Gentrification wait can take time

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 06/04/2014
Villa
Fairfax NZ

PICTURE PERFECT: Your villa may be worth millions one day.

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OPINION: On the face of it, it was a pretty bad bet: a ramshackle old villa covered in peeling yellow paint, slumped on sagging piles down one end of an inner-city valley once considered a slum.

In their pre-mortgage report, our bank declared it a "poor investment option", but we bought it anyway, because that's what you do when you're broke and optimistic. You slap down a minimal deposit on a cheap doer-upper in a ropey area close to town, hopeful that in the fullness of time, others might do the same, and your collective risk-taking will be rewarded as you find yourselves lifted aloft by the warm financial updraft of gentrification.

It has, to be honest, taken a very long time. While we wait around for gentrification to begin, old homeless guys wait for the night shelter to open, sucking down casks of wine in the porch of the old sports clubroom in the nearby park.

I heard a kerfuffle one night and looked out the kitchen window to see two young men punching and kicking a third guy who lay in the middle of the road. As I called the police, they ran off, and their victim crawled up over the footpath and joed out in a clump of agapanthus. When the cops arrived, he declined to press charges because "they're my best mates".

Some instances of antisocial behaviour are more creative, though no less mystifying. One Sunday morning I wandered across to Countdown to buy bread and there on a park bench, steaming slightly in the early morning sun, was a perfectly formed human poo.

For many years there was a fortified bikie clubhouse halfway up the valley. Nearby residents remember comical scenes during police raids, with coppers storming the gates while portly bearded guys in tight leathers struggled to clamber over the corrugated iron fence at the back. The gang was called the Lost Breed, and some members had clearly spent their school years doodling pictures of motorbikes rather than paying attention during spelling lessons. I was in a bar one day and found the gang crest drawn in the dunnies in black marker pen, above the phrase: Long Live the Lost Bread.

Sometimes, things got ugly. In 2008, a drowsy vigilante was so furious with two teenagers making a racket in the kids' playground at night that he marched over and battered them with a baseball bat. In October 2012, a man had his throat slashed with a bread knife in a notorious flat up the road and ran into the local dairy. No stranger to drama, the proprietor asked him to wait outside to prevent too much blood getting on the lino while she dialled 111.

But this suburb also has a lot of good points. The valley is scattered with graceful old villas, and so close to town you can walk everywhere. There's lots of big trees, the beach is just over the hill, and on sunny summer evenings, a piano clomps out Ain't Misbehavin' as happy little ballerinas leap about in leotards at dance classes in the hall.

And lately, at long last, it seems the slow creep of gentrification has finally begun. I know of four architects who have bought houses up the valley in recent years, surely an advance guard of early-adopters leading the charge into this overlooked "character neighbourhood".

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Also, a new subdivision is advancing up one flank of the valley, where someone recently built a McMansion of such staggering size, I imagine the residents would require a packed lunch should they decide to set out from the kitchen towards the far side of the lounge. On one hand, I'm outraged to see such a crass structure plonked in our midst. On the other, it confirms that the rich and tasteless have started eyeing up this neighbourhood now that land prices elsewhere around the city have risen so high.

But the surest sign of gentrification is a far more modest structure. Recently, a crew of suspiciously stylish young men began renovating a long-deserted old shop on my street. The interior is now a symphony of polished concrete and white tiles, with big green picture windows facing the street. Walking past, you could be on the edge of Darlinghurst in Sydney, or strolling down Melbourne's Gertrude St.

I couldn't for the life of me imagine what this place was destined to be. Then by chance I met the project's architect in a city bar. He told me two young Italians had moved to Nelson and, after scoping out the town, they'd selected this site as the perfect venue for their new business venture. I am amazed to tell you that just up the road from my house, in what was once Nelson's dodgiest inner-city suburb, they plan to make mozzarella by hand.

- Sunday Star Times

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