These are the people in your neighbourhood

Appearances are deceptive in one of Auckland's "up-and-coming" suburbs

We just moved to a "transitional" neighbourhood, one of those affordable patches of Auckland that is on the up, but slowly enough that most capital gains-focused home buyers can't be bothered waiting for gentrification to happen. It's the kind of neighbourhood that property brochures describe as "perfect for the discerning first home buyer", which means you have to squeeze your eyes half shut and imagine how nice it could be in 10 years time, once the council gets round to fixing all the footpaths and, as realtors are fond of saying sotto voce, more of the homes are owned by individuals rather than the government.

I guess it's like Ponsonby was 30 years ago, except we're not that close to the CBD and it's hard to imagine that level of self-conscious hipness ever descending here, and perish the thought.

We've owned the property as a rental for five years already and the suburb's standing hasn't improved much, despite the appearance of two upmarket cafes and an eye-wateringly expensive food store, but now that we're living here we're starting to appreciate its charms. For one thing, we don't have the sort of intrusive neighbours who would complain about a bit of puppy barking at 7am, or feel the need to comment when our lawn is a tad high--okay, disgracefully high. We've had those sorts of neighbours before and while they are usually harmless, they can make you feel like a teenager playing house.

Drive through our neighbourhood and the overwhelming impression is of scruffy gardens, cars on front lawns, window frames in need of a spruce up, and very small children wandering the footpath. And while that is the reality, there is another reality of equal weight, of a family-oriented suburb where people tend to settle for decades, get to know their neighbours, go to church on Sunday, and look out for each other. The woman at the dairy is cheerful, the vege shop is excellent, the video shop is cheaper than we're used to, and people actually smile as you drive past. It's like stepping back into the 1950s.

The man across the road offered to watch our house and head off any of the kids who tag fences in these parts. "I know who they are and I tell them I'll call the police," he told my husband. He is a sweetheart who has lived in his house for nearly 30 years and raised 13 children there. His eight sons congregate outside the house in the evenings and compare their cars, hoods up, engines purring. I used to worry about them until I met their dad because "Murder" features in big letters on two of their vehicles. While I would like to blame this on pregnancy hormones, I think it's more likely my palagi preconceptions.

I know I'm not alone in this. We are quick to judge people in different suburbs with different lifestyles and different expectations, especially in Auckland, where our obsession with home improvement and self improvement is at its zenith. We're on a constant upward trajectory--bigger house, better job, smarter children, posher holiday--and if we're not making progress that can be measured not just by our own standards, but by the standards of everyone we know, we are supposed to feel bad about it. It's a race few people can win, and they are probably the same people who drive around in urban assault vehicles bearing the bumper sticker "He who dies with the most toys wins".

In our neighbourhood progress is measured somewhat differently, although there are still those like us who pine for a "cook's kitchen", "sun-drenched entertainer's patio" and "huge ensuite". The people next door are engaged in a long-term do-up project, as are the couple across the street. One block away, on the waterfront, is a row of larger homes with direct access to the water, boats parked in the drive and big eff-off gates.

There are also a few eff-off guard dogs who terrify our pup, who is already a known neighbourhood character. He stands at our gate and wags his tail at the children who play in the street--they like to sit on our fence and ask about him. Their chief interest seems to be whether he is the sort of dog who bites. Some older kids have already worked out that he is no threat. The other day he did his baby-guard-dog thing as two little girls walked past the house. "Don't worry," said one, reassuringly. "It's just a teeny weeny dog."

Before this we lived in a waterfront apartment for six months. Having just returned from San Francisco, where we lived in a dear little Edwardian apartment building in a too-posh-for-us neighbourhood, it seemed like the perfect transition. It was an abysmal failure. I take full responsibility. Firstly, as much as it has developed in the past 10 years, downtown Auckland can't compete with downtown San Francisco and expecting it to act as a facsimile was stupid. Secondly, we were hemmed in on all sides by other people. Um, yeah, I know that's how apartments work, but we underestimated how that would feel. (In SF our building had just 12 apartments and we could get up on the roof and see the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. Okay, enough skiting.) Thirdly, the couple next door were volatile in the extreme, with loud, vicious arguments at all hours.

A chat with the security guys in our building revealed that not only had Mr Next Door been "spoken to by police" several times before for his abusive behaviour, but a man across the way had pushed his wife off the balcony and millions of dollars were found stashed in the ceiling of another apartment. Not only that, but Don Brash lived in our building in what one newspaper described as a chick-magnet apartment. We were living in a den of iniquity!

Here we have trees and blue skies, a glimpse of water from the deck, and quiet neighbours who go to bed early. If they have millions of ill-gotten dollars stashed in their homes they are keeping it well hidden. Of course, there are downsides to living in a transitional neighbourhood--none of your friends know how to get to your house, your mother frets quietly in her "premium" neighbourhood, and the dog picks up bad habits from the neighbourhood bitches, but so far it's a pleasure.

Except for all the ruddy cardboard boxes to be unpacked and discarded.