Red outline of the extent of Basque Park today, overlaid on map of legal descriptions from LINZ website - crown copyright.
A reader named Philip Kirk emailed me back in early May, asking the question: why was Basque Park established?
Short answer: because, at the time, it was felt that there were too many dingy houses in the neighbourhood, and the rest of the neighbourhood (of less dingy houses) needed a kiddie’s playground.
But – here’s the long answer.
In April 1938, the City Treasurer informed the Council Town Clerk that there were three sections in Basque Road, owned by executors of George Holdship, Auckland timber dealer in the last half of the 19th century, where the rates had remained unpaid since 1932. These sections were in a gully between part of Basque Street (now closed and part of the park) and Newton Street (now Norwich Street). The executors were open to the idea that, in lieu of the overdue rates, the Council could have title to the land. The Council thought this was an opportunity to set up a children’s playground there, and the Parks Committee considered a report by the City Engineer in October 1938, which supported the proposal and urged that work proceed quickly “so that advantage may be taken of subsidised labour.”
“On account of the difficult topography, its awkward shape and smallness of size, this property could not within itself be developed as a children’s playground, but in conjunction with certain of the adjacent areas it presents reasonable opportunities for that purpose.“The gully in which it is situated is at the head of a narrow valley which stretches from Exmouth Street to Newton Gully. It occupies the back yards of a number of narrow, elongated properties fronting Norwich Street and some low-lying vacant lots off the end of Rendall Place. A watercourse follows the floor of the gully, most of which is covered with deleterious growth, and in its present state, is a potential harbourage for vermin and rats, and cannot be put to any useful purpose.”
(City Engineer’s report, 27 September 1938)
For a while, though, there was a difference of opinion between the Parks committee, which felt that the Holdship land should be taken over, and the Financial committee, which wanted the overdue rates to simply be written off. The latter committee eventually resolved to approve takeover of the property in May 1939, while the City Engineer recommended in a memo to the Town Clerk that near £5,500 worth of surrounding land should be acquired.
[Council budgeted] £1000 for a proposed children's playground in Basque Road, Eden Terrace …
(Auckland Star 15 June 1939)
The full Council approved the playground scheme in October 1939.
Children's Playground.—On the recommendation of the parks committee it was decided to negotiate for the purchase of a small area of land in the Basque Road Gully, near the intersection of New North' Road and Symonds Street, for a children's playground. The city engineer, Mr. J. Tyler, said the area was situated in a gully, and it was possible to obtain about one acre in extent. There was no children's playground anywhere in the district.
(AS 27 October 1939)
1940 aerial (from Auckland Council website) with original George Holdship estate allotments approximately marked in yellow.
From April-May 1940, surrounding landowners were approached by Council with offers to buy their land to add to the reserve.
The finance committee brought down a proposal for meeting the cost, estimated at £12,200, for the development of a children's playground in Basque Road, Eden Terrace. It was stated that £3500 had been placed on the current year's estimates, and £3300 was available from the sale of lands account, and £3200 from compensation for land taken for the central police station. The £2000 balance could be carried by next year's budget, unless other arrangements were made in the meantime. The recommendation was approved.
(AS 8 November 1940)
DECADENT AREAS."BLIGHT ON THE CITY."The opinion that certain quarters of old Auckland badly required cleaning up, as they were a blight on a beautiful city, was expressed by the Mayor Sir Ernest Davis in a report presented at a meeting of the Auckland City Council last evening. He said that the retention of such areas in their present form was a reflection on a city of such recent establishment as Auckland, and he had often asked himself what was the use of having lovely parks, and other pleasurable amenities, when, close at hand, there were areas out of harmony with the planning of a modern city …Mr J L Coakley [Chairman of the Parks Committee] said that they had already made a start at Basque Road, where old houses had been removed and three acres secured as a playing ground.
(AS 29 November 1940)
Auckland Star 31 August 1940
Congratulations to the man unknown to me who has interested himself in the youngsters of Eden Terrace and their games in the unfinished Basque Road reserve. What a difference in the conduct of these children when they are encouraged in the right way and what a pity there are not a few more men of his kind about. RESIDENT.
(AS 19 February 1942)
"I hope that this ceremony will inculcate a respect for trees," said the Mayor, Mr. Allum, when addressing the annual gathering for the observance of Arbor Day, held this morning in the new park and children's playground near Basque Road, between Eden Terrace and Newton Road.Children from the Grafton, St. Benedict's and Newton Central Schools attended the gathering, and school representatives aided in planting about 40 shelter trees, comprising pohutukawas, puriris, rewarewas, poplars, planes and acmenas …About 40 Auckland schools had applied for trees for planting this year, making a total of 18,906 trees distributed to schools during the past seven years, said Mr. Coakley, who also mentioned that the Basque Road reserve would be completed next year, and that it would be possible to provide a small area where a collection of native trees could be planted to be of some educational value to children.
