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A photo of Anya Vitali, the Cross Street Music Festival founder, superimposed over an image of Auckland's Karangahape Road.
Cross Street Music Festival founder Anya Vitali (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyFebruary 16, 2024

The woman behind the best Karangahape Road has to offer

A photo of Anya Vitali, the Cross Street Music Festival founder, superimposed over an image of Auckland's Karangahape Road.
Cross Street Music Festival founder Anya Vitali (Image: Tina Tiller)

Karangahape Road is a space for self expression like no other in Aotearoa, and Cross Street Festival founder Anya Vitali has helped keep it that way. 

“Karangahape Road, I would say, is a place where, as a young girl who didn’t feel like she fitted in in many places, I felt like I fitted in,” explains Anya Vitali, the mastermind behind many of Karangahape Road’s iconic events. 

From organising Galatos gigs to local festivals and markets, Vitali has dipped her toes into almost everything Tamaki Makaurau’s creative centre offers. While she grew up in Manurewa, as a young adult in the 1990s, she was drawn to Karangahape Road’s party scene. Eventually, she started working and living locally, which Vitali says is “where my love of live music and of Karangahape Road came from.” 

After running clubs and working in hospo, she turned to event management, learning the trade working for New Zealand Fashion Week. But her legacy is on Karangahape Road. Vitali has been a driving force behind maintaining its status as what she calls “a thriving, creative hub”, and helped ensure that the area remains a safe space for young creatives. 

A photo of Anya Vitali.
Anya Vitali. (Photo: Supplied)

The driving force behind some of Karangahape Road’s best events

Vitali started the Cross Street Music Festival (more on that later), but her fingerprints are all over a whole lot of other local events. The Te Mahurehure and Ngāpuhi uri helps run the local Matariki festivities, which include learning opportunities alongside swathes of live music and performances. Matariki on Karangahape Road celebrates and brings the local community together. 

She also ran the 2021 Kanohi te Kanohi photography exhibition, featuring artists like Ans Westra. It highlighted hīkoi which have traversed down Karangahape Road, like queer rights and te reo Māori promotion. The exhibition showed today’s “young people that they can only openly express themselves here now because of all of the amazing people before us that stepped up and fought for those rights,” Vitali says. 

The wildly successful First Thursday Markets is another event she helps out with, and she runs the Pocket Park music performances on the corner of Karangahape Road and Pitt Street. First Thursdays started with five stalls and now typically has 30. “A lot of people that have come from that market have then gone on to create their own stores and collectives”, both locally and nationally, says Vitali.  

The poster for the latest First Thursdays Market.
The poster for the latest First Thursdays Market, designed by local artist Summer Puhia. (Image: Karangahape Road Business Association)

What is Karangahape Road to Vitali?

Vitali likens Auckland’s preeminent artistic precinct to an eclectic melting pot. “Our diversity, that’s what Karangahape represents to me,” she explains. Nowhere else in Tāmaki Makaurau can people openly express themselves like they can on Karangahape Road, especially young people discovering their identity, Vitali adds. 

She says many residents and visitors “have that feeling of not fitting in anywhere else but Karangahape Road,” – like how Vitali felt in the 90s. “Karangahape Road was really thriving then too,” but in a different way, she explains. Back then, Karangahape was more explicitly alternative, and “you really needed to be invested in” that vibe to fit in. Despite that, 90s events closely mirrored those in 2024. Vitali fondly remembers art exhibitions, gigs, poetry nights and especially the flat parties, many on Cross Street. 

Since then, Karangahape has received an underground-up road rebuild, corporate investment and franchise stores popping up alongside stalwarts like The Third Eye. Vitali says the roadworks, in particular, had locals worried about gentrification. But three years on, she believes Karangahape occupies a middle-ground between its grungy, raw (and some would say dangerous) 90s feel and gentrification.

But compared to the 90s, these days, “it’s not just about the nightlife anymore,” as acclaimed cafes and restaurants have recently popped up across Karangahape. Back then “you’d go to Parnell, Ponsonby or High Street” for kai, says Vitali, but now Karangahape is a delicious destination. She names Atelier, Bar Celeste, Candela and Pici as some of her favourite local eateries. 

Although Vitali sees some restaurant-goers “wanting to leave at 10 o’clock saying ‘oh it’s getting a bit scary around here’,” she believes them turning up at all symbolises the area’s evolution – from being considered the most dangerous part of town to becoming a largely family-friendly place. Vitali acknowledges the “fringe problematic stuff in the area that’s been there from day dot,” but she says those problems aren’t unique to Karangahape Road and exist in every CBD. 

Despite Karangahape Road’s evolution, the music has remained. Vitali thinks that is a testament to the area’s energy. “All those clubs that were well worn then are still getting worn in now. They’ve all had people dancing on the same dance floors for the last 40 years.” 

