequently in Wellington. Now, if we listened carefully, she said, you might hear the clink of cutlery and catch a whiff of the sweet scent of property values rising. 

It’s cruel though. Six years later, when Auckland finally feels like home, I’ve stopped yearning for a decent coffee and we’ve finally found our people in this city of tribes and sub-tribes, it’s now that we’re losing friends to other, more affordable cities at a rate of two to three families per year. These are people with good employment prospects and a desire to be here and contribute to this city, but who are unable to make Auckland work. They’ve gotten sick of the hell of the rental market, the short notice evictions from landlords wanting to cash in on their investment, having to move two or three little kids out of schools, again. 

We’re becoming resigned to the fact that it might just be us and a bunch of wealthy old people with protected sight lines to the volcanic cones living here. When I talked to friends about planning for the Zombie Apocalypse, this isn’t quite what I had in mind.

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