by Nancy Mitchelson*
In a paper presented to the Rotary Club of Auckland in 1978, the city’s then Deputy Mayor J.R Firth laid out what he saw as the two primary issues dominating the minds of Council and its ratepayers. The first being the ubiquitous issue of rates, the second being a more recent proposal to pedestrianise Queen Street.
“These two issues are related,” Firth wrote:
“They are connected by a much wider and more fundamental challenge affecting your city and its future… unless we revive the Central Business District and the adjoining inner city areas and unless we adopt and implement policies which will give new life to these areas there is a very real danger that the heart of both our city and the region will decline to the point where it is too late to stop the rot.”
“That rot is already starting to show itself.”
In recent times, there’s been much talk from across the political spectrum about the ‘cardiac arrest’ of Queen Street, and how the ‘beating heart’ of Tāmaki Makaurau has been variously pummelled by lockdowns, the knock-on effects of the City Rail Link project, and more besides.
Queen Street, we’re told, is a “ghost town, slum, skid row.” Queen Street is a “street of shame.” Queen Street is “apocalyptic.” More positively, Queen Street “should not be a thoroughfare, but a destination unto itself.”
This is not the first time that Queen Street has become a touchstone for wider anxieties about the state of our city and the social fabric that binds us, and it is unlikely to be the last.
Ultimately, Queen Street’s physical form is only a mass of concrete, colonially retrofitted to our natural landscape. Carved originally by the Wai Horotiu, the street cascades from the Karangahape Ridge to the Waitematā. “It’s a street dammit. Archetypal. Street, Ditch, Canyon,’ architect Pete Bossley wrote in 1978. It wasn’t even meant to be our city’s main street. The High Street-Shortland Street crescent had that crown until a fire in 1858, after which Queen Street ascended the throne.
Over time, however, we have anthropomorphised this strip of asphalt via our language – it is our beating heart, the main artery of our city’s circulatory system – and it is prone to the maladies of the human body; rot, decay, and the looming threat of death.
We can recognise the symbolic importance of main streets to residents of cities worldwide; as a vehicle for community and sociality, a call-back to a 20th century ‘ideals’ (think: Main Street, U.S.A.), as a place to process, protest, parade. However, Aucklanders are often provoked to care about Queen Street in these curiously corporeal terms.
So, once again, Queen Street has recently been pronounced dead. In order to fully understand the context for how and why, we must perform an exercise in historical Agatha Christie-ism, and investigate the other times it was reportedly murdered.
As Aotearoa’s premier city historian Ben Schrader says, “If we are better to understand what is happening in New Zealand society in the present, then historians need to enter the city streets, lanes and cul-de sacs of its past.”
The 1950s and 1960s
The post-war period in Auckland saw vast changes that had a direct effect on its centre city and the way it operated. Sprawl, suburban expansion, a state housing boom, and the enactment of the 1955 Master Transportation Plan saw a decline in the singular importance of the city-centre as opposed to suburban centres, even more so with the advent of the country’s newest phenomenon; the ‘shopping mall’.
Despite this, by 1950, retail in the city centre still accounted for half of all sales in Auckland.
This didn’t stop a simmering paranoia. An Auckland Star article from 1953 noted that, ‘the suburban life of Auckland is gradually becoming anchored in the suburbs themselves. Queen Street is becoming the grandparent — to be visited from time to time.’
In 1950, the Queen Street Business Association was formed out of of a manifest need to ‘brighten up’ the street. Often panned was the disjointed visual clutter of newer buildings juxtaposed with older buildings; a 1954 New Zealand Herald article arguing that ‘it cannot be denied that Auckland’s entrance hall is no fitting introduction to a great mansion inhabited by some 350,000 people.’
A 1955 article once again dissected the Street’s anatomy; ‘the heart of the city has continued to beat, but it has not grown commensurably with the body; in fact, it has not grown much at all.’
While everyone could agree that there was a problem, the solution was much harder to determine.
The strain between who or what should have the right to belong on the street festered into full-scale warfare, black ink spilling like blood in columns of newspapers and council records across this period as evidence of the territorial battle between motor cars, public transport, and pedestrians. The Queen Street Business Association in the camp of the former, and Auckland City Council in the camp of the latter.
Seemingly no-one was backing public transport, or not in the way we like to think about it today. In 1956, the tram tracks were pulled up and this was celebrated by a weeklong festival for Queen Street under the guise of ‘progress’, to make way for the trolley-bus. A ‘Miss Queen Street’ was elected: 19-year-old Miss Janice Mary Bramwell, a bank teller at the Queen Street Branch of the Bank of New Zealand.
When fifteen-minute limits on parking on the Street were introduced by Council in 1965 in an effort to attract more visitors and increase turnover, the Queen Street Business Association hit back in a filibuster-esque four-hour debate, presenting photos of a supposedly empty Queen Street to Council with a hope to reverse the parking limit. ‘Take the buildings out of the pictures’, businessman Mr. Rolf Porter said, ‘and it could be Waiuku. It is certainly not as busy as most provincial towns.’
1968 saw the start of the second term of Mayor Sir Dove Myer Robinson and with it, his visionary plan to fix the city centre.
