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The scenes at 2024’s Cross Street Music Festival. (Photo: Nik Brinkman)
The scenes at 2024’s Cross Street Music Festival. (Photo: Nik Brinkman)

SocietyMarch 12, 2024

Karanga-a-Hape’s unique beauty was on full display over the weekend

The scenes at 2024’s Cross Street Music Festival. (Photo: Nik Brinkman)
The scenes at 2024’s Cross Street Music Festival. (Photo: Nik Brinkman)

After three years of searching, Tommy de Silva has finally discovered Mercury Plaza’s successor as the site that best represents Auckland’s pumping artistic artery.

Karangahape Road has a special place in my heart, as it does for many in Tāmaki Makaurau. I lived a street or two from Auckland’s pumping artistic artery during my formative years, from just before my 16th birthday to just after my 21st. Long before I lived locally, I often ate at the now-demolished Mercury Plaza with my whānau. Eating Koreaunts dumplings next to All Blacks munching wonton noodle soup from Tony and Ming Chan’s beloved Chinese Cuisine was a mundane monthly experience. 

Before it was bulldozed to construct the upcoming Karanga-a-Hape train station, Mercury Plaza represented the best of the lazily-dubbed “K’ Road” neighbourhood. It was cheap, diverse, inclusive, no-nonsense, and, most importantly, fucking buzzy. Since the demolition, nothing else has come along to claim the legendary food court’s place. There are buzzy, diverse, inclusive and no-nonsense places, but they’re rarely cheap any more. 

A beautiful map drawn my Toby Morris showing the floor plan of the now-demolished Mercury Plaza Asian food court.
The Mercury Plaza floor plan just prior to its demolition to make way for the Karanga-a-Hape City Rail Link station construction depot. (Illustration: Toby Morris)

On Saturday, March 9, I discovered Merc’s worthy successor, the Cross Street Music Festival – and it isn’t just because the festival is mere steps away from the side door that led to Chinese Cuisine or that a Mercury Plaza sign is fluorescently and proudly visible in Cross Street’s Sunset Tattoo parlour (where I used food money from my parents to pay for my first tattoo). 

The gone but not forgotten Mercury Plaza logo which used to define the Newton Gully skyline.
The gone but never forgotten Mercury Plaza logo which used to define the Newton Gully skyline. (Photo: Tommy de Silva)

Tickets for this eight-hour block party between Upper Queen Street and Mercury Lane were cheap, costing as much as you’d pay for a two to three-hour, one to two-act concert at Town Hall down the road. The block party also embodied Mercury Plaza’s no-nonsense approach, as the Cross Street Festival wasn’t mucking around with fancy technology other festivals and venues employ. While efficient and smooth, its systems felt rustic, like the best parts of Karangahape Road still do despite whispers of gentrification. When we briefly left the festival, our return ticket was a slip of paper and a lick of vivid. 

Bright colours bathed Cross Street during its recent festival, making it seem more like a scene from a sci-fi show than an ordinary Auckland street.
Cross Street was bathed in bright colours during its recent festival, making it seem more like a scene from a sci-fi show than an ordinary Auckland street. (Photo: Nik Brinkman)

Regarding uniquely Karanga-a-Hape buzziness, Cross Street delivered. At its “Small Rave” stage, nestled snugly inside a dark, lanky loading bay for the Lim Chhour foodcourt/supermarket, party hat chandeliers hung low enough from the ceiling for people to grab a bright pink headdress for themselves. On the street, vintage (by my 23-year-old standards) TVs constantly broadcast static and trippy images. The block party at large looked more like a fluorescently coloured scene from the sci-fi/western show Cowboy Bebop (parts of which Netflix filmed on Cross Street) than a typical dull Auckland street. Greenery draped across the main stage, bathed in luscious lights, gave a new meaning to the concrete jungle. 

One of the vintage TVs with a trippy Cross Street Music Festival logo on a multi-coloured background.
One of the vintage TVs that was part of the Cross Street Music Festival’s vibey setting. (Photo: Tommy de Silva)

But more than anything else, the festival represented Karangahape Road’s beautiful diversity and inclusivity. In the crowd alongside locals – like the festival’s organiser and Ngāpuhi/Te Mahurehure uri Anya Vitali, or North Shore boy turned co-owner of three beloved St Kevins Arcade sites, Adam Purcell – were Tāmaki troopers from all walks of life. While there were plenty of rangatahi – like friends from school and university, and people I’ve interviewed, including the New York-based but North Shore-raised band Balu Brigada – wise old kaumātua were partying at Cross Street too, like a funky old Dutch guy I see around at cycling events. Pākehā grandfathers, young wāhine Māori, Asian 40-somethings and every demographic in between all shared the same dancefloor. 

