Thursday, April 12, 2012

Auckland: a city without a heart

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 11).

Heading out of Auckland on the southern motorway a couple of weeks ago, homeward bound on a wet, miserable morning, my wife and I vowed that it would be a long time before we’d be going back. Then we remembered we’d said exactly the same thing after our last trip there four or five years ago.

I’m too embarrassed to divulge what lured us back for our latest visit, other than to say it was shockingly hedonistic and self-indulgent. But our resolve has hardened, and this time we intend sticking to our resolution.

For years I refused to indulge in the anti-Auckland prejudice commonly encountered south of the Bombay Hill. Those tiresome “Wellington is better” (or Christchurch, or Dunedin) arguments struck me as puerile and parochial. Eager to demonstrate my broad-mindedness, I argued that every New Zealand city had its virtues and Auckland was no exception.

I now realise I’ve failed to convince even myself. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason, still less articulate it, but every time I go to Auckland I like it less. My wife and I couldn’t get away soon enough after the latest trip.

The best way I can describe it is to say that Auckland seems a city without a heart – both literally and metaphorically.

Literally speaking, Queen Street is supposed to be the city’s heart; there’s even a business promotion organisation called Heart of the City. But Auckland’s heart, if that’s what it is, is barely beating. Despite the $50 million reportedly spent in recent years trying to tart it up, Queen St looks tired to the point of seeming almost moribund.

There’s not so much as a faint spark of the energy and vibrancy that once made it a shoppers’ mecca. It looks and feels like a street in terminal decline. Even that doughty old department store Smith and Caughey – Auckland’s equivalent of Wellington’s Kirkcaldie and Stains or Ballantyne’s in Christchurch – seems to have given up the ghost.

Downtown Auckland gives the impression of having been gripped by the same disease I’ve seen in American and Australian cities: shoppers have abandoned it, either for fashionable inner-suburban Newmarket or for bland, lookalike suburban malls such as South Auckland’s Sylvia Park (a place that manages to be even duller than its name suggests).

It came as no surprise last week, then, to see Auckland councillor and business leader Cameron Brewer lamenting the tacky shops that have taken over what was once the country’s premier retail address. But I fear he might have sounded the alarm too late.

And here’s another thing: Queen St is the Street of Grunge. Most of the people we saw trudging its footpaths looked as if they hadn’t washed for days and were wearing clothes they’d hauled out that morning from a mouldy pile under the bed. After walking among these scrofulous-looking creatures I wondered whether we should check ourselves for fleas.

The number of people smoking – far more than I’ve noticed elsewhere in New Zealand – only added to the prevailing air of grottiness.

In the 1980s, Warwick Roger’s Metro magazine did its best to portray Auckland as a city of dazzling cosmopolitan sophistication and excitement. With all due respect to Warwick, a journalist I greatly respect, it wasn’t true then and it’s even less true now.

Not even the architecture redeems downtown Auckland. Once-elegant older buildings have been botched or defaced while the modern high-rise blocks are relentlessly ghastly and mostly cheap-looking, designed without a thought for aesthetics and devoid of any hint that they were meant for occupation by human beings.

The Sky Tower has become, by default, Auckland’s defining piece of architecture, but it impresses for its brashness and audacious engineering rather than for any beauty.

So much for the Auckland CBD. Former Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey reckons the waterfront celebrations that marked the start of the Rugby World Cup signified a new coming together for a once notoriously divided city. Watching the partying, Harvey wrote, “I knew that Auckland had found not only its heart, but its soul.”

Well, Harvey is a natural optimist and a great cheerleader for the new Auckland, but I wonder whether this was wishful thinking. It was certainly hard to glimpse Auckland’s heart and soul in Queen St on a wet Monday morning.

Despite the creation of the super city, Auckland still seems to consist of a collection of disparate communities, each with its own distinct character and identity. We visited several on our recent trip – Devonport, Mission Bay, Titirangi – and it’s in such places that you see Auckland’s more appealing face. Unfortunately not many people can afford to live in these desirable localities, for the gap between haves and have-nots is greater in Auckland than anywhere else in the country.

Setting aside the grotty ambience of its downtown area, what strikes me about Auckland every time I go there is that, to the visitor, it seems soulless and unwelcoming. And here we get back to the question of whether it has a heart in the metaphorical sense.

