For the first time ever, it seems that the infamous open street hosts that gave Castle its legend, its lure, its life, have become a thing of the past. Word on the street (or in this case, not on the street) is: Castle is dead.
While the second-years of 1990 sang Queen as they rolled and torched a car, and the second-years of the 2000s ignited riots at the Undie 500, the second-years of 2023 have only had the bare minimum of Flo-Week, O-Week and Re-O Week to lose their dignity to.
This year, Castle Street has devolved further than ever into a “gated elitist community” populated by “Auckland fucks” who regard those outside their inner circle as “shit on the bottom of their rich Adidas sambas” — at least, according to some of this year’s disgruntled UoO confessions. Yet Castle remains the coveted heart of Otago’s student experience, an experience that is becoming increasingly out of reach for a student population who believe they’re entitled to it.
If Castle Street is considered dead, however, not all of its residents seem to know it. The prospect of a quiet Castle elicits an “oh my god!” from the Beehive flat who, gathered in their living room, collectively refute the idea that their street has lost its shine. Though they acknowledge it’s been “slowly fading out over the years,” the girls say they (as Castle residents) have “had a lot of fun” and doubt the street will ever see its reign end: “It’s never gonna be dead,” says Gina*, “because the legacy will always live on.”
But to many outside the Castle gates, this year's residents appear to be exploiting this legacy, standing on the shoulders of breathas past without paying their own dues. “Castle is just shit, isn’t it?” says Robbie from Corner Store on Leith Street. “It seems like they want the status of living there without any of the responsibility of upholding the culture.”
Robbie, who reckons that Leith Street has usurped Castle in spirit, says the street’s “reputation and aura” is the only thing keeping it afloat. “For other people coming into Dunedin, you think it's going to be the craziest time of your life and you’ll wake up in a ditch or something. It’s just not like that [anymore].”
Castle Street is no longer the menace that generations of second-years (and courageous freshers) have known and loved, and the statistics seem to prove it. Police rushed to Castle Street 51 times in 2021 after receiving complaints from the local community, even with several lockdowns that year. In 2022, Police were only called out to the infamous street 24 times. Nearly three quarters of the way through 2023’s student season, Police have only received 13 callouts.
So what’s changed? Nobody knows for sure, but a few theories have arisen. The common assumption is that external threats to the street have forced its party culture to become more insular, like a turtle bringing the disco ball inside its shell.
The most obvious factor is COVID-19. Quintin Jane, OUSA’s man behind the wheel, tells Critic Te Ārohi that the pandemic was a “circuit breaker,” suggesting it forced students to “reshape what Dunedin partying looks like.”
One student, Leroy* speculates that “the fact that it's so easy to record someone and get them incriminated” stops Castle from partying like they used to. Only a few years ago the Proctor came into possession of videos and photos that resulted in 17 students receiving disciplinary action, nine of whom were expelled. And while the videos depicted what was undeniably a hazing ritual, the point was clear: your digital footprint can cost your degree.
And then there’s the looming landlords who, rumour has it, are putting up legal barriers to party culture. Alex from the Corner Store reports that “some people in their [lease] contracts aren’t allowed to have parties.” Doll’s House serves as a case in point, having had to reject the honour of hosting during Re-O Week due to a stipulation in their rental agreement.
With rumours swirling about one infamous flat’s upcoming tenancy court hearing, some students believe that the street hasn’t truly quieted down, and that the only thing that has changed is who is allowed to show up. The frenzy and ferality of Castle is still alive, according to Alex, who says that “The parties have been good [this year]. It’s just a matter of whether you’ve been invited to them.”
We've found a number of non-Castlers claiming that, for whatever reason, a deep-rooted elitism has sprung up in recent years. When students were asked where they thought this elitism has come from many were stumped for an answer – though a number of UoO confessions have seemed to pin it on high school and regional ties which residents haven’t shaken off upon entering into uni.
“There’s been a lot of closed-invite hosts where not everyone can rock up and drink,” Alex claims. “It’s just been more cliquey.” Jeffrey* agrees cliquiness was the issue, saying the tendency to have quiet house parties with only specific people invited has “turned the street into a graveyard.”