The City Centre Masterplan of its time, 1971’s Central Area Proposals outlined ideas by which Council could fix the crisis of Queen Street, defined in writing as ‘the conflict created where the paths of pedestrians and vehicles must cross’.
Suggestions included: widening footpaths on the thoroughfare, partly closing the street to vehicles, closing the street entirely to vehicles, and even first-floor level pedestrian linkages and ‘movers’.
However, by the time the Central Area Plan transpired three years later in 1974, these ideas were largely abandoned, due to proposed underground rail works… that never transpired. In its place was Council’s recommendation that 7000 car parks be built in the central area in the next 15 years. A diluted version of the vision before it.
Death by a thousand cars – Robinson’s mayoral opponent Jim Anderton called The Plan, ‘a continuation of the witless murder of the inner city’. In a scathing critique of Council’s backtracking in the Auckland Architectural Association Bulletin, Boyce Richardson noted that, ‘[t]he pulsating sense of life which comes from the presence of all sorts of people doing all sorts of things is reduced’. A letter to Robbie from a Ms Dorothy Maddock of Avondale reads: “I feel like you have forgotten the place of ‘people’ in your plans. It is the people who make a city live, and not the noisy, polluting motor car.”
Born out of the criticisms of the Central Area Plan and declining patronage, 1977 saw the birth of a Queen Street pedestrian mall sub-committee in the Town Planning Division. The kiss of human life for a dying city centre was how its champion Mayor Robinson sold it.
The planning process eventually resulted in a conceptual traffic-free space in the Wellesley-Victoria block, conditional on a one-week trial mall in the first week of the school holidays in May 1979. (More on Auckland City Council’s first proper foray into tactical urbanism in another post soon.)
The proposed mall generated media, public scrutiny and lobbying to a level that Mayor Robinson ‘had never before seen.’ As a Mrs. S. Moore of Babyland Ladieswear: Tots to Teens wrote to council, ‘say no to any kind of stupid mall’ signing the letter off ‘yours disgustedly.’
Just like there’s more than one way to skin a cat, turns out there’s more than one way to kill a street.
The 1980s saw the Queen Street the subject of public conversation shift to the private sector as Auckland’s commercial reputation was cemented as a ‘huge amorphous mass largely populated by dollar-chasing businessmen, uncultured executives, and Rangitoto Yankees’.
This converged in the commercial centre of Auckland, the most expensive square on the New Zealand Monopoly board, the Golden Mile — Queen Street.
The 1980s saw a Queen Street building boom at a time of unprecedented sharemarket strength before the crash in 1987, mirrored high-rises jutting out like shards of glass, lining the edges of the Wai Horotiu valley.
‘Will it be a case of ‘mirror-mirror, on every wall?’ asks Heath Lees in his introduction to an episode of the documentary series Kaleidoscope, while in another episode, one interviewee laments that ‘Queen Street never had much soul to begin with, but it has lost what it had…. It’s like strip-mining, or slash and burn farming. It’s investment development.’
Architect Pip Cheshire sarcastically egged on this new development, in a 1981 Metro article. ‘Ah the prestige, the status, the newest slab block, high rise, mirror-glazed shadow in the city noon-day sun.’ He continues, ‘[h]ow sad it is that the lattice-slender grace of construction cranes gives birth to such hideous mass, brutal parodies of the best dreams of that soulless “form follows function” dogma.’
The death-life-health-body analogy is emphasised again by Michael John Fisher in his 1985 B.Arch. thesis, ‘The Decay of a City’. He asks, ‘[w]hy is it that a city in the midst of an unprecedented building boom is also dying?…The possibility of the city becoming a rich man’s ghetto is very real’.
Back to the Future
Returning to Deputy Mayor Firth’s 1978 address to the Rotary Club, he had a solution in mind:
‘We have to put a human heart rather than a vehicle heart into the centre of this city’
It’s this heart transplant that has incited tension and debate well into the twenty-first century.
We’ve been asking ourselves the same questions time and time again. What is the role of Queen Street in our city – as a place for people and pedestrians, public transport, or a thoroughfare for cars? Who belongs there? How do we bring life back into our city centre?
And how can a street be dead and alive at the same time, at so many different points through history? It is Auckland’s very own Schrodinger’s cat.
As we move through the cultural shocks and shifts of Covid-19, the challenges of addressing climate change, and towards the council elections, it’s timely to pause and contemplate how this narrative – of the constant near-death-experience of our central city – has been constructed and reconstructed over the years.
It’s also useful to note which voices have made it out of the Mayoral letter pile and onto the front pages across the decades. For as many angry letters as there are in Auckland Council Archives, there are just as many letters of support for people-centred change.
And, for all the death notices for Queen Street in the newspapers, there are an equal number of defibrillators ready to restore the heart of our city’s natural rhythm – from the collective vision of the Central Area Proposals of 1971, to the City Centre Master Plan of 2020.
Surely it’s time to put those plans to use, and not leave them in a box in Council Archives for a future generation to dig through and wonder at what could have been.
How do we bring a street back to life? It’s this simple: we bring life back to the street.