Dreamers of Dreams: 128 Abel Smith Street

Airini Beautrais remembers Wellington’s radical social centre.

Posted on
22.10.20

One of the children’s books I would quite like to live in is Quentin Blake’s All Join In. It’s a book of silly rhymes peopled by characters of a range of ages and family relationships. They may be a big extended family, a group of friends or neighbours, a community of sorts. Children call adults by their first names and make a lot of noise to ensure said adults are having fun. Someone named Ferdinand uses up all the ingredients he can find to make a giant chocolate fudge banana cake, big enough to feed everyone.

This is the kind of utopia I imagine when I think about how I would most like to live. I don’t think of the rural permaculture peasant fantasy, or the 1970s ohu a million miles from anywhere where we all share spouses fantasy. The community in my head is an urban or suburban community. It’s houses where the neighbours have taken down their fences, where people share heritage seedlings, where they get together for banner-painting sessions prior to the latest protest, where they have communal meals, glean things, make salads out of weeds, waste not want not. There’s a bicycle workshop, there’s a tool library, there’s a book exchange. There are crafternoons. There are free workshops on home brewing, hula hooping, basket weaving, anything useful. Bands play in the street. Children run in packs.

It was the summer of 2002–2003 when a group of activists decided to move into an empty house

On the wall of the laundromat on Abel Smith Street, now demolished, a mural had been painted. Above the colourful dancing figures, it said, “We are the movers and shakers. We are the dreamers of dreams.” The lines come from a Victorian ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy. I don’t know who painted the mural, or when, but it epitomised the mood in the Te Aro neighbourhood at the time, and what was happening a little further up the street.

It was the summer of 2002–2003 when a group of activists decided to move into an empty house on the top block of Abel Smith Street, behind the Bodega Bar and Café. The house was owned by the Lebanese Society, and eventually a written agreement was reached that the occupants of the house would take care of it, prevent arson and vandalism, and undertake some repairs in return for a peppercorn rental. The owners didn’t charge market rent, presumably because of the state of the house: its dodgy wiring, collapsing piles, and lack of running hot water.

Over the ensuing months, various activist and anarchist groups relocated their bases from the Wellington Peace and Environment Centre in the Trades Hall on Vivian Street. Bookshelves went up in the lounge, the kitchen filled with spices and bulk ingredients. The back room became the Mechanical Tempest bike workshop. The Rusty Tongue Café and Open Mic Night was held in the lounge; there were movie nights fundraising for a project that would take three women on a trip around the world making a film about saving the planet. Mattresses lined the upstairs room, marae-style. A committee was formed to run the house as a community centre. The committee agreed, via the anarchist consensus decision-making process, to limit the number of live-in caretakers to three (the number of available bedrooms). However, there were always travelling punks passing through who might sleep in the ‘blue room’.

I remember sleeping in that house ... I remember hearing the rain on the roof and wondering if it would find its way in.

This was all a fairly familiar vibe to me. When I was 7 years old, my parents left Auckland and relocated to a live-in community in Whanganui, the Friends’ Settlement. Owned by the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers, the Settlement was formed in the 1970s using the land from the former Whanganui Quaker School farm. There was a circle of simple, white stucco houses around a community centre with a kitchen, library and sleeping facilities. Quakers made all their decisions by a form of consensus – the difference being that some kind of divine or spiritual guidance was believed to be involved in the process. My parents went to a ‘management meeting’ every Monday night, and came home and complained about the difficulties involved in discussing the nitty gritty of every issue with 20 other people. When I moved to Wellington as a fresh-faced, idealistic university student, I didn’t wander too far from the ideology of my upbringing. I made a beeline for the activist community and made friends with environmentalists, animal rights activists, peace activists. I had always had anarchist values: I learned a bit about the political theory that summarised them.

I remember us painting the 128 bathroom pink, including all the toilet plumbing, then stamping the walls with blue and red fish. I remember wondering why we hadn’t fixed the issue with the sloping floor first: being naïve enough to believe that left-leaning, community-oriented tradespeople would materialise and volunteer their time to re-pile the house, replace rotting weatherboards, re-roof, repaint, do all the things that were needed in order to restore it to its former glory. I remember sleeping in that house, in a room where the scrim had been stripped back to reveal the dark horizontal sarking, and someone had spray-painted various words and shapes in gold spray paint over the wood. I remember hearing the rain on the roof and wondering if it would find its way in. I remember lying in bed eating pastries from Le Moulin, the French bakery on Willis Street where the baker was so old and tiny his creations seemed almost magical. I used to fill a bucket with hot water from the Zip, take it to the bath, sit in the bath and soap myself, and pour the bucket over my head. The toilet had a handwritten note on the wall that said, “The toilet door is a curtain so keep singing.”

Meanwhile, out in the world, the climate kept changing.

