25 year anniversary of Blockhouse Bay Library
“Why can’t we have our own library in Blockhouse Bay?” Merle Martin asked. “It’s a pain in the neck going down to the Avondale Library.”
That conversation kicked off a six-year battle by the Blockhouse Bay community eventually resulting in a new library in their village.
This month marks 25 years since the Blockhouse Bay library opened on 24 February 1995.
Hundreds of people turned out for the Mardi Gras party on the village green. Mainstreet was closed for the evening sit down dinner. It was a victory celebration after a massive David and Goliath battle that was filled with political intrigue and many twists and turns.
More than anything, the new library was the result of visionaries in the community who doggedly fought on for years. They mobilised massive community support that eventually wore down and overwhelmed political opposition.
It’s worth noting that the library was the first significant council-owned building in the Bay.
Prior to the battle for the library, the community had a trial run of sorts, getting the historic Armanasco House moved from a development site in Taylor Street to the village green. This was invaluable training for the community leaders in dealing with Auckland City Council. They realised that they needed to take a long-term view of the costs and benefits of a project.
There was also the red tape to deal with. For example, it was originally envisaged that Armanasco House would be sited close to mainstreet, behind the toilet block. However, there were zoning issues as that is reserve land. It was easier to site it at the back as that was designated for a playground.
The comment from Merle Martin to Robin Barnaby initiated the movement. Merle was a volunteer at the Blockhouse Bay Community Centre. Robin was the manager and the first paid employee at the centre.
Robin went to her boss, Jim Gilbert, who was the board chair of the centre. He gave the go-ahead to start a campaign and they initiated a petition to council for a library.
Jim did a lot of work but preferred to be behind the scenes. Robin was vivacious and enthusiastic. She reached out to every school and community group she could think of. It was a long journey over the years, but they kept building momentum, eventually gathering hundreds of signatures in support.
Jim visited various council officers and slowly started to get traction. Jim got local councillor Brian Maude on board. The only Avondale Community Board member who actually lived in Blockhouse Bay was Tony Mitchell. He became another strong advocate for the library.
By mid-1991 Jim was in a media campaign for the library. A $250,000 council budget was proposed to get the project investigated and underway when a local city councillor shot it down. It was reported that Ms Sinclair “Does not want to spend $250,000 on stage one of the library project this year.”
“Where there is a lot of unemployment, our priority has to be to keep rates down,” she said.
Mr Gilbert responded, “People outside the Avondale Ward can justifiably say we do not want a library because our councillor is not fighting for it!”
By 1993 $500,000 had been allocated for stage one of the library and that’s when all hell broke loose!
Eastern Bays councillor Ross Jones suggested a cut of $450,000 to the budget, accusing the library supporters of being disorganised and not even knowing any details about what they wanted. Mr Jones suggested setting up a library in a corner of the community centre instead.
That criticism galvanised the library supporters to action. They developed a draft concept plan at their own expense. An architect came up with a plan for a classic style library that was sympathetic to Armanasco House which was already on the village green.
In May a presentation by Jim to the Avondale Community Board didn’t go smoothly. Chairwoman Veronica Egan said the board was sick of hearing about the issue and wished Mr Gilbert would be more patient. She said that constant criticism wasn’t going to get him anywhere, and if it had not been for the board and Councillor Brian Maude, residents would not have made it this far.
Because Auckland city librarians had also come out in opposition against the project, Jim Gilbert said in his submission to the board that the librarians were “incompetent and unresponsive to community requirements.” It was reported at the time that board member Lorraine Wilson took offense. “Are you aware that I’m a professional librarian?” she asked. “It’s somewhat intemperate to put reports like this before us.”
Jim Gilbert responded (possibly somewhat insensitively) “I don’t particularly care what you might think. I’m just tabling the feelings of Blockhouse Bay people.”
When the board moved to accept the submission, Lorraine Wilson wanted it recorded in the minutes that she did not wish to receive it.
Suddenly opposition appeared on all sides. The business case to council included Lynfield in the catchment to help get the numbers up. Green Bay couldn’t be included because at the time it was part of a different council – Waitakere City. At the eleventh hour with the prize of a library on offer, Lynfield resident and veteran politician David Hay made a counterattack to win the battle and seize the prize. He said Lynfield had suitable land available while Blockhouse Bay did not. This blindsided the Blockhouse Bay group because in all the negotiations it was clearly understood to have the Bay as the future site of the library.
Lynfield shopkeeper Eunice Teskey fronted the counter bid. A petition was organised, and statistical data compiled. It was a serious threat.
The librarians mounted a spirited opposition as well, advocating a beefed-up mobile library service. Head librarian Barbara Burbeck fought the proposal tooth and nail.