(AS 2 August 1944)
NEW CITY PARKOFF EDEN TERRACECOMPLETION THIS YEARWork on the construction of a small park and children's playground in the gully between Eden Terrace and Newton Road is nearing completion. Although the work has been in progress for the past three or four years, there have been several interruptions due to the war. When completed the park will offer playing facilities to children living in a densely-populated area of the city.It is expected that the whole of the drainage work, cleaning up of the two and three-quarter acres, laying of paths and erection of fences will be completed before Christmas. The sowing of grass will be left until next autumn. In the early stages of the project the relaying of several old sewers was necessary. Filling for the lower section of the park was taken from the sides of the gully. Also involved was the closing of portion of Basque Road extending below Exmouth Street and the acquisition of several cottage properties on either side of the road. There is a frontage of 320 feet to Exmouth Street.The figure quoted on this year's City Council estimates for the present stage of the scheme was £3000. Further expenditure will be necessary next year when application is made for permission to erect several buildings, such as conveniences and shelter sheds. It is thought that shortage of building materials may hold up this work to some extent. Playing apparatus will also be provided.It is the City's Council's intention to institute a system similar to that formerly pertaining at Victoria Park whereby the children's recreation will come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Internal Affairs.
(AS 28 November 1944)
BASQUE ROAD RESERVEWORK IN FINAL STAGESThe final stage in the construction of the Basque Road reserve, in the gully between Eden Terrace and Newton Road, has been reached. At present a retaining wall is being built and concrete margins for footpaths and concrete steps are being formed. Regrading of the area is also proceeding. The work has been in progress, with interruptions, for the past three or four years. Primary function of the reserve will be to supply playing facilities for the many children living in the district. Work yet to be done includes the formation of paths and the fencing both of the retaining wall and of the boundaries of the park. The sowing of the 2¾ acres with grass will be done next autumn.
(AS 30 January 1945)
Between 1945 and 1956, however, the land use around the park changed from predominantly residential to industrial. The late 1930s ideal of providing a place for the workers’ kids to play hadn’t kept up with the times. Paths were formed, stone retaining walls built and a children’s shelter built, but that was just about it.“Concerning the use and the future use of the reserve, it is a fact that owing to the gradual industrial development the reserve has never been used as envisaged. This does not mean, of course, that the area should be disposed of, but rather that the use of same should be changed from children to adults. It is essential in all cities, particularly in heavily built-up areas, to provide a breathing space for workers, and such reserves as we have which are likely to become surrounded by industry should be retained for this purpose …“Basque Road could, therefore, be changed as stated from a children’s playground into a recreation centre for adults …”
(Memo from Director of Parks and Reserves to Town Clerk, 22 August 1956)
1959 aerial, Auckland Council website.
More land was added in 1973, and the unformed lower part of Basque Road closed and also added to the park in 1974. In the same year, the Council agreed to provide play equipment for the park (does this mean it took 35 years to provide an actual playground?)
From the late 1950s, Council policy was to try to encourage residential development around the park, especially when adjacent land later became available as a result of the development of the link between Dominion Road and Upper Queen Street. But that same road development apparently stalled development in the area while the road designations were in place. More land between Macauley and Norwich Streets was added to the park during the decade. A housing development proposal with Housing Corporation was defeated by public protest from private land owners in the area. So, in 1986 and 1987, bulk filling (20,000-40,000 cubic metres) was undertaken using fill from the Aotea Centre building site, raising levels and attempting to reduce the grade.
In 1989, Council put forward a smaller residential development proposal, but one which would have involved the building of four blocks for 53 Housing Corporation flats on the park. Debate raged over this development clear through to the mid 1990s. Meanwhile, community gardens had been set up on the park in 1993 by a justice, peace and development group from St Benedict’s parish, and supported by the local community board.
“Back in 1993, the community board had enthusiastically encouraged the small justice, peace and development group from St Benedicts parish who wanted to start an urban farm in Basque Reserve. The group had support and small donations from about 250 people. These people dreamed of improving the inner-city concrete jungle while helping local people, especially the jobless, to learn how to grow their own food and enjoy the fruit of shared labour.“And this happened. They began with a wasteland of solid clay, kikuyu and dockweeds but were soon composting richer and deeper soil. They had no water supply but a local factory owner gave them the run-off from his roof. Soon, many species of vegetables, fruit and flowers were flourishing and insects and birds came to join in the party.“The "farm" - later called St Benedicts Community Gardens - grew with minimal funds but lots of goodwill. The community board granted money. There were community days when adults gathered with food and music. The children - guided by a local artist - painted the water tank. The garden became a delightful spot where passers-by sought refuge during lunch hours. There was no fence and anyone could stroll through. Many shared the vegetables and fruit.”
2008 aerial, Auckland Council website.
But, the community gardens were cleared out. More trees have been planted in the park, a reserve made of a patchwork quilt of land titles, changed over time at the whim of changing development patterns, political ideas, and its topography.