The annual Newtown Festival should be in every Wellingtonian’s diary, says Martyn Pepperell

It’s Newtown’s party — but we’re all invited

Newtown Festival 2014On Sunday, 8 March, the stor­ied sub­urb of New­town will close its main roads and host the 19th edi­tion of the icon­ic New­town Fest­iv­al street fair, its annu­al com­munity party for the Wel­ling­ton region. In the place of traffic, the streets will be filled with 380 food, crafts and cloth­ing stalls, 12 stages of music and enter­tain­ment, and an expec­ted 80,000 attendees. In short, it’s a car­ni­val — one of the largest, most suc­cess­ful and best loved New Zea­l­and has to offer.

On a swel­ter­ing hot Thursday after­noon in Janu­ary, fest­iv­al dir­ect­or Mar­tin Han­ley and artist liais­on James Coyle take a break from work to talk to me at the vibrant fest­iv­al offices. “The ori­gin­al idea was to show­case what we already all knew was here,” Mar­tin explains while reflect­ing on the growth of the event. What they knew was that there was a slightly warm­er micro­cli­mate at New­town, cre­ated by a dip in the ter­rain, and an incred­ible degree of cre­ativ­ity, tol­er­ance, cul­tur­al diversity and con­nectiv­ity. The sub­urb just needed a show­case. “We thought, if we build it, they will come,” he con­tin­ues. “Over time, people have decided it’s a cool place to come to. It’s been a self-per­petu­at­ing thing.”

On fair day, when months of fas­ti­di­ous plan­ning, assist­ance from volun­teers and per­formers and Wel­ling­ton City Coun­cil, and dona­tions from loc­al indi­vidu­als and busi­nesses dove­tail togeth­er, the atmo­sphere of the sub­urb is undeni­ably elec­tric. Out­side of New­town fest­iv­al, Mar­tin is best known for Red Design, the archi­tec­ture prac­tice he shares with his part­ner Anna Kemble Welch, anoth­er key face in the festival’s his­tory. “Occu­pants make archi­tec­ture,” he enthuses. “Archi­tec­ture is all about space, space use, eleg­ance, and beauty of con­fig­ur­a­tion. But it isn’t archi­tec­ture if people can’t use it.” As a res­ult, their approach to the street fair is driv­en by space activ­a­tion. “It’s just an idea,” Mar­tin con­tin­ues. “People come in and use the space in a dif­fer­ent way. All we do is say, the road is closed guys, come party!”

I like how Mar­tin describes it as a series of out­door lounges,” James says. “It’s all these lounges situ­ated across 11 city blocks.” Around one-third of the stalls are food out­lets. Coupled with the diversity of the sub­urb, it makes for a very impress­ive inter­na­tion­al food court. Over time, many of the stall­hold­ers have gone on to run res­taur­ants around the region, mak­ing the fair ground zero for the future of hos­pit­al­ity in the cap­it­al. “Anoth­er thing to men­tion is that Green Street is going to be all crafts,” James con­tin­ues. “All loc­al, all hand-made. That’s going to be one to check out. We’re also going to have street sports in the south end of the fair.”

Out­side of stalls, the key draw card for the street fair has always been its impress­ive array of enter­tain­ment stages. This year, 80 acts will per­form across 12 stages, in the pro­cess reveal­ing a diversity of live music and per­form­ance befit­ting and com­fort­ably amp­li­fy­ing the inter­na­tion­al­ism of the food court. As the festival’s music guy, James is genu­inely very excited. Amongst the array of groups, DJs, com­munity choirs and big bands on dis­play, attendees will be treated to respec­ted Vanuatu reg­gae band Young Life, rising Cana­dian indie-pop trio The Court­neys, and road-seasoned New Zea­l­and alt-coun­try/goth­ic folk enter­tain­ers Delaney Dav­id­son and Eb & Sparrow.

Bookended by sev­er­al weeks of smal­ler events on either side of the fair, the fest­iv­al is going to make for some spe­cial times. When the music is play­ing, deli­cious food smells are waft­ing through the streets and people are smil­ing ear to ear, it’s hard to pic­ture any­where else in Wel­ling­ton you’d rather be.