Thursday, 22 August 2013

Blandness, Beauty, Surprise: The Making of Albany

A small chunk of today’s Albany. The expanse
of water is the North Shore sewage ponds.

On her way to the north of the north, a South Island friend of mine once drove through what she remembers as “a small settlement some significant time out of Auckland”.

Since that trip three decades ago, the settlement — Albany — has spread south and east to join Auckland itself. My friend, Alison, has migrated north to settle in the city and now spends her weekdays in a boxy building that’s part of an Albany office park.


Getting there from her home in central Auckland is quite quick, she finds, except on public transport: “Two hours and two buses to get to work,” she exclaims, “and 90 minutes and three buses to get home. And that was the best effort.”

Mention Albany to another nine-to-five Albanian, Catherine, and she thinks of “driving from shopping barn to shopping barn, squeezing my car in between badly parked SUVs”. Feeling mean, she adds that it has “a wealth of great sushi, you know. There are at least five different and excellent places to get it within a stone’s throw of work.”

Albany blandness: an industrial area.
Aucklander Gabriel White’s film about Albany screened at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival. Oracle Drive shows the area’s “guarded blandness” and “the well-mown desolation of the light-industrial urban fringe”, says the festival programme, but also its “beauty and eerie immanence”.

What’s in a Name?
The film’s narrator raises the question of whether the local streets live up to their names, some of which carry classical connotations or are more famously attached to locations overseas. Nile Road for instance is “long and meandering”, he muses, but “there’s nothing especially Egyptian about it”. Nobody appears to live in White’s Albany, though numerous cars circle its roundabouts.

Albany does have residential pockets; I happened upon one recently. The bird-related street names there were decidedly not of a feather (and should therefore not flock together): Condor Place, Black Teal Close, Rifleman Rise, Rook Place, Bluebird Crescent, Egret Court... 

The developer must have run out of birds, or perhaps I reached the next subdivision, because suddenly I was sailing through the Caribbean — Barbados Drive, St Lucia Place, Calypso Way — and then, disconcertingly, streets such as Capri Place, Devonshire Road.

Some new suburbs in Albany have pre-existing local names, such as Schnapper Rock (a fishing spot that gave its name to a gum diggers’ camp, a road and a cemetery before accommodating row upon row of the living). 

Historically, though, the heart of the area is Albany Village. This isn’t the quaint haven that the word “village” suggests, but there’s a square, and on a small green island between two major highways, the coronation hall (1911) and memorial library (1922) still stand. 

Albany beauty: The memorial library.
The Cultural Centre
The library commemorates the 23 local men who died in the First World War. When it was built, the Auckland Star described it favourably as “Albany’s New Cultural Centre”.

In fact it’s so tiny — just one room — that it looks like a children’s playhouse (the Star also said it was “Small but Powerful”). Seventy years after its initial and rather grand opening by the Governor-General Lord Jellicoe, it was still open for customers every Thursday morning, thanks to local senior citizen June Chitty.

Few of the books left the premises, June told me in an interview for the North Shore Times. She recalled some titles from her childhood; newer volumes were throw-outs from Takapuna Public Library. “She would be glad to receive more recent publications”, I noted at the time, “and also see Albany gain a well-equipped, larger library”.

My Mrs Chitty exclusive appeared in the paper in May 1992. The same month, I broke the news that Albany would soon receive its first set of traffic lights — a small but significant marker of urbanisation in a one-time rural idyll.

The present public library.
Boy and books.
Albany had joined the new North Shore City as part of the Glenfield ward. In 2004, when North Shore Libraries opened its official Albany branch, June Chitty was the first to borrow a book. In 2011, however, the local board plan would comment that “Our library at Albany, although well used and loved, is too small for our population.”

The floor-to-ceiling windows there must be buggers to clean but thanks to them, the present Albany Public Library shows off the vibrant colours inside. It’s inviting — whether you’ve come via the green strip that is Kell Park, or the rather grey village square.

Free Rangers
Looking straight through the library door to the shelves behind the counter, you’ll see numerous knick-knacks in the shape of chickens. These and various images around the village are reminders of the feral flock (mainly roosters) that roamed Albany Village for decades, becoming its emblem as well as its main claim to fame.

The rooster emblem
in Albany Village Square.
In 2008, the North Shore City Council sought their removal. Amid opposition from the local business association but with support from animal welfare groups, some of the wanderers were “rehomed” and others that had evaded capture were shot by council officers.

The library had its own role in these events, I’ve heard, when a distressed member of the public ran in clutching a fugitive fowl that she’d rescued from the line of fire. It was given sanctuary in a back room until the fuss died down.

Dawn Evans, who grew up in Albany, speculates that the wildfowl were descendants of the chickens her family raised across the road from present-day Kell Park: “ours used to roost in trees as well as using their chook house”.

Uncovering the Past
Her personal account of Albany’s 1940s and ’50s restores — to mind at least — the settlement that disappeared beneath the bulldozers, the diggers, the suburbs and the office parks. It’s heartening, perhaps, that the Auckland Libraries’ sole copy of her book, My Roots, My Place, My Albany, is constantly out on loan, and that the library has now ordered plenty more.