Castle Street is paradise for party animals and landlords know it, making rental competition steep amongst budding breathas. Considering some leases are required to be signed as early as April, it makes sense that first-year students on the cusp of Castle glory would be likely to flat with long-established friends from high school rather than new Dunedin mates. That being said, the pandemic also cost Castle about two years of solid social outreach, leaving the market open for pre-existing groups of friends to come in and snatch up the few available properties. This pattern has apparently lent itself to a majority population of Auckland and Christchurch private-schoolers, who limit their invites to those familiar to them.
But there's a good reason for this, argue the Courtyard girls. They laugh off the idea that they face external pressures, gesturing to the Sunday morning state of their flat, but admit “there’s an invite barrier, it didn’t used to be like that.” The girls claim the exclusive culture of Castle Street is something they inherited rather than created. “We’ve got a host coming up in October, Courtchella,” they explain. Courtchella used to be an open host, but “actually a few years ago it turned into a closed invite thing.” Before their time.
Although pandemic restrictions, (the trigger for closed-invite hosts), have passed, the girls say reopening Courtchella to North Dunedin’s masses is probably not on the table. “It's hard because we pay for everything. It costs like five grand. We’ve already had to do that in O-Week.” During their O-Week host, someone climbed the flat’s roof and ripped open their water tank, leaving the girls without water for a week.
Though they anticipated Castle Street would be “a fun experience,” when all the glitz is set aside, “the reality is kind of admin,” one resident explains. “Having to organise it all, [our] flats get destroyed,” only for the girls to receive “backlash for not inviting everyone,” another adds bewilderedly.
It was February 2020 when Kiley left Hamilton, New York to do an exchange programme at Otago: just a week before New Zealand registered its first coronavirus case. Much like North Dunedin, Hamilton is dominated by the student life of Colgate University, a small liberal arts college. But Dunedin, Kiley says, is different.
On that Saint Paddy’s, Castle was at its pre-Covid Zenith. Kiley said her brief time on Castle Street was “overwhelming” and unlike anything else she had experienced before, and much more accepting than the scene back home. So when the pandemic forced her to return home early, she vowed to come back to the city that made such an impression. Now, she says, the vibe has changed, and it reminds her a bit more of the Greek-life scene back home.
“Everywhere you have a student body, you’re gonna have a unique party culture. But Dunedin is a different kind of intensity. I’d say it was similar to a frat scene, but [Castle Street] is that on steroids. The sheer number of people and open invite nature is very different from Greek life.”
Back home, Kiley says, fraternities and sororities dominate the party culture of college campuses across America. Parallels can be made between the Greek system and Castle Street, with both touting named flats with particular reputations, drinking cultures, initiations, and the lowly status of freshers who show up and get turned away from parties (“It's only sophomores that rush. As freshmen we’d cruise around trying to get into these frats, but once they found out we had no affinity [to them], they’d tell us to get lost.”)
However, in Kiley’s memory of Castle Street, that’s where the similarities ended. “When I came to Dunedin, it was so refreshing to see everyone partying together. [Back home] I didn’t engage in the Greek system by choice, but also by exclusion. There are huge parties in America, but most people aren’t invited.”
The Greek system has a complicated legacy of elitism and classism, one Kiley attributes to the high cost of entry as well as the rushing process.
“The people that I knew that rushed had a really stressful time. You go into all these different houses and they evaluate you. There’s certain things you have to wear, talk about, disclose academic records and give them all your social media. They sit in a room with a projector and discuss whether you’re a fit for their community. It’s very political, it's very intense, it's very homogenous. You start to see these houses churning out groups of the same people.”
Although Kiley and her flatmates lived on the corner of Greek Row (Colgate’s equivalent of Castle Street), the parties she regularly saw just doors down were only for those affiliated with Greek life. Everyone else, Kiley claims, was forced to develop their own party culture. “There are mini pockets, but you’re really just partying with your friends. It becomes super insular.”
In spite of the mockery that’s thrown at frats and sororities, Kiley acknowledges there’s no doubt who rules the roost when it comes to partying.
“They’re on this pedestal. Part of this is that they’ve put themselves there, and a part of it is that the rest of campus has just accepted it.”
But Otago’s Frat Row was different, and it actually changed Kiley’s experience all the way back in New York. In Dunedin, she ended up flatting in the same complex as Tommy, a frat star at Theta Chi — one of Colgate’s top fraternities — who also happened to be doing an exchange at Otago. Although they lived in the same tiny college town (Colgate’s 3,160 students to Otago’s 21,000), because they lived in such different social stratospheres, the two had never interacted until they met on the other side of the globe.
