As a child, few places straddled the line of a dream and a real adventure: Disneyland, the Empire State Building and the Victoria Park Markets.
It was Valentines’ Day 2019, where I had planned to show and visit the citadel of my childhood adventures and Auckland’s answer to a Bazaar, only to be completely floored by what seemed to be a clean sweep of a Capitalist Grim Reaper, concrete shells of vacant lots in a place formerly beaming with life, creativity and spirit.
In my adult life, like those dreams of having a partner and realising you’re alone, I am haunted by dreams taking place in Victoria Park Market, only to revisit it in the present day to realise it is the closest thing in Auckland Central to a vision of a dead mall.
Visiting Victoria Park Market in this way was death’s version of visiting a school after hours. Silence, concrete and metal letters falling off of signs were a cruel contrast to the hopeful “Your Vision Here!” lease signs on almost every space. We watched as buses of tourists hopped off with their recommendations of Victoria Park Market from their Lonely Planet guides, only to hop back on the busses within seconds of browsing the emptiness.
From a rich history of brick remnants of Victorian-era markets and later, a refuse station, Victoria Park Market became well established from the 60s onwards for a place where aspiring artists and designers would gather and sell. This was accompanied by a proto-Matakana style artisanal food court beneath a ‘Hall of Fame’ stairwell of concrete hand impressions of New Zealand celebrities.
Victoria Park Market had rows of market stalls but also indoor areas with detours where one stall would blur into the next. It was a kaleidoscope of colours, smells and sounds with everything from New Age books, aromatherapy cushions, CDs of whale songs, terracotta dragons and pebbles with googly eyes stuck on them. To many, the Victoria Park Markets brings back memories from the 1980s to the early 2000s of bunking off lectures, of the rise of the beloved graffiti art Kosmik sweatshirts or for babies like me, as a place which made me feel like a hero discovering the lamp to the Cave of Wonders. Many childhood treasures came from Victoria Park Market, including a beaded daisy bracelet, a green gemstone with googly eyes stuck on it as my ‘pet rock’ and a pink glass cauldron where I keep my pencils inside to this day.
So what went wrong?
In the late 2000s, visitors waned at Victoria Park Market owing to increased parking costs and competition with the emergence of mega-malls such as Sylvia Park. The Market was still holding on for dear life at this point, but there was a noticeable decrease in the quality of the goods with one of the few remaining stalls as one which sold male t-shirts saying “trust me, I’m a gynaecologist ? “.
By the time the New Tens rolled around, Victoria Park Market was closed for a $20 million dollar renovation with a vision that the Market would turn into a hub for upmarket brands. Gone were the days of Retreat and Cushla’s and here were the days of Nike and Pilates studios. But there was a great flaw with this plan, Victoria Park Market was never a proto-mall with sequestered boutiques, it was the closest thing that the youth of Auckland Central had to a Third Space, a concept known in sociology as a place to socialise and generate ideas. It was a place to gather, with consumption as a distant second place. This is something which Auckland now lacks in comparison with Europe and Asia who have open spaces dedicated for exploration, subcultures and small business high streets.
The Market’s management jumped on to the mall bandwagon for all the wrong reasons, the pursuit of image and US mall culture aspiration and so as the reputation of the Market tanked, so did the customer base. Worse still, this appears to be no secret to the management, who seem to have little initiative to change this path.
Victoria Park Market is one of the lowest rated Auckland attractions on Google Reviews and Tripadvisor with many complaints from tourists and locals alike. And there are frequent and tone-deaf attempts to quell this dissatisfaction from the Victoria Park Market social media team, but it is even more worrying reading allegations of lack of landlord support from aggrieved former tenants. One former vendor alleges tenant losses to around hundreds of thousands of dollars, failed promises of revitalisation and marketing from the landlord and dishonesty about business prospects in the market. Indeed, landlords were hopeful that local events would spark interest in the market once again, however, local Noodle and Christmas markets appear to have done little to revitalise the character of the market space itself.
For now, the future of Victoria Park Market lies in tabletop gaming pub, Dice and Fork, café Hemi and Korean restaurant Hansik, all persistent places which have kept the social charm of the market as opposed to the concrete tissue box style set ups favoured by the re-development vision. The closest thing to what Victoria Park Market was can be found in Parnell’s Fantail House (Formerly Elephant House) Craftworld or local arts and crafts markets. But nothing is quite the same to the energy that once was.
The changing nature of Victoria Park Market was a loss to Auckland Central youth and the Creative Arts scene but also to the future generations of Auckland who will likely never experience a Third Space quite like this.