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Faces of Emily Place


By Lucy-Mary Mulholland 

I met Damian late last year when he popped into the Aaiotanga Community Centre where I work. A new resident who’d just moved into the Emily Place Neighbourhood and a landscape architect at the central city based Isthmus Group. He’s become a familiar face in the community and in early February he agreed to let me interview him as part of the Vertical Voice newsletter’s focus on central city locals. 


Damian and I stroll down to his current favourite local cafe, the Espresso Workshop, we sit outside and are almost immediately captivated by a woman’s voice, an acapella church ballad drifting through the post-flood humidity. We discover the voice is coming from a construction worker stationed beyond the passing cars, sitting under her umbrella on the other side of Britomart Place. We pause our conversation for a moment and enjoy the melody. 

Then it’s onto the coffees and chats. We immediately find common ground, having both worked with the team from Manu Tukutuku community centre in Randwick Park a few years back, Damian through his role at Auckland Council, and me through waste education work and art therapy sessions with children. “I see they were a key centre during the floods” he says. Then recounts how, back in 2008, the community really came together after a shooting, that while tragic, was also a powerful catalyst that ultimately resulted in the construction of the community centre and much more. 

“I kinda always think of those guys” he says, “because they made it happen, there was no Manu Tukutuku when the shooting happened, but in many ways it brought them together. They just pushed so hard. It’s an amazing community down there. I mean all communities are amazing but, there were 5 in that community who weren’t just advocates, they were kinda something more, they really cared, and they kinda knew how to be connected across all the different sectors within their own community… they were able to bring the gang leaders together, the sport leaders together, the Kaumātua, the politicians, they kinda had the mana to work across all the community. There’s different spheres needed to make a project like that work.”

“But you also need a strong story to push that… this is important for funding. I think there’s a big thing in how we tell stories, how we compel people to support projects.” He describes the struggle they had back then, trying to convince council to put money into that area. “Historically you’d put a rubbish bin in and it’d be kicked in the next day.” Council were reluctant to invest here, “so there were local people who became not only advocates, but champions of the story.” 

We start jamming on the idea of a good story. I add my thoughts, “You know when you’ve uncovered a good story because it really taps people’s will. It’s something real, and really meaningful and sourced from that place. It’s not something that’s been invented to layer over a place, to make it look cool.” He responds, “Yea, yea, you haven’t crafted something to fit the situation. The story actually is just inherent…You’ve gotta let it emerge.”

I ask him about a video I’d seen on instagram a few months back where Damian was sharing stories and playing his guitar down at Te Wānanga on the waterfront. He laughs, “I’m trying to remember what I talked about.” He tells me a bit about the project, “It was literally putting a footprint back for mana whenua, in the city, and expressing that story” he explains. “A good design should be able to tell a story.”

“There was one Kaumātua who kinda said… we want this to capture the hearts and minds of whoever’s involved, whether they’re just visiting for half an hour off a cruise ship, or whether they’re involved in the project.” Damian emphasises the value of engaging each different group early on in the process, helping to draw our personal will as well as the collective will for the whole project. “If you’ve got a personal drive then you’re more connected with the group. If the group has got more collective will, then they’ve got more input in terms of the greater good… and the story is what holds it all together.”  

Speaking of waterfront, we pause and reflect on the fact that where we are, here on Britomart Place, drinking our coffees, is the original site of the beach. “We’re like in the water” he says. “So interesting how much the central city has changed shape.” I add. 

We circle back to stories and I try and sketch with my hands in the space between us, 3 story levels, like a Russian nesting doll - the personal story, the group story, and the wider story of perhaps a whole community or whole place. “There’s a very Te Ao Māori way of understanding your place, which starts at the world, then kinda comes down to - where’s your family?, and then - what does that mean for yourself? There’s that layering. You kinda don’t start from the self first, you start from the big picture. Because up here [he’s pointing to the biggest nesting doll] is where it connects everyone and then down here [now the smallest doll] is the story that’s kinda your localised connection. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we tell the stories. If we can get people connected to something that drives them, that motivates them, that’s pretty cool.”

Although Damian is a landscape architech, I’m also curious about his music and how that fits in with stories and storytelling. He pauses and thinks for a moment. 

“I think…wow it really is raining…ummm…oh, she’s still singing” he brings our attention back to the beautiful sound coming from over the road.” She’s awesome” he says as we both nod our heads in unison, smiling. “I love it when people make their job, their role, fun” he says, “I remember this one road controller guy who would kinda breakdance his moves, he’d do one for stop, and then this other one for go.” 

“Is that a bit of a philosophy you try and bring into your work?” I ask. 

“Yea, I think so. Not breaking dancing” he jokes, “but yea, good if you can make it fun.” 