As it turned out, the two discovered they had a lot in common. “He was actually a super nice guy. Maybe [frat bros] aren’t fully aware of the social problems their system perpetuates, or maybe they just accept it because it's the way it’s always been. But when you take these guys out of their turf, they're actually great people.”
They became friends, but when Colgate threatened to pull their students’ credits if they didn’t return, Kiley and Tommy were forced back to America and Kiley made peace with the end of their short-lived friendship. “I was sure I wouldn’t speak to him again. He’d go back to his group and I’d go back to mine.”
But when they got back to campus “he hit me up,” Kiley explains, “and now we’re best friends.” When Kiley’s band needed a drummer, Tommy put her in touch with Spiegs, the drummer of the Theta Chi band which had broken up months earlier. “The first day Spiegs showed up to jam, he had this huge bandage on his hand because he'd just fallen into a trash can fire [the night before]. We loved him.” And thus, the fraternity began attending their gigs.
After Kiley and Tommy’s experience at Otago, an “amazing healing period” ensued within Greek life at Colgate. “Our two groups were forced to look each other in the eyes, we had this reckoning. It ended up being this nutty and awesome thing that went down senior year.”
“I think part of what really allowed me and Tommy to become such good friends,” Kiley reflects, “is that we were equals [in Dunedin], and we wouldn’t have been at Colgate.”
Kiley, now 25, recently graduated from Colgate University. Her memories of Dunedin were so fond that she decided to come back to Otago to complete her Masters in Philosophy and complete an experience that was interrupted by Covid. But it wasn’t quite like she remembered.
“It's just so much more deserted. You don’t see packs of students congregating in the party streets like they used to.” And while she admits she’s aged out of the party culture, the evidence seems clear enough. Kiley worries that the new wristband entry system for ball hosts and gatekeeping events like Courtchella could see Castle Street devolve into a quasi-Greek life dystopia.
“It creates this division amongst students. There’s this temptation to stop looking at each other as human beings that can be friends no matter the circumstance when you section yourself off to those familiar to you. There’s this message [that] if you’re not affiliated, you don’t belong. It becomes very insular and perpetuates this culture of elitism and homogeneity.” But whatever the solution is, it definitely isn’t to “demonise these dudes and girls” who just host for themselves.
“It's not the most evil thing to just want to party with your friends. It's awesome because everyone knows each other, there's a sense of affinity and safeness. You can control how people interact in your space. Casting these guys in such a negative light isn’t the answer. Sometimes the pressure to host gets put on the shoulders of people that have the most social capital and physical space to do it, but maybe the onus shouldn’t have to be just on these guys and girls.”
Still, although she can sympathise with some of their concerns, Kiley says she “doesn’t understand” why today’s residents choose to live on the street and complain knowing its reputation. “If you decide to live [there], you're committing to living in squalor. Sticky floors, loud nights, and morning clean-ups every weekend. That’s the sacrifice.”
The solution, Kiley suggests, is to figure out how studentville can balance the needs of the residents with the need to collectively pretend to enjoy DnB, even if it means moving the culture: “Maybe historically Castle Street was that scene, but maybe now there needs to be a new one?”
Castle Street’s performance this year has brought a lot of attention, but for all the wrong reasons by studentville’s standards. While the street has long been labelled a “war zone” where “chaos reigned” by past ODT articles, many see the antics that prompted the Proctor visits, bond losses, and dusty next day clean-ups of former residents as a necessary sacrifice to bring students together. Time will tell whether their decline has been for better, or for worse.
But to any freshers fiending for their turn to wake up in a ditch on the Castle Street of yesteryear, the second years of 2023 have some advice: never meet your idols.
Still, hope remains. “There’s still definitely room for improvement,” Alex asserts. “We’ve still got the rest of the year.” Student President Quintin is also hopeful that student culture will see a resurgence, though not in the way Alex anticipates, telling Critic Te Ārohi, “There’s still parties and noise, it’s just different.” He claimed this difference marked an “exciting opportunity” for a more “diverse” student experience to emerge, one that can now focus on “every niche of the student life.”
“How the partying looks is always going to change. Now it’s up to us to diversify the way we do things,” says Quintin. Building on his hope, Alex suggests that “Castle Street and Leith Street will hit the ground running. There will be some great nights ahead.”