Searching for life downtown

By: Winston Watusi

Winston Watusi
Music Plus

Walking along Devonport Road is a sad experience these days.

Perhaps it was a couple of weeks since I'd been in town but a few days ago when I strolled up the once bustling street it felt like a frowzy ghost town.

Window after window empty, for lease. On the harbour side of the road there's bugger-all left any more. Cafés – closed; sushi bars – closed; now even Doug Jarvis The Butcher – closed, retreated back to his safer locations in Papamoa and the Mount.

There's been a butcher's shop there, half way up Devonport Road, since I can remember. Decades. But even an operator as sure and experienced as Doug Jarvis can't survive downtown Tauranga the way it is now.

I miss the butcher. And I miss so many things that used to be downtown when it was still a vibrant city centre. I miss the French Restaurant, Café Versailles, driven out of business by excessive rent increases. What sort of madness is that? Town falls apart and yet the parking charges and rents continue to increase?

(I particularly miss Versailles because it was the first place I ever tried the wonderful French soup combination of tomato and banana. Surprising and simply brilliant. Thanks Maurice!)


I know little of economic matters but surely more help can be given by council or whatever powers that be to the many, many retailers whose businesses are being destroyed by this shiny new upgrade to every second block of the town. It reminds me of an old doctors’ joke about the operation being a success: the disease was cured but unfortunately the patient died. How many retailers need to be put out of business while “saving” the city?

But, as they said in Jurassic Park: “The city planners are obviously complete and utter spasmanoids.” Actually, I may have my quotes confused. The one I was searching for is: “Life will find a way.”

And that certainly seems true for Wharf Street, an area of the town long hobbled by a good but extremely poorly executed idea. In fact the street is still recovering from its initial lousy design, with those absurd wooden structures that vaguely resemble seats and little snippets of uninteresting historical info. The lights that fell down a couple of weeks after construction might have flashed things up but they were never replaced.

Yet, despite this, and the obvious restaurants casualties – there seems to be another one down every time you visit - Wharf Street is becoming an unlikely home to beer and bluesy music, with the relative placement of two craft beer bars, The Barrel Room and The Hop House, within a few doors of each other.


Recently The Barrel Room brought The Flaming Mudcats and their irrepressible style of blues down from Auckland and last week The Hop House hosted the debut show from Grant Haua's new outfit The Grant Haua Trio. Both bars also have sundry duos and soloists at other weekend times while The Barrel Room also delves into poetry nights and quizzes.

As mentioned last week on SunLive, Grant's gig was the first outing for his new electric combo – with Brilleaux's Brian Franks on bass and Jeff Nilson on drums – and they were sounding sensational: gritty and funky with a solid foundation from Brian's driving bass and Grant exploring new musical areas, even getting his Marvin Gaye on with some convincing falsetto soul-singing.

Since retiring from Swamp Thing six months back Grant has actually been running in several creative directions at once and is also just about to wrap a largely acoustic album. He's been recording that at Tim Julian's Colourfield Studio in Welcome Bay.

It's been very much a “Thursday Album” with Grant and Tim hanging out at the studio every Thursday night and slowly adding songs and ideas. The final stripped-down result, also featuring harmonica player Grant Bullot from Kokomo on a few tracks, is almost ready for final mastering, so expect to see a lot more of Grant in the near future, in a variety of contexts.