At the first meeting with council at the community centre, the bomb shell was dropped that Auckland City Council was not building any more libraries! Bigger and better (and fewer) libraries was the policy. Bizarrely, at one stage Mayor Les Mills stated that community libraries were the way of the future, not super libraries. He went so far as to suggest that if the size of the proposed library was scaled back, then both Lynfield and Blockhouse Bay could each have a library!
Avondale Community Board member Tony Mitchell said, “All the council knew it was for Blockhouse Bay, and its approval was for one at Blockhouse Bay. The officer’s report had only included the catchment area of Lynfield to increase the viability of a library in Blockhouse Bay.”
Mr Mitchell was reported to have claimed that the Lynfield lobby was pushing its own interests ahead of the wider community. “I think that their option is a desperate attempt by the businesses of Lynfield to increase their catchment of potential customers. I believe that a large number of Lynfield people regard Blockhouse Bay as a community of interest.”
As a result of the infighting, both areas almost missed out altogether. At a recreation committee meeting, chairwoman Astrid Malcolm proposed dropping the whole project in favour of a revamped mobile library. That motion narrowly lost 6-5.
Pressure was building and Auckland City Council was heading towards a vote in November to decide whether the library would be sited in Lynfield or Blockhouse Bay. In order to demonstrate support for the Bay, Jim organised a public meeting just a week out from the council vote.
340 people turned out to support the Blockhouse Bay proposal. This made a huge impression on the politicians. Local MP Jonathan Hunt said it was the biggest public meeting that he had ever attended in the area.
Community Board member Lorrain Wilson had apparently got over the last encounter with Jim Gilbert. She said that it would be “an exceedingly foolish” council which ignored the massive turnout at the meeting. Ms Wilson said “We have no council-built facility in Blockhouse Bay and it is time we had one. I am sure many of you use the mobile library service, but we need more, and it is our turn.”
It was decided at the public meeting to attend en masse the special meeting of council a week later to support the Blockhouse Bay bid. Preparations were swift. A bendy bus was chartered, and the event advertised. The handwritten list of names of those going and whether they were going on the bus or privately still exists.
On the night of the council meeting people gathered at the communithy centre to board the bus. Everyone was handed a yellow protest card taped to a plastic knife as a handle. The 70-seater bus was packed with standing room only.
At the Auckland Town Hall the protesters made their way up to the public gallery of the council chambers. The 140 Blockhouse Bay people totally outnumbered the handful of Lynfield supporters. It was standing room only, and they made a real impression when they all held up their yellow signs.
The councillors were not thrilled at having so many people at their special meeting to consider the library, some even being rather rude.
The group leaders presented their figures supporting the library, complete with an architects plan showing how a library could look on the village green.
As the meeting wore on, children were getting restless and tempers were fraying. The yellow signs kept getting waved in the air. Councillors called for a supper break. The smell of coffee and savouries wafting into the chamber only made the protesters more restless.
When the meeting resumed the debate was still going back and forth. Finally a councillor blurted out “Give them their library and get the buggers out of here!”
The motion was put and passed 19 to 3. The council had been completely overwhelmed by people power.
City librarian Barbara Burbeck went up to Tony Mitchell and shook his hand. She said that though she had opposed the new library, now that it had been voted in, she would do everything in her power to ensure that the Bay got the best library possible.
Robin Barnaby is reported as saying “People power was the bid difference between us and Lynfield. It was obvious to councillors that ours was a community effort. For much of the last seven years we have felt that we were not being listened to. Now we have been, and it is because the community has never faltered in the belief that we needed - and deserved - a library.”
By mid-1994 the plans had been drawn up, consents obtained, and construction was ready to commence. The design by architect firm Andrews Scott Cotton was completely different from the draft proposal. The open courtyard was designed to bring the nearby park into the library. Lots of windows were included to let in natural light.
The opening celebration on 24 February 1995 ran from 7pm to 11pm. After the official opening by Mayor Les Mills a Mardi Gras parade led by the Guggemusik carnival band and other entertainers including Sunshine book characters. Chic Littlewood MC-ed the various acts performing on the village green stage. There were skits from local school children as well as Scottish, medieval, Tahitian and Spanish dancing.
It seemed like the whole of Blockhouse Bay had turned out. Mainstreet was closed to traffic and transformed into a giant outdoor banquet hall with people seated at tables and chairs across the street.
When the library opened for business, it was the first library in the country to have a CD-rom computer for information technology. Library Manager Kay Lally said she was pleased that the library was finally open.
The woman who got the ball rolling, Merle Martin, said, “This is something we have needed for a very long time, so we are all very excited and pleased about the opening of this wonderful community facility.”
Next time you visit the Blockhouse Bay Library or go past it, reflect on people power and strong community spirit, because this really is the library that the people fought for and won.
Blockhouse Bay Library statistics:
Collection size for Blockhouse Bay: