Alarming stories had begun filtering back to my warm little bunker in Nelson. Cuba Street had apparently lost its mojo. The area had fallen prey to the inexorable march of gentrification, or so I heard. Massive rent hikes had closed a swag of shops and cafes, while other old haunts had been flattened to make way for yuppie apartments. The final kiss of death? The area had been pretentiously rebranded as "the Cuba Quarter".
I was worried. Wellington's Cuba Street remains my favourite inner-city neighbourhood in the country - a warren of splendid bars and restaurants, book shops and record stores, galleries and fashion boutiques, with suits and students, alkies and punks, the well-heeled and the homeless co-existing amiably. And the fact that a plethora of dodgy theme bars, fast food outlets and strip joints sits just around the corner in Courtenay Place acts as the perfect munter-magnet, diverting most of the drunken late-night drama elsewhere.
But I hadn't spent time there for ages. Had Cuba Street really lost its rough and ready charm? Time to head up there for the weekend to find out. Of course, the timing was not auspicious. In the middle of winter, Wellington can be, as my dear old nana used to say, "cold as a witch's tit". However, the music of Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes is guaranteed to warm the blood, and he was in town the night I arrived as part of The Wellington Jazz Festival On Cuba.
Now 71, Valdes is a towering giant in the field of Afro-Cuban music. A New York Times reviewer once noted his penchant for unleashing "great hydraulic fountains of notes, each drop sparkling as it falls". Tonight he brought that virtuosity from Carnegie Hall to a more humble venue just off Cuba Street: Wellington Opera House.
I sat entranced as the maestro massaged, pounded and tickled his piano with hands the size of frying pans, unleashing dazzling sprays of sound over ferocious grooves laid down by three percussionists and a virtuoso double bass player.
But man cannot live by music alone. I needed tucker, so I headed up to Ombra, a spanking new Italian place on the corner of Cuba and Vivian streets, done out like a Venetian backstreet taverna. You want gentrification, here it is: Ombra occupies the site of a former sex shop. Was it true, I asked my contact from Positively Wellington Tourism, that the combined weight of shelf upon shelf of porn, sex toys and risque French maid outfits had weakened the building's superstructure, forcing it to close for refurbishment? No, he said.
Whatever. The former clientele of furtive blokes has now been replaced by a throng of scrubbed-up punters, and the grand old 1922 building has a beautiful new interior of exposed concrete, handmade tiles and soft light that make both food and clientele look ravishing. Chef Giulio Ricatti oversees a menu of about 50 small plates, so I gratefully hoed into superb pork and lemon meatballs and grilled sardines with sultanas, lubricated with a miniature carafe of red.
The next morning, I bumped into Phoenix Foundation singer Sam Scott outside a nearby cafe. A Wellingtonian born and bred, he too bemoaned the neighbourhood's ongoing gentrification, and told me that the raw and grungy little joints that once made Cuba Street so special were now more likely to be found in Newtown, up the road.
But to this visitor's eyes, the area still oozes ramshackle charm. Despite some noticeable sprucing up, Cuba Street still feels diverse, lively and palpably bohemian, as if some space-conscious town planner had shoehorned the best bits of Sydney's Newtown, Melbourne's Fitzroy and Auckland's K Rd into a few tight city blocks. Though a chunk of upper Cuba was bowled for a controversial bypass, and a few scattered apartment blocks have sprung up, most of the street remains resolutely low-rise, crammed with agreeably battered old Edwardian and Italianate buildings that freak out visiting Cantabrians due to the sheer tonnage of unreinforced masonry.
Admittedly, there have been closures. I used to spend hours ferreting through old LPs at the local Real Groovy, which is no more, but vinyl mecca Slow Boat Records is still trading after 23 years and newcomer Rough Peel Records stands just around the corner on Vivian St. Old favourites Ernesto's, La Metropolitain and the Caribbean Bar & Grill have also shut to rising rents, prohibitive earthquake strengthening costs and lean winters, but there remains no shortage of outlets for great food (see sidebar) or life-threateningly strong coffee.
