Sunday, 19 June 2011

Digging for Gold and Gum

Subdividing times: In 1960, Glenfield resident Judy Pyle tries a
bulldozer for size. The view is towards Wairau Road. (Photo no.
T1118 courtesy of Takapuna Public Library, also Roy & Judy Pyle.)
“What do I remember?” my friend asked. “The mall, the hall (with a little peek of the distant sea outside), suburban streets, boring houses, small trees, little library...”

In the late 1970s Glenfield was a hell of a place to fetch up if you’d come from a well-resourced and slightly busier city, as Philippa [not her real name!] did — and especially if you were a teenager, as she was.

The suburb has appeared in fiction more than once. In Music from a Distant Room Stephanie Johnson writes of “Glenlyn”, with “the hills... where the machines scraped and roared and banged, laying in the new subdivision”. Its primary school was, she goes on, “part of the development opened up after the bridge was put across the Waitemata Harbour” — at the end of the 1950s.

Subdivision after Subdivision

It’s an area that’s expanded ever since. By the early 1990s, when I was a reporter at the Takapuna-based North Shore Times Advertiser, Glenfield was creeping inexorably towards Albany. Laughingly dismissed as Nappy Valley* and the childhood home of a model said to be a gold-digger, it was serious about its future, accommodating subdivision after subdivision. A few were uncomfortably close to what we called “the poo ponds” — the sewage treatment area. The houses weren’t bad, but there were hardly any trees and gee, it could get a bit whiffy on those slopes if the wind came from the wrong direction.

The poo ponds no longer stink, or at least not so you’d notice if you’re passing on State Highway 1 (we used to shut the car windows and turn off the external air flow). And the names of some of those subdivisions are also lost, I think, though Unsworth Heights has lasted and become... what: a suburb of Glenfield? Does that make it a suburbette? Or a sub-suburb?

A selection from Diehl’s, down
a right-of-way in Hillside Road.
Hidden Treasure
In 2004 when I returned to work on the Shore, after a decade or so elsewhere, it was to Wairau Valley, Glenfield’s industrial zone and a former swamp. The valley had concealed pockets containing exotic foodstuffs, such as the delights of Diehl’s German Bakery, and books. 

Publishers with headquarters in Auckland had located themselves there towards the end of last century, because it offered relatively cheap warehouse space. Several including Random House distributed books from their overseas sister companies as well as books that spoke of New Zealand. They needed somewhere to store them.

Some lunchtimes when I worked at Random, a colleague and I would leave our offices at Poland Road, in a former Mormon property and a converted kitchen factory, and go for a walk. Wairau Valley was pretty dire but soon we’d be striding (this was no mere stroll) through residential streets whose now mature trees were home to tuis. 

Escape from the Valley
These songbirds were both numerous and noisy (in a good way). They brought my friend Philippa*** to mind, because I knew Glenfield had never put on such a show for her. If she wanted entertainment, she’d catch the bus to the cinemas of distant Queen Street in the Auckland CBD.

On the lunchtime walks it took a while for us to completely leave the Wairau Valley. A solventy smell from some toxic enterprise down below would often accompany us up Bruce Road to Chivalry.

Another escape, if you could call it that, was the Glenfield Mall which (unlike Botany’s) is fully enclosed. Not long before I went back to the Shore to work, the place had been done up. The ‘feature wall’ by the carpark escalator had strange exhortations to chop and slice, backgrounded by vaguely kitcheny images. It was marketing on the sly, I guess; a surreptitious way of herding people into the supermarket that was part of the complex.

The Monolithic Mall

The monolithic mall opened in 1971 and remains the centrepiece of Glenfield. In Janet Frame’s novel Living in the Maniototo** with its version of Glenfield (Blenheim), “Heavenfield Mall is a huge windowless pretence” where people “buy buy buy... A consumer’s paradise enhanced, you will see, by the aviary on the second floor”.

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand mentions the aviary’s “100 noisy budgerigars” and quotes architect Warwick Massey: “According to what maxim of commercial law does a shopping centre with a view have to turn so resolutely away from it?” Massey described the site as looking “to the east over a pleasant suburban scene with our beloved Rangitoto [Island] in the background” but the mall itself offered no hint of that in 1972, when he visited. Nor does it today. 

Helpdesks at the centre of Glenfield library, opposite the mall.
Opposite in Every Way?
Opposite that complex — physically and metaphorically, given its interest in the world beyond — is Glenfield Public Library. A plaque commemorates the opening in 1975, but the space seems larger than in Philippa’s time. I visited recently on a Sunday morning that was almost indecently fine (for winter), and while waiting for the doors to open I saw a dozen people drop their books through the returns slot. With me were other expectant patrons, so even outside I had the sense of a well used community facility. And it was. 