“I think music is really powerful to connect people. I don’t know why, but I just kind of need music around me. Keeps me calm. It can just change the whole vibe of a group. It’s not that it’s about soothing people, but it just kind of harmonises, and if you can get people to sing, you know there’s a lot there, the connection of breath, it’s almost like a meditation.” 

I ask him how he got into music, was there someone or something that really sparked it for him? 

“I just always played in small little bands… I tend to work a lot with Māori communities, and so you just gotta be ready to sing.” 

Our conversation touches upon music connecting us to where we come from, our ancestral lands. “It connects us to where we’re from, and then you all bring something to wherever you are at that time. I remember one session we went to just recently, up with Ngāti Whātua [he points towards the East] and they had some guests, some indigenous people from… I think they call it Turtle Island, somewhere right up in the top of Alaska. We couldn’t understand anything they said, but we could feel the presence of their song, and songs are stories too.”

“Particularly in oral traditions, songs are just how you remembered stories through generations. They sort of catch you in a different way. It just becomes a part of your daily life” he says. “The modern kind of way, of like, right! we’ve got an hour for this meeting, this is our agenda kinda thing, which is still important because you need to drive outcomes, but if you create that little space, it can set up something that just connects a bit more.” 

We pause our conversation to check in on time and he sneaks in his third coffee order. “I might just grab one more coffee, naughty eh, I drink a lot of coffee, it’s ridiculous” he says. When he returns I ask, “So this is your local here, what else have you discovered in this area?” 

He’s lived all over Auckland, but never in the city centre before. “In a funny way, I’ve never quite experienced community as much as right here… in it’s own way. I think the street becomes your neighbourhood. The street is kind of the connector. Other communities, they’ll have say a community centre, a local dairy, your favourite cafe. But in the city centre, you’ve got so many of these bump spaces. I heard one person describe it as lots of little fountains, little flourishes of activity. There are these pockets, little wells of energy, and different layers of communities that use spaces at different times of the day.” He describes the fluidity of meandering, choosing different routes on different days, testing the waters of all the different wells depending on his mood. 


He tells me about an exercise they did at work recently, where each person drew their route to school when they were 10 years old. “Obviously everyone has a version of that story, but how they interpret that on a page, there’s a myriad of ways. One lady drew it in plan view, someone else did it in cross-section. It’s about finding those little fountains or pockets of energy that you remember” he says. One lady in the group grew up in the Phillipines. Her path involved grabbing a mango from the public mango tree, then the scary road where they thought a witch lived, so they took a cut through, past the rice paddy fields. “It’s such a different image to seeing a route on a traditional map, it sounds so much more story based.” I say. 

He tells me about running the same exercise with the students at Hobsonville Point school too, to find out what stood out for them on their way to school, their little wells and energy pockets. “Often we try and design stuff very much the same, but you can miss those energy pockets.” He’s reminded of the Ōtara Bike Rave. “It was cool because they’d stop off at the feijoa tree, cruise around all the local spots. They were really proud to show off their local place.” 

“What about your route to school?” I ask. 


“We used to cut through an orchard, a working orchard. This was out in West Auckland. I remember getting got chased by a dog once, was pretty scary. We used to go play in those orchards because they had massive trees. We’d build huts and eat there apples.” I tell him about the historical sign I’d discovered in Parliament St mentioned the peach grove that used to exist on the sunny eastern slopes of what is now Princes St. 

We start musing on story pathways around the central city. I share with him the walking tour we’re currently creating at Aaiotanga Community Space, in collaboration with Gus Fisher Gallery, called ‘Local Ecologies’. We too are trying to take it beyond just a functional exercise and instead try to bring to life the story of place, the literal fountains (like the spring Te Wai Ariki on Eden Cres) as well as the pathways and evolutions of plants, birds and other animal life unique to here. 

We go back to Te Wānanga project. “Understanding those base ecolologies is really powerful, because it can transform the whole way we experience a place. At Te Wanaga there was this whole concept of understanding environmental ecologies, not just the plants and the layering, but actually creating an ecosystem that would allow more plants to grow, to regenerate, from the moses, down to the mussel ropes, to birds, and that kind of connection between land and sea,” he explains. “But it’s also about the role that human beings have in that too, inhabiting those little pockets… We’re all part of one big ecology.” 


Conversation on pause again as we just have to acknowledge the presence of this amazing character who’s just glided past our table, on a skateboard that seems comically small and a white baggy track suit that seems to have a rainbow palette of paint splattered at it. “That’s something I love about this city” I say, “All the characters” we say in unison. Damian laments the cancellation of the Buskers Festival, a family tradition of theirs to go and experience all the amazing “characters”. 


Our conversation starts to draw to a close and we begin to wander back towards Emily Place, where he lives and I work. We chat about the possibility of an Emily Place music group and a few other ideas we’ve been curious about. I know I’ll run into Damian again soon at one of the many pockets or fountains of the central city village. 


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