A photo of the bustling St Kevins arcade.
Karangahape Road’s bustling Saint Kevins Arcade. (Photo: Auckland Council/France Hemon)

The local music scene

Along this one-kilometre ridgeline road for decades now, Vitali has “seen all the colours of Aotearoa in a musical sense, and it’s really rich.” Where else in Aotearoa can you walk five metres down the road from one gig to another and find yourself surrounded by such a completely different sound, she asks rhetorically. “You could jump into Neck of the Woods and have a little drum and bass. You can go up to Whammy and hear a live punk band. You can go up the road to Family Bar and see a live drag show. There’s just so many things going on on Karangahape Road.”

She considers local venues, like Neck of the Woods and Whammy Bar, integral to the New Zealand music industry’s growth since they’re where now-established acts got their start. When she asks bands from around the motu if they want to play on Karangahape Road, “They do because they know it’s the space where people will accept their music no matter what.” While she also acknowledges Wellington venues, like the now-closed Bar Bodega and Dive in Dunedin, as similarly essential to local music growth, Vitali says, “The reason why musicians want to play here is because they understand that Karangahape Road is the music centre of New Zealand in a lot of ways.”

The Cross Street Music Festival

Despite playing integral roles in plenty of local events, the Cross Street Music Festival is Vitali’s baby. She started it in 2018 to recreate the experience she had in her 20s partying at her friends’ Cross Street flats. “It just felt a little bit wild; all those different types of music gave you a taste of everything.” Cross Street’s lineups always feature divergent talents you wouldn’t expect to share one stage. For example, its initial lineup had hip-hop/RnB/soul star Ladi6 playing alongside rock band Racing. She explains, “For me, it’s always about the diversity of music. It was never going to be just a house gig or a hip-hop gig… I like the idea that when someone turns up to the gig, they see themselves on stage.” Vitali adds, “trying to fit that into one street sounds like madness, but it’s awesome. It’s a reflection of all the colourful things going on all around Karangahape.”

The festival purely showcases Aotearoa artists, heavily featuring up-and-comers alongside some established acts. That’s Vitali’s approach because she saw the venues where young artists used to get their breaks start to dwindle. “These are the young kids that grew up down the road playing the drums, and now they don’t have anywhere to play,” Vitali thought back in 2018, adding, “you can only play in your garage so much. You need to play in front of people. And if they don’t have these platforms, where do young people go to play?”

A performer at Cross Street Music Festival 2023.
A shot from Cross Street Music Festival 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

Her localised approach came at a time when promoters focused on importing overseas talent – which she “felt was wiping our young local acts off the stage”. Conversely, she thinks empowering local creatives who tell our stories is essential. Since the pandemic, promoters have started uplifting New Zealand musicians, but the fact that it took Covid-19 border closures for them to look inwards is shameful, Vitali argues. 

The lineup for the Cross Street Music Festival 2024 features Balu Brigada, Baby Zionov, Deepstate, Eli Chico, Fathe and the Sweetos, Fruju Peak, Geoff Ong, Heylady, Hot Sauce Club, Junior Junior, Kedu Carlo, Mirror Ritual, Od, Princess Chelsea, Solnate and Te Kurahuia. Vitali says this year’s lineup focuses on these artists’ voices, messages and stories. March 9’s gig will also, for the first time, feature a second stage, which will be a side rave. Vitali adds, “It’ll only be open for a few hours, but it’ll be nuts.” (Final release tickets are on sale now.)

Karangahape Road’s future

There is no denying that while Vitali has been around Karangahape, Tāmaki Makaurau’s creative centre has evolved, but it isn’t finished yet. Referring to the Karanga-a-Hape station, set to open in 2026 with Mercury Lane and Beresford Square entrances, Vitali says, “that changes the dynamic because that’s going to put property prices up.” She believes that by then, the area will be “too expensive for creatives to live like they used to when there were huge flats on Cross Street for $300.” 

Her biggest fear is that venues like Whammy and Neck of the Woods “might get left behind because the landlord wants to put prices up.” She’ll be gutted if that occurs because “Balu Brigada and all these other young bands, that’s where they got to go and cut their teeth.” Despite that worry and with a train station opening on Mercury Lane mere metres away from Cross Street, Vitali assured The Spinoff that her music festival isn’t going anywhere. City Rail Link Limited and the Karangahape Road Business Association both support the festival, and Vitali says, “I’ve been involved in a lot of those planning talks. And there’s a lot of people in the area who are all voicing that we need Cross Street to stay because it’s part of our culture now.”

A poster for the Cross Street Music Festival.
A poster for the Cross Street Music Festival 2024. (Image: Supplied)

That’s good news for the artists who cut their teeth at Cross Street. By running her festival as a safe space for those musicians to express themselves, Vitali is extending the same aroha and manaaki that Karangahape gave her as a young adult to the next generation. Vitali explains that before she became a Karangahape Road stalwart, “I felt like the round ball going into the square hole, and it didn’t work. But it just felt like I could be myself here. That’s what we should all be able to feel when we go out and express ourselves, or if we’re doing our business, or if we’re painting, or we’re making films, or whatever creative things we’re doing, we kind of need to have that feeling around us.”

Click here to learn more about the Cross Street Music Festival or click here to purchase final release tickets for the March 9 show.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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