On an individual level, people are fine; but as a collective entity, Auckland isn’t people-friendly. It exudes an impatient, heads-down, me-first character that I don’t observe in any other New Zealand city.

The obvious explanation is that this is a symptom of its size: after all, it’s a big, sprawling place with an overloaded infrastructure and its inhabitants are naturally intent on going about their business as quickly and painlessly as possible. The pace is fast and Aucklanders seem resolutely focused on their own needs.

Yet I’ve visited lots of big cities overseas and I detect a coldness, almost an indifference, in Auckland that I haven’t noticed in, say, Melbourne or Chicago. Despite their size, those cities still feel human in scale and in the way they accommodate people.

In Auckland, I feel like an outsider. This is an unsettling sensation in one’s own country, and it has nothing to do with the fact that in parts of the city there are more Asian faces in the streets than European. It’s a part of the city’s character and it becomes more noticeable every time I go there.


Viking said...

Well from one from south of the Bombays and an ex Wellingtonian I have to agree with you. Never have Ifound the place intersting nor exciting and as I have to deal with Aucklanders regularly I have to say that they are thick, non service minded,ignorant to a fault, demanding without the returning the favour and generally have become not such nice people.
The POAL argument is a good example of them. Noisy but essentially useless.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Last time I visited Auckland ONE thing impressed me (apart from their wonderfully traditional museum). That they managed to convert many roads into unimpeded dual carriageways with no on-street parking thus promoting cross city traffic flow. Look at the pathetic efforts we have made with Mana Esplanade by way of contrast.

Oh, and I do like the way that parts of south Auckland actually feel like Pacific Island ...islands.

Karl du Fresne said...

On the other hand, Lindsay, the signage on the main roads in and around Auckland is atrocious. Most signs give directions to specific streets and roads rather than suburbs. To an outsider with no knowledge of Auckland, they would be as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike.

Jigsaw said...

Disappointing really-I think you taken have a very superfical look at Auckland. I agree the central city is truly awful but having got to know the other more interesting parts (which you may not have seen - and I do not live in the city) I can truly say it is an interesting place. Doesn't compare of course with inner city Wellington but it is hugely better than Dunedin which I have to visit because I have son there and seems to me to be composed of all of the most awful aspects I remember of the 1950's.
You have to remember that few Aucklanders bother with the inner city anymore.
I do some running about for a son who lives in Auckland but he provided me with a GPS so its really easy to find suburbs.

The probligo said...

Solely by necessity, I have survived the big smoke for some 47 years.

Karl, it is a "soul-less" place if you take it as a whole. What you find is that within that hole is a vast number of small, close and (generally) very active communities. I suspect that this parochialism is in large part the cause of most of the intertia in Auckland's local government; probably since the time of Robbies first term. It is only since the "outliers" (the little boroughs to south, west, and north) were absorbed that the magnitude of that problem became apparent.

I have been into the CBD three times in this past year; first to take a look at The Viaduct, aborted because it was pissing sunlight again; next to the first Breakers game at the Arena, first time I have been there as well; third, to the Viaduct again in the brilliant rain one afternoon, reaction disappointed.

The downfall of Queen St probably started with the Hare Krishna. For a country lad like me - and I spent some 15 years working in the CBD until I saw the light - it was a noisy stinking canyon. The cleanest part were the trolleys.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Karl.

There is nothing worse than approaching Auckland via the Southern Motorway, and passing mile after mile of *grotty* 50-year-old housing that wouldn't be out of place in a Philippines slum.

I haven't been to Queen St for decades, but it amazes me that the powers-that-be in Auckland are so slack-arsed that they lack the ability and drive to "get it together" and make that area worth visiting (rather than avoiding).

I tell you what - as a Wellingtonian, I would rather visit Christchurch (red zone and all) ten times a year rather than Auckland once a decade.

Rab McDowell said...

For all that, while Christchurch had its thriving areas, even before the earthquake it did not have much of a heart. Cathedral square was mainly Asian tourists and much of Manchester St and Columbo St south of Ballantynes were dying old brick buildings. Now, after the earthquake it is a donut with a void in the centre. Nobody can agree just what should fill the void. The liberal elite have all sorts of fancy plans for low rise open spaces but those that will invest the money can not see how that kind of development will make their investment pay.