Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

How do you know when it's time to leave Auckland?

Photo / Getty
Photo / Getty

On my first day in Auckland my jacket was stolen at the New Lynn train station. The kids who took it used the oldest trick in the book, one asking for directions while the other slid the worn black blazer silently from my bag.

I wasn't angry. I didn't even notice the jacket was missing until I got to work, and by then I was too enamoured with my new city to care. It was January, and the early morning heat was already shimmering off Karangahape Rd. A busker played her ukulele to an oblivious stream of office workers and schoolgirls, the occasional drunk stumbling blearily from the 24-hour bar into the sun. In contrast to grim, grey Wellington it seemed so alive, the petty theft of my unnecessary coat adding just enough danger to make me feel careless and cool.

That summer, as I moved into a flat with my cousin in Sandringham, everything was tinged with the same giddy glow. I was fascinated by the drama of K Rd. I got to know the dairy owner downstairs, the barista next door, and the sassy prostitutes who used our foyer to touch up their makeup and hair.

I ate steaming hot pho and sticky pork buns and puffy dahi puri, my new colleagues my culinary guides. Most of them, like me, weren't "from" Auckland, instead drawn to the city by its glut of jobs.

After work, we would go drinking at Golden Dawn, a bar you could find only through a secret door. If we finished early enough, we'd drive to the Herne Bay beaches for a swim in the tepid harbour tide. In winter I trained for a half-marathon, hating the running but falling more in love with the city with each volcano I climbed.

When I arrived, my knowledge of Auckland was little more than fragmented snapshots - the Bombay Hills, the Tip Top factory, the harbour bridge. My strongest memory was when, as children, we spent the week with Nan in New Lynn during a drought, when we weren't allowed to flush the toilet. But slowly, helped by the views from the volcanoes, the real Auckland took shape in my mind. Over the next two years I claimed it as my own.

Looking back, I still can't pick exactly when Auckland lost its lustre for me.

In 2014 I went travelling for a year, but coming back felt like coming home. I returned to all my old haunts, although I joined a new paper and I went to media events and met writers I'd long admired. I began to gain some recognition. My career soared.

My partner and I decided to try to buy a small apartment. To our surprise, we were turned down. My boyfriend's choice to work two jobs instead of one was unacceptable to the bank. The 40 per cent deposit they required was also out of reach.

At the time, we pushed it to the back of our minds. I thought we would simply try again in a year. So instead we trudged through packed flat viewings, eventually renting a one-bedroom unit in Mt Eden and carried on.

I wonder now, however, if that was it?

The turning point? The disappointment of missing out on a home, beholden to a landlord once again. At some point, everything began to frustrate me. The interminable waiting in winter for buses that were always full. Climbing Mt Eden for a moment of peace, to find the summit covered with people. Watching as my favourite cafe became "cool", its signature dish on Instagram and on Sundays you could hardly get a seat.

When a Monteiths bar opened in Sandringham, I was incredulous. Its predictable modern architecture felt out of place in the jumble of Indian restaurants and spice shops, its name - a throwback to a commander in the Indian army - insensitive to say the least.

The year before I left, we filmed a documentary at Papakura High School, in the south. It was only 30km away but felt much further. We spent hours and hours on the Southern Motorway, that asphalt ribbon of boredom and rage. I couldn't imagine the hell of commuting every day.

The school itself was a bright spot among my increasing despondency about the city. The first time I heard the kapa haka group sing, their voices swelling through the door of the whare, my heart swelled too. I ate panikeke and chop suey, learned the intricacies of the Tongan stick dance, soke, watched as delicate moko were drawn on eager faces. This was Auckland too, I thought, maybe the real Auckland. But being in Papakura also made me angry at the growing inequality, highlighted as I drove past waterfront mansions to a school where some students couldn't afford lunch. At the same time, homelessness was burgeoning, with street sleepers crowding the centre city and families forced to live in cars.

Commentators urged first-home buyers like me to quit Sky and stop eating avocado. "Move to Otara", they said. I winced to think at the coming gentrification of that community and the eviction of its residents, like Grey Lynn and Ponsonby before it. But, as the median house price climbed above $800,000, I found myself imagining buying a bungalow there, painting it beige. Soon, however, even Otara climbed out of reach, and I was saved from myself.

In May this year, I asked my bosses if I could work from Dunedin, my boyfriend's home town. When they said yes, our arguments for staying became increasingly thin. I couldn't say I'd miss the culture, the last time I attended a festival had been the previous year. We'd stopped going to Coromandel at weekends because of the traffic. I'd given up the Herne Bay beaches long ago.

In the end, the final hurdle was confronting my fear. My inner narcissist was convinced that leaving was failing. I was scared I'd be forgotten. That'd I hate the South. Peoples' reactions didn't help. "But why Dunedin?" they said. "You know it's cold there." At best they managed: "If you don't like it you can always come back."

Some of that was born, I think, from defensiveness. I know we are lucky to be able to leave and continue to do jobs we enjoy. My worries were largely those of the middle class. So many others will never be able to afford to leave Auckland, not until there is work elsewhere.

On my last day in Auckland I drove south, my possessions piled around me, past the Tip Top Factory and over the Bombays. I felt, momentarily, sad. Then I caught sight of the new housing development at Pokeno, and felt angry.

Auckland, I'll miss your heat, your hurry, your cosmopolitan mix. I'll miss the way my heart leaps each time I drive over the harbour bridge. But I won't miss your endless spread, your single-storey brick boxes multiplying like cells under a microscope, an aggressive suburban bacteria colonising fertile farmland.

The poet Karlo Mila calls you a feke, an octopus. Your tentacles curl around the isthmus, greedy, always wanting more.

Once, I would have welcomed your many-armed embrace, but now it feels cloistering, too hot, too close. I want to shrug you off, to see how it feels to love somewhere else, for now.

- Canvas

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