Inside were hustle, bustle, plenty of patrons, and weekend staff who seemed more than usually inclined to smile. They spent a lot of time helping people. I soaked up the atmosphere, which reinforced for me that a library is what people make it. By people I mean staff, the public and politicians, whose investment on our behalf is essential.

On my way out I saw I’d missed nearly half the library. From the building’s foyer you can turn left or right but something, perhaps the large windows seen from the street, or the community noticeboards, steered me and most people to the left. The right-hand side is more library — including fiction, whose absence I would normally notice. While loitering on the left I must have been beguiled by the children’s section, whose Maori alphabet frieze is from a children’s art competition that North Shore Libraries (as it was then) held in 1995. When I visited the wing on the right, it was as still as the other was busy; an elderly couple browsed the novels while a young woman was curled up, reading. 

Absorbed in the children’s book
section at the Glenfield
Public LIibrary.
Frieze piece, “ngeru” (cat)
by Melissa Medemblik,
aged nine

A Place with a Past
Also on the right were local history materials. Glenfield had never struck me as having any history — too new, I thought — but here was some of the best local history coverage I’ve seen so far in a suburban library (Avondale library also has good materials). Glenfield Historical Society resources are available, and the area’s profile in the library must benefit from the (part-time) local history librarian who works there.

The library book I borrowed, Old Glenfield: A Portrait in Photographs, describes the place of its title as “poor country. In Maori times the forests were largely burnt, creating a wasteland of fern and kanuka shrublands. Where tall kauri trees had once stood, the soil was a whitish clay.” Mud and clay appear as a recurring motif in Glenfield’s history.

Europeans used the area for firewood and then it became “a huge gumfield”, with kauri gum (valued in manufacturing as well as for decoration) initially plucked from the land’s surface and then dug from its soil. Dairy farming contributed to the town milk supply, with Glenfield also producing flowers and fruit.

Out of the Mud and Clay
During the housing developments of the 1960s Glenfield lost its topsoil, as Stephanie Johnson describes. This exposed “raw white clays”, says Old Glenfield, so “People with gardening ambitions had to buy their soil back from developers”.

Until the high school was built along Kaipatiki Road (1968), land there was privately owned and leased to a cattle grazier, according to Glenfield College 1969–2009: A Portrait of the Past. In the late 1960s the road was metal, writes resident Tony McCracken, who joined Glenfield College as a teacher. Now Kaipatiki Road links Glenfield to Birkdale with a major bridge, but then it “petered out into a dirt track at about where the present-day adult education prefabs begin” (the college has always been notable for its community classes). The overhanging banks of nearby Kaipatiki Creek were home to glow-worms.

Founding principal Ken Buckley recalls mud as a major part of the new school. Peter Voss, his deputy from 1971, saw heavy clay “over-layed with a light depth of introduced top soil... Rugby players would come into afternoon classes bespattered [with] and smelling of reddish, muddy soil!” Perhaps the soil influenced the school’s first uniform, coloured brown and orange?

Voss’s first impressions of the college and the “young suburb” developing around it were “coloured by how raw and youthful everything was”. Now (if not previously), Glenfield has not just a future but a past. I thank the library for bringing it to my attention. 

Lead-up to the library, Bentley Avenue.

*Nappy Valley: a colloquial New Zealand and Australian term, says the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary, for “a suburb (esp. a new one) in which a large number of young families reside”. The dictionary is available to Auckland Libraries members through Oxford Reference Online at the Digital Library
**Auckland Libraries appears not to have the latest (2006) edition of Living in the Maniototo, but it’s in print and available through good bookshops. 
***In case you’re wondering what happened to Philippa: she grew up to be a librarian and is busy living happily ever after.

The texts quoted in this post are copyright to their respective authors or their representatives and the 1960 photo to Roy Pyle. 


  1. Yes Glenfield Library is bigger than the one remembered from the 70s. In 2001 the building was expanded to house the Area Offices and double the size of the library.

  2. Belladonna: thank you for doing my homework! I Googled the library but should have gone straight to that fantastic Local History Online site that the North and West Auckland Libraries have developed and to which you've linked. It’s a wonderfully informative resource.

  3. Great descriptions, explanations and insights here Claire. And pretty impressive research too! Perhaps Auckland Libraries could make you their honorary writer to promote the best that the libraries offer!

  4. the photo of Judy on the tractor is just priceless.

  5. Hi Claire, it was a nice surprise to stumble across a library fan... I to have the mission to visit all the branches. I do spend all working day in one.. one of the four smallest.. perhaps I'll see you one day :)

  6. It's interesting to note that most residents of Unsworth Heights are happier to associate their pocket area with Albany, as Glenfield has a "lower" class of image!!

  7. Brett, I do hope to make it to at least one of the mobile libraries. At least two people have instructed me to!

    And Mr Purple Sage: I have a theory that the moment anybody adds “Heights” to their suburb name, it means they think their status is above that of somebody else nearby. Mind you, Avondale Heights, where I supposedly live, never really caught on...

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