Friday, 10 June 2016

A Slightly Eccentric City

I always thought Auckland to be a slightly eccentric city. I thought it from the very first day I arrived, more than forty years ago. It was familiar whilst being totally unfamiliar uneasily perched in the Pacific as if not quite knowing where it was supposed to sit. Tourists thought it was odd too, as they tumbled off their cruise ships into the very heart of the city, blinking in surprise as they did so. No bus journey to take them to where `The Life’ was because they were standing in the middle of it. Sailors of course loved that aspect of the place and hopped happily from workplace to bar. Back in those days it was an almost totally late Victorian town with buildings to prove it. There was an absence of central city living, no blocks of mansion flats just round the corner from Queen Street and in fact I soon learned that housing was one of its oddest quirks. Apart from the very occasional Edwardian terrace of six or eight residences that might have looked almost at home in Clissold Park or Hammersmith, it was necessary to board one of the infrequent buses and travel several stops before reaching the first suburb or two. Then little workmen’s cottages in Ponsonby and Parnell could be viewed, all safely set somewhat apart from each other and rounded on three sides by verandas. But these were not suitable places for raising a family because the children would need much more room. And so suburban Auckland grew up cautiously and rather differently from other world cities. No tidy terraces, each residence looking almost exactly the same as its neighbour as in Leeds, London or Leamington Spa. Aucklanders demanded quarter acre plots and some of them even half acres dotted with trees laden with plums, oranges and lemons in whose sturdy branches tree houses could be erected. Every family needed enough room to play a game of cricket and no-one wanted to live in a house that looked like the one next door. This expectation of space meant that suburbs spread for miles and ensured that Auckland as far as area went was as big as London. But you can certainly adapt to area. We, who lived for over twenty years in the suburb of Kohimarama in half an acre of bush and scrub with two goats to help control it, were aghast when our neighbours began to `subdivide’, selling off huge portions of their vegetable gardens and cricket lawns to newcomers from South Africa keen to build their dream homes. We thought it shouldn’t be allowed. And then without warning and almost overnight and coinciding with an influx of immigration from Asia, easily recognisable blocks of flats began to appear around the very centre of the city. It was exciting and I remember taking the children to watch the progress of a construction climbing daily higher and overlooking the railway line. Now, a decade or more later, these edifices are everywhere, dwarfing the little villas set amongst them. Abruptly and precipitously Auckland has grown into a more recognisable modern metropolis and very few people seem enthusiastic about the changes this creates.

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