A photo collage showing the diverse crowds at the Cross Street Music Festival.
The diverse crowd of the Cross Street Music Festival. (Top row photos: Irena Ekens/@photoswithirena. Bottom row photos: Nik Brinkman)

They were all there for Karangahape Road’s famously assorted musical offering. Alongside Balu Brigada’s groove-pop were Fathe and the Sweetos’ soulful big band ballads, Hot Sauce Club’s new Dunedin rock rhythms, contemporary waiata Māori from Te KuraHuia, and many other genres. 

Vitali explicitly wants her festival to be a platform for up-and-coming Aotearoa artists, and young musicians weren’t the only rising creatives who got an opportunity at Cross Street. Two budding wahine photographers I’ve spotted capturing a couple of other gigs were busy documenting the festival, one with her uniquely Karanga-a-Hape digital and film camera combo.  

Several of the musicians and groups perform at the Cross Street Music Festival's stage.
Balu Brigada, Fathe and the Sweetos, Hot Sauce Club and Te KuraHuia perform onstage at the Cross Street Music Festival. (Black and white photos: Nico Rose/@Nicorosepenny. Colour photos: Irena Ekens/@photoswithirena)

By providing a safe space for young creatives to hone their crafts, the Cross Street Music Festival built upon Karangahape Road’s status as a place where people can authentically be their unique selves. Vitali told The Spinoff previously that “as a young girl who didn’t feel like she fitted in in many places”, Karangahape Road was one place where she felt like she did. It’s a sentiment many, myself included, share. Would Balu Brigada have had enough of a profile to secure their Atlantic Records contract without coming up through Whammy Bar’s supportive and welcoming embrace?

Fortunately, this festival, which is a platform for young artists, will continue when the Karanga-a-Hape City Rail Link station opens next door on Mercury Lane in 2026, the shadow of which literally and metaphorically looms over the festival. Not only will Mercury Lane’s CRL renovation turn the raggedy rat run into a beautiful pedestrian plaza naturally connecting the festival and station entrances, but Karanga-a-Hape station will also champion the area’s diversity. 

A mockup of the proposed pedestrian plaza at the top of central Auckland's Mercury Lane. It is shown here with people enjoying the plentiful seating and shade which the project will add.
An Auckland Transport mock up of what Mercury Lane’s pedestrian plaza, which will run from Karangahape Road to Cross Street, will look like. (Image: Auckland Transport / Design: Archi Banal)

Alongside its Māori design motifs, the station’s name centres the correct Karanga-a-Hape pronunciation/spelling, after years of it being bastardised to just  “K’ Road”. Correcting ingoa Māori when the government has been accused of trying to silence te reo Māori is crucial civil disobedience for ahi kā and allies alike. Speaking of the government, transport minister Simeon Brown cancelled Crown funding towards Mercury Lane’s pedestrian plaza, telling The Spinoff via email that it didn’t uphold his transport priorities of efficiency, safety and quickness – despite improving those metrics for anyone outside a car. Yet local leaders saw its value and the community’s overwhelming support, sourcing alternative funding. Like always, Auckland’s pumping artistic artery forges an independent path despite Wellington’s, or anybody else’s, wishes.

As someone who loves Karanga-a-Hape, I felt genuinely at home at the Cross Street Music Festival. While my mates and I sat on bean bags for a breather I felt like I was in an aunty or uncle’s house surrounded by family. The ethereal energy of whanaungatanga indeed flowed through the festival.

The bean bags in question, seen here in the festival's chill out zone among tables and chairs and plenty of happy people.
The bean bags in question. (Photo: Nik Brinkman)

To me, and many others, Karanga-a-Hape represents one big, buzzy, diverse, inclusive, no-nonsense, supportive and welcoming whānau among whom we can freely express ourselves like nowhere else – even grown men proudly dancing poorly in a loading bay while wearing bright pink party hats. Discovering that the Cross Street Music Festival is Mercury Plaza’s successor in representing the best of Karanga-a-Hape helps me and my stomach finally get over the beloved Asian food court’s bulldozing.

Keep going!