These are my memories, I am sure others will have different ones. There was the time the 128 compost heap turned into anaerobic sludge from the addition of stale bread from dumpsters that was past even its punk use-by date. We made compost sludge into the shape of a cake and took it up to the top-floor office of Mobil NZ on Lambton Quay, to protest about climate change. We danced around and around in circles, then left the cake on the reception counter, while the office workers watched us with the kind of amusement that indicated it was probably the most entertaining work day they’d had all year. Meanwhile, out in the world, the climate kept changing. I remember sitting on the footpath outside 128 with my friend Jonah, shooting the breeze, when a middle-aged drunk punk wandered by and got talking to us, asked us our names. “Oh, I know you,” he said to Jonah. “Didn’t you get swallowed by a whale?”

For a while, a couple of other artists and I used one of the caretakers’ rooms as a studio. I was in there painting roses on tins when I heard my friend Brett, who lived over the road from 128, rehearsing children’s songs with his librarian friends. “Bob the builder, can we fix it?” they sang, at lung-capacity volume. “Bob the builder, Yes, we can!” They called their band The Spider Monkeys. Brett’s flat was a similar large, ramshackle wooden building, with a convoluted history as a mental asylum. 128 had been a maternity hospital. Both were full of ghosts. On the other side of 128 was the Catacombs, a drop-in centre for the mentally unwell, frequented by famous derelicts of Wellington, like Blanket Man and his friends. My friend Matt wrote a song about a ghost named Creaky Bones who lived at the Catacombs and ate children.

In the early hours of the morning, a leather-and-stud-clad punk wandered into the kitchen

Peak-128 was perhaps the street party celebrating the opening of TACO – the Te Aro Conservation Office. The whole area – the mural-clad laundromat, the garden-filled, run-down Tonks Avenue, upper Cuba Street with its second-hand clothing shops, cheap takeaways and otherworldly feel – was under threat from the inner-city bypass, a road 40 years in the planning that probably wouldn’t save anyone any time but would erase a substantial amount of Wellington history. The street party featured a number of local bands, and a stall by Food not Bombs, which gave away soup made from scavenged vegetables. In the 128 kitchen we made a large number of tortillas with beans and salsa – they weren’t tacos, but close enough. In the early hours of the morning, a leather-and-stud-clad punk wandered into the kitchen where a few of us were drinking, and asked, “Have you got any more of them round-shaped things?”

“No, but we have a lot of fruit buns,” I said, pointing to a rubbish sack of the latest dumpster scores.

“There’s no more of them bendy fuckers,” said the punk to his friend, “but there’s plenty of bun-shaped fruit things.” Thoughtfully, he added, “There’s some meths under the sink – we could drink that!”

When 128 burned down it brought up a lot of memories ... some good; some less good.

The bypass went through at around the same time the roadmap of my life changed. I decided I had better get a proper job. I finished my teacher training and avoided locking myself onto bulldozers, because I didn’t want to get a criminal record. I wanted to buy a house and settle down and have babies. I moved to Greytown and taught in the high school. I moved all around the lower North Island, had my boys. Trying to live in a nuclear family and having it fall apart in nuclear fashion made me think more and more about my old utopian dreams. I now live in a neighbourhood in suburban Whanganui, where the local polling booth overwhelmingly collected National votes in the 2017 election.

On the day, I was out in my garden planting peach trees given to me by a local Forest and Bird stalwart who’d dug them up from her garden. There’s something of a leap of faith in planting self-sown fruit. I watched couples walking down the road in brilliant blue clothing. Jacinda Ardern became the Prime Minister. The peach trees turned out to be good: two were white-flesh, one dark red. I made a heart-shaped rose garden, a fire-pit. There’s no lawn, weeds grow everywhere, the flowers are all the colours of the rainbow. My anarchic gardening, my single-mumming, my feminism, my mending days with friends. These are all threads I can trace back to my 128 days. My friend and fellow 128-er Sam has built a library on his verge in Paekākāriki. At Halloween he decorates his garden and serves all the local children ice cream with maple syrup. It’s like something from a Quentin Blake book, or perhaps Tove Jansson’s Moomin series.

When 128 burned down it brought up a lot of memories for a lot of people. Some of these were good; some were less good. There were photos of the TACO street party shared on social media. We made connections: who we know now, who we crossed paths with then. For others, the rose-tinted nostalgia was less appealing. There were fights at 128. There were meetings that devolved into screaming matches. There were men who abused women. There were creeps. There were cliques and campaigns against particular people; there were friendships that fell apart. There was an element of holier-than-thou – the newcomer with new leather shoes might not be welcomed as warmly as the one with safety-pinned clothing. None of this was good; none of it was particularly surprising to me. I had grown up in a religious community with core values of peace and love, and I had seen all of this happen before. It continues to happen wherever people live and work together.

Ideals are where it starts. Community organisation is how it happens.

For me, it all comes back to the ‘dreamers of dreams’. Ideals are where it starts. Community organisation is how it happens. Having a really solid shared kaupapa helps. Sometimes it’s necessary to walk away. Sometimes it’s possible to stay and talk things over. As the anarchist Emma Goldman once said, “When we can’t dream anymore, we die.” 128 was a house of dreams. It’s gone now; other spaces will perform the role it performed. A bit of local history has moved from the realm of bricks and mortar to the realm of photographs and stories. All of us who went through there carry the wider project with us. We are part of the story. We are the movers and shakers.

Feature image: Google Streetview