It seems to me that a private initiative such as Dawn’s evokes the past and pays tribute to it more effectively than a public construction such as Albany Lakes, said by the local board plan to “tell how Albany has developed from a quiet rural orchard area to a bustling centre of Auckland”.

Over these stormwater ponds looms what is sometimes claimed to be New Zealand’s largest shopping centre (one of several thus described). The mall was full of people the day I called in, but the lakes were deserted save for a romantic couple huddled out of the wind.

I couldn’t read Albany’s development narrative in the inscrutable ripples of the water, nor in the shrubs and grasses at its edge. The board plan admits there is room for improvement: “We need to explain better this story and its significance, so we will ensure that this story is appropriately signposted to visitors at the lakes.”

The suburb of Rosedale
was the base for
such as
Clemow and Pannill.
Albany surprise: Pannill’s
grape discovery
was made near this
Alexandra Creek walkway,
says a council sign.
Former Fruits
The last orchard was Clemows’ in Rosedale Road. It closed in the 1990s, but some of the old apple trees remain in a public park at the back of “Clemows Orchard”, as the subdivision is named.

The fruit-growing fame of Albany lives on, too, in Albany Surprise and Albany Beauty. The first is a grape that local orchardist George Pannill propagated from a sport (mutation) of the American grape Isabella, as the nineteenth century drew to a close. It became, for a time, the most widely grown table grape in New Zealand. The second is an apple variety that another early grower of the area, Mark Phillips, propagated after finding an unusually coloured Gravenstein.

One (probably erroneous) theory about the name of Albany itself is that it was inspired by a town in a fruit-growing region of Australia. The European settlers had earlier called our Albany “Lucas Creek”, after the waterway that was the main supply route for about 70 years.The creek in turn had taken its name from one Daniel Lucas or Clucas, who had started a flax mill nearby before disappearing from the local story.

Residents pressed for the name change. The New Zealand Herald reported in 1890 that this was because “the old name represented the good old days when settlers were few and bushmen plentiful” — a euphemistic way, perhaps, of saying that “Lucas Creek” had unsavoury connotations, being associated with drunkenness, illegal stills and the smuggling of liquor (which made headlines from 1865, if not before).

Layer after Layer
If you want to literally unearth the past and to do it in a skilled manner, you need to be an archaeologist. If you want to get an accurate and detailed picture, you need to be an experienced historian with utter dedication, like Timespanner blogger Lisa Truttman. But simply to discover that a place has layer after layer of history, you need only to be interested and to take time — to look, to read and to experience. The library will help.

Even over the narrow span of 150 years, much has happened on this small portion of the North Shore. More than one old Albany has been replaced, and more than one is remembered and recorded.

The front window of the Wine Box Café
looks out to a Swiss chalet-style
construction that houses a garage and the
Uncle Delicious East European Delicatessen.
My own memory, focusing on the 1970s–90s, includes visits to the Albany Village Pottery, home to many great movers and shapers of clay. The business at 239 State Highway 17 still claims to be (like the potters’ co-op) a “known and trusted North Shore icon”. Recently, though, I discovered that it’s now the Wine Box Café — and has been for some years.

Platt’s Native Plant Nursery, near the Greenhithe turnoff, is long gone, but Graeme Platt
’s trees still grow in my garden and many others. And the long slog just past the village, the Albany hill, was an unforgettable feature of the main route north. Now it’s just part of the road to Dairy Flat.

Dawn Evans’s Albany, dating before the Auckland harbour bridge, is different again. Remnants of this can be seen as well. “For years after we left, each time I had occasion to pass our old place, I would wish ‘my’ trees saved,” she writes. “I loved those trees, the ancient puriris... Wonderfully, my wish was granted. A part of the hill where the best specimens grew was designated as a reserve, Gills Reserve.”

There are, too, the versions of Albany that are older than any of us: those of the gumdiggers, the sly-groggers,* the flax miller; of the earlier Maori who first forded the creek and perhaps left the patu that, many years on, Dawn would find nearby when her father was building a road.

* * * * *

Reading in the playground
at Kell Park.
* The wordsly-grogger is a New Zealand and Australian word for someone who deals illicitly in alcoholic liquor. A patu is a short club; a weapon made of stone, bone or wood.

* * * * * 

Dawn Evans sells copies of My Roots, My Place, My Albany as well as another small book she has written and illustrated, Heavenly Valley, on losing a loved pet. Contact her at rondawnnz [at].

Other books consulted for this blog post were Once There Were Green Fields: The Story of Albany, New Zealand, by Alison Harris and Robert Stevenson (the book being read in the photo at left) and The North Shore: An Illustrated History, by David Verran.

Auckland Libraries Local History Online newspaper collections were invaluable for indicating dates of local events. National LibrariesPapers Past was another excellent resource, and aerial shots of a former Albany can be seen at the National LibrariesTimeframes site.

For other sources, click on the hyperlinks in the text above.


  1. Thank you, NW! There was more to say, of course. F'rinstance I didn't mention Massey University Albany, nor Centrepoint (there's a new book about the latter, and it's waiting for me at my local library). And... and...

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