Ellen Melville Centre: Creating community in inner-city Auckland

Ellen Melville Centre
Following a multi-million dollar refurbishment, Auckland’s Ellen Melville Centre is open for business, offering a place to meet, share ideas, learn and grow and to support the local arts community.

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Opened in 1962, the original Ellen Melville Centre was a hall built for “women's societies” and as a memorial to the pioneer women of the Auckland region. The newly refurbished centre now boasts five rooms available for hire – each named after prominent and influential women from the region – Helen Clark, Betty Wark, Elizabeth Yates, Marilyn Waring, and Eleitino (Paddy) Walker.

Place Manager Leesa Tilley said, “The new Ellen Melville Centre offers a place to meet, share ideas, learn and grow and to support the local arts community.” Officially opened on 15 September the centre has already hosted events for Artweek Auckland, Auckland Heritage Festival, and is hosting the NZ Poetry Conference and Festival this weekend. Supporting and promoting New Zealand artists, free exhibition space is offered in the Helen Clark room.

The centre has retained and featured the two original artworks designed for the centre in 1962, and has commissioned a new artwork from Lisa Reihana. Justice, a bronze sculpture floating above an abstract wall drawing, commemorates Ellen Melville, - “A politician, women’s advocate and pioneer.”

Downtown Auckland doesn’t immediately come to mind when I think about community centres. I think busy bustling CBD, retail stores, and traffic – lots of it. But as the city grows, so does apartment living, and the number of children living in the city has increased rapidly over the last five years. Leesa said there are now over 1500 families with children living in the inner city.

In addition to young families in the city, Leesa explained that inner city dwellers are also an ethnically diverse group, and a transient group – with 70% aged between 15-35, suggesting students that come and go.

Apartment living can be very isolating, and for some, offering little or no contact with neighbours and mainstream Kiwi culture on the street. It is these issues – isolation, lack of connection and conversation between different pockets of the community, and appropriate space for young families that The Ellen Melville Centre hopes to address.

Leesa described the previous centre as “more of a ‘hall for hire,’ with minimal active programming.” Now with five spaces available, the new centre offers a colourful and engaging programme of regular events for the local community. While the usual suspects – yoga, playgroup, Plunket check-ups, fitness and language classes - are all there, the centre also has an impressive line up of creative classes including free hip hop and theatre workshops for youth provided by Youthtown, juggling and poi classes provided by Circability, and lifedrawing and creative writing group hosted by Splice.

Programmer and host in residence at the Ellen Melville Centre, Splice are an Auckland initiative on a mission to create “authentic community and social justice.” With “radical hospitality and inclusiveness as a core function,” they are well placed to take on the challenge of creating and engaging an inner city community.

Mik Smellie (whose role is ‘Central City Fanatic’ at Splice), has been living in the inner city for 14 years and said for him it’s a great place to live – with no commuting he walks everywhere, which has enabled him to get familiar with the people in the neighbourhood. “Will we crack the sense of neighbourhood here?” he asks. “I think so. As for timeframe though, I don’t know.”

Because the district has had such an intense commercial focus for the past 30-40 years, Mik said there is very little social infrastructure, and with 45,000 people now living in such an intense space, there is a huge need.

“It’s a very different way of living, even for kiwis. The isolation in urban settings is a big issue, and it’s a double whammy for those who have English as their second language.” -Mik Smellie, Central City Fanatic.

“Splice Tuesdays” are a recent addition to the centre lineup. From 8.30am to 8.30pm the Helen Clark room acts as an ‘urban lounge,’ offering varied activities including morning inspiration, walking groups, cross-cultural activities, social justice hour, neighbourhood history hour, and even the ‘Splice Bottling Co-op.’ Mik pointed out that apartment kitchens are so small that “you can’t do anything of substance,” so with the new facilities at the centre Splice are facilitating the communal bottling and preserving of produce.

The idea of offering an urban lounge space is an uplifting one – Mik pointed out that the majority of social interactions in the CBD are commercial ones – purchasing coffee or beer etc. in the process of connecting, so it’s relieving and refreshing to have a non-commercial space to relax and connect with other members of the community.

Mik said because the previous Ellen Melville Centre had no ground level presence, and was in essence a hall upstairs for hire – people didn’t really know it was there. Taking over the old Pumpkin Patch store, the newly refurbished centre now has a strong ground level presence, and additional space that flows out onto Freyberg Place.

The Ellen Melville Centre is hosting a Community Open Day on Saturday 18 November from 11am-3pm, where they will be showcasing the new facilities and workshops and classes on offer. For more information, visit their Facebook page.  

Written by

Christine Mackintosh

10 Nov 2017

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