(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.