Photo: Joel MacManus
Photo: Joel MacManus

OPINIONWellingtonMarch 4, 2024

The Newtown Festival is the promise of Wellington

Photo: Joel MacManus
Photo: Joel MacManus

Newtown’s legendary street fair is Wellington at its very best. It also shows what the city risks losing.

As a kid growing up in the sterilised world of suburban Nelson, Wellington always held a special allure. A quick jump across Raukawa, there was a city where life just seemed more… interesting. 

There’s no event that captures the promise of Wellington more than Newtown Festival. In the peak of the day, 80,000 people descend on the street for food trucks, art stalls and circus performances. In the afternoon and evening, the focus turns to the music stages. Afrobeats and Peruvian electronica. A DJ set in an empty warehouse with a secret entrance to a dance floor through a Portaloo door. Saxophone bands who take breaks in their set to call for a free Palestine.

It’s a colourful, chaotic world. Green hair and flowers. Old men with mohawks. Tattoos and piercings. Fashion that is almost intimidatingly cool. Public servants forgetting about their boring jobs for a moment. Salt-rimmed margaritas, craft beer and recreational drugs. 

Anyone who has ever started a business understands the value of a unique selling point, something you can offer that none of your competitors can. Cities are the same. They are in competition with each other to attract new residents, who will pay rates, but more importantly, add to the world around them. The creators, entrepreneurs, investors, workers and customers who pump energy into the city. Every kid leaving home in the regions, every new university graduate, every family deciding to move their lives across borders, has some level of choice about where to live.

Wellington has to contend with Auckland, Christchurch, Australia and the rest of the world. It has to make the case for what it can offer. The Newtown Festival is a perfect distillation of that – something that nowhere else in Aotearoa can match. It’s Wellington at its best. It’s the unique selling point of the city.

For the last few weeks, the War for Wellington has dominated my every waking moment (and sleeping – I keep dreaming about zoning maps). I couldn’t escape it, even in the midst of Dr Bazz’s set of “Gangsta Minimal Tough Tech Sleazy Slut Funk” tunes. Because, like every single social and economic issue in this country, the Newtown Festival also depends on housing. 

The Newtown Residents Association has been the most militant anti-housing force throughout the District Plan process. They’re the group who hired Dr Tim Helm, the fringe economist who convinced the independent hearings panel upzoning wouldn’t have any effect on housing supply or affordability. They fought to expand character areas, reduce height limits and keep Newtown out of the centre city walking catchment, which would have allowed six-storey apartments by default.

The Newtown Residents Associations has a reputation. Behind closed doors, council staff take great, bitter pleasure in referring to it by its initials: the NRA. (To be clear, the NRA does not represent all of Newtown. It is just a faction of mostly wealthy homeowners who claim the mandate of the entire community).

It’s easy to see why the members of NRA are protective. They see the magic this suburb holds. The Newtown Festival is a testament to that – it’s been running since 1997 and is always a highlight of Wellington’s social calendar. It’s an incredible effort of community spirit and imagination. But ironically, the NRA’s effort to so tightly protect their own idea of Newtown is exactly what could kill it.

A good vantage point. (Source: Joel MacManus)

When you say “gentrification” people mostly think about the physical symptoms. Bougie new coffee shops, bakeries, and chain restaurants opening up in generic concrete and glass buildings. But gentrification isn’t always new buildings – sometimes it’s the lack thereof. When you restrict the supply of housing in a growing city, eventually only the rich will be able to afford them. Everyone else has to move on. 

Newtown was once a working class community, home to people who raised families while working in the factories and wharves of Te Aro. Those people were eventually priced out, and Newtown became a home for the upwardly mobile. Young artists and creatives could put five people in a flat and pay higher rents than two working parents. 

Those groups gave the area its personality. They started and supported the likes of Moon Bar, Black Coffee, and Baobab. In its own small way, Newtown followed the trend of slowly gentrifying hipster neighbourhoods like Notting Hill in London or Brooklyn in New York.

Newtown is still an area of great diversity of race, religion and income, because it is home to hundreds of council flats. But those council flats were once a stepping stone, where people could take time to get on their feet before moving into the private housing market. That’s no longer the case. Housing in Newtown has grown more and more expensive. There is a huge rift of inequality. The average length of tenancy in council flats has grown longer and longer. It’s not a stepping stone anymore, it’s the only spot on the lifeboat. 

This has happened simply because there are not enough homes in Newtown. The NRA has made sure of that.  

The next step for Newtown, if it continues on its current trajectory, is even deeper gentrification. The working class has gone. The artists are on their way out, replaced by young professionals in corporate jobs. Soon, it will be only doctors, trust fund babies and principal policy advisors, plus the remaining council tenants who can only dream of home ownership. The ladder has been picked up and taken to Wainuiomata.

The only way to keep Newtown’s character, to allow this community to keep its life, personality, vibrancy, and diversity, is to grow up, gracefully. There needs to be more homes here, and a greater variety of them. Apartments and townhouses. Places for baristas and indie musicians, as well as doctors. So that the new immigrant and refugee families can see a pathway to their own homes, without having to move away from the community that helped them get established in this country. 

Newtown is worth celebrating. It’s the best of Wellington. But it won’t survive by staying the same, it will only survive through growth. It needs to be inclusive, not exclusive. That’s the promise of Wellington. 

Joel MacManus is The Spinoff’s Wellington editor. He is a renter in Newtown. 

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