The Dunedin street infamous for hosting riotous student free-for-alls appears to have adopted a more exclusive, invite-only party culture. What’s going on?
A version of this story was originally published in Critic Te Ārohi.
Castle Street has become a “gated elitist community” populated by “Auckland fucks” who regard those outside their inner circle as “shit on the bottom of their rich Adidas Sambas”. At least, that’s what some of this year’s disgruntled UoO Confessions have claimed.
But residents reject any suggestion that the notorious North Dunedin strip has lost its aura. Members of the Beehive flat told Critic Te Ārohi that while Castle Street’s most riotous days may be in the past, “it’s never gonna be dead … the legacy will always live on.”
To many outside the Castle gates, this year’s residents appear to be exploiting this legacy, standing on the shoulders of breathas past without paying their dues.
“Castle is just shit, isn’t it?” says Robbie from Corner Store, a flat on the adjacent Leith Street, which he claims has now overtaken Castle in party spirit. “It seems like they want the status of living there without any of the responsibility of upholding the culture.”
“For other people coming into Dunedin, you think [Castle Street] is going to be the craziest time of your life and you’ll wake up in a ditch or something. It’s just not like that [anymore].”
So what’s changed? There are a few theories floating around, and many of them point to external factors forcing Castle Street’s party culture to become more insular.
The most obvious one is Covid-19. Quintin Jane, president of the Otago University Students’ Association, describes the pandemic as a “circuit breaker” that forced students to reshape what Dunedin partying looks like. “There’s still parties and noise, it’s just different now”, he says.
“The fact that it’s so easy to record someone and get them incriminated” may have also stopped Castle Street from partying like it used to, says another student Critic spoke with. In 2017, 17 students received disciplinary action and nine were expelled after the proctor came into possession of videos and photos of some “sick” and “demeaning” flat initiation rituals.
Others point the blame at landlords, who they say have been putting up more and more legal barriers to the student quarter’s party culture, with “no parties” clauses in rental agreements becoming increasingly common.
But some students say the street hasn’t really quietened down at all – the only thing that’s changed is who’s allowed to show up. “There’s been a lot of closed invite hosts where not everyone can rock up and drink,” claims Alex, Robbie’s flatmate at the Corner Store. “The parties have been good [this year]. It’s just a matter of whether you’ve been invited to them.”
A number of non-Castlers Critic spoke to claimed that a deep-rooted elitism had sprung up on the street in recent years. When students were asked where they thought this elitism had come from, many were stumped for an answer, though a number of UoO Confessions seem to pin it on residents clinging to high school and regional ties.
Competition for Castle Street rentals is fierce among budding breathas, and considering some leases are required to be signed as early as April, it makes sense that first-year students would be more likely to flat with long-established friends from high school than with new Dunedin mates. This has apparently resulted in a majority population of Auckland and Christchurch private-schoolers, who limit their invites to those in their existing circles.
There is a good reason for this, argue the residents of the Courtyard. They laugh off the suggestion that they face external pressures not to party, gesturing to the Sunday morning state of their flat. But they do admit “there’s an invite barrier … it didn’t used to be like that.”
The Courtyard girls claim the exclusive culture of Castle Street is something they inherited, rather than created. “We’ve got a host coming up in October, Courtchella,” one of them explains. Courtchella used to be an open host, but “a few years ago it turned into a closed-invite thing”.
Although pandemic restrictions – the original catalyst for closed-invite hosts – are no longer in place, the girls say reopening Courtchella to North Dunedin’s masses is probably not on the cards. “It’s hard because we pay for everything. It costs like five grand. We’ve already had to do that in O-Week.” During that party, someone climbed on the flat’s roof and ripped open their water tank, leaving the flat without water for a week.
While they anticipated living on Castle Street would be “a fun experience”, one Courtyard resident says that when all the glitz is set aside, “the reality is kind of admin”.
It was a different scene back in March 2020, when Kiley first arrived at Otago as an American exchange student to find Castle Street at its pre-Covid zenith. She says she was struck by how open and accepting the university’s party scene was compared to back home. Forced to return to the US after Covid hit, she came back to Dunedin to complete her Master’s this year and has noticed the change in vibe. “It’s just so much more deserted. You don’t see packs of students congregating in the party streets like they used to.”
Castle Street now reminds her more of the fraternity scene back home. “It creates this division amongst students. There’s this message [that] if you’re not affiliated, you don’t belong. It becomes very insular and perpetuates this culture of elitism and homogeneity.”
But demonising Castle Street’s current residents for the way things are isn’t the answer, Kiley says. “It’s not the most evil thing to just want to party with your friends. Sometimes the pressure to host gets put on the shoulders of people that have the most social capital and physical space to do it, but maybe the onus shouldn’t have to be just on these guys and girls.”
The solution, she suggests, lies in figuring out how to balance the needs of the residents with the need to gather and collectively pretend to enjoy drum and bass – even if that means moving the culture along. “Maybe historically Castle Street was that scene, but maybe now there needs to be a new one?”
Quintin Jane, the OUSA president, shares a similar view. He believes the current moment represents an “exciting opportunity” for a more “diverse” student experience to emerge.
“How the partying looks is always going to change. Now it’s up to us to diversify the way we do things.”