A magnet for coffee chin-strokers, Customs Brew Bar (39 Ghuznee St) specialises in single origin beans from around the globe, dished up via various geek-friendly extraction methods to maximise flavour. If you baulk at the notion of over-zealous baristas eulogising the base notes of blackcurrent and roading tar in your chosen cup of joe, head two doors down to The Milkcrate, where they'll hit you with delicious fair trade organic Peoples Coffee without undue fuss from a sunny corner of the Quilter's Bookshop building. Freshly recaffeinated, you can get an art fix from the Bowen Gallery next door, or climb the stairs to art dealer Hamish McKay.
Fancy a drink? You're in luck. There are more great bars clustered around this area than you'll find anywhere else in the country. Old favourites include teensy cottage rum-bar Havana (Wigan St), local institution The Matterhorn (106 Cuba), and the heroically kitsch Mighty Mighty (upstairs at 104 Cuba). I bowled into the latter, one night, and sat in a warm corner while a hip-hop DJ scratched old self-improvement LPs over spaghetti western soundtracks, improvising a made-to-measure David Lynch film score while a colourful crowd of beardy students, heavily tattooed rockabilly chicks and dapper senior citizens drifted in for a jazz festival show by the Roseneath Centennial Ragtime Band.
Elsewhere around the area there are clear signs of Wellington's much-feted craft beer explosion. With discerning punters deserting the fizzy lolly-water of the big brewers in search of the superior batch-brewed product of the smaller independents, Wellington has the highest per capita craft beer consumption in the country, and there are specialist brew bars galore looking to capitalise on that thirst. You can find a map to the best ones at craftbeercapital.com, which is how I happened upon Golding's Free Dive (14 Leeds St), tucked away down a pedestrian laneway parallel to Cuba St.
Cosy, warm and dimly lit, with great bar food from Pizza Pomodoro next door and an ever-changing menu of cask-conditioned malty goodness, this place deserves to prosper. Their motto? "Beer Is Love." They'll get no argument from me.
Still thirsty? Two of the best artisan breweries in the country - Garage Project (68 Aro St) and ParrotDog (29 Vivian St) - are a five-minute walk away, as is newly opened craft beer haven Rogue & Vagabond (18 Garrett St, near Glover Park).
But after a hectic weekend of eating, drinking, jazz sessions and record shopping, did I notice any significant changes to Cuba Street? Indeed, I did. With more apartments nearby, it's more densely populated these days. Most of the cheap and rowdy flats above the shops are gone, and there aren't as many sex workers and street beggars as there once were. You don't encounter as many mentally unwell people wandering around talking to themselves, and I didn't see a single old drunk guy passed out near the famous clank-slosh-clank bucket fountain; perhaps this is a sign of improved social services, or perhaps they, too, have merely moved out to Newtown.
The street seems a little brighter, a bit flasher, a tad cleaner, but surely that's no bad thing. It may have once added lashings of local colour to this neighbourhood, but why romanticise the dereliction of either buildings or humanity?
Cuba Street continues to evolve, but it still feels like the spiritual heart of this city, and it's still an endearingly eccentric place. On Sunday morning, just before I headed out to the airport, I encountered the kind of sight that used to delight me when I first started coming here 30 years ago.
In the grey early light, making his way between chi-chi cafes hawking eggs benedict to early risers, a man in a violently yellow hi-viz jacket was dragging a huge eight-foot wooden cross down the middle of the road. Stooped under its weight, his face grave, he moved slowly and purposefully, like a penitent Christian heading towards his own crucifixion. It was clear that this was his regular Sunday ritual. Rather than occupy a quiet pew somewhere and sing a few hymns, this eccentric sinner gets out among the thronging multitudes and testifies, and his chosen church is Cuba Street.
Grant Smithies travelled courtesy of Positively Wellington Tourism.
- Sunday Star Times
Will you go to CubaDupa, the Cuba St carnival?