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Auckland: The Twentieth-Century Story
by Paul Moon

So many cars and such little foresight: a new history chronicles Auckland taking shape.

By April 5, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

If there’s one victor that emerges triumphant above all from Paul Moon’s Auckland: The Twentieth-Century Story, it’s the motor car. Town planners carry on feeding the beast through two wars, the Great Depression, the Great Strike, and other major events that have shaped Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest city. The trams are removed, the Waihorotiu Stream concreted, motorways built, the Auckland Harbour Bridge constructed, while pieces of the city centre’s heart are sliced up to appease this modern-day monster, (arguably) in accordance with residents’ wishes.

By 1951, Moon tells us, there were over 72,000 cars registered in Auckland, giving the city one of the highest number of vehicles per capita in the world. Auckland’s transport policy makers saw the motor vehicle as ‘the greatest single factor in forming the pattern of modern urban development’ and ‘probably the greatest mechanical convenience man has yet devised for himself.’

A master plan was devised, encircling Auckland’s central business district with an inner ring road, fed with vehicles from a network of motorways across the city. It was conceived as the transport equivalent of a heart bypass operation: the clogged veins of the existing roading network replaced by new arteries that would be wide and swift-moving, allowing a flow of cars in and out of the central city. Seventy years later, with Auckland’s population soaring from around 340,000 to 1.6 million, both the ‘mechanical convenience’ and its associated road surgery no longer seem quite so great.

But the purpose of Auckland: The Twentieth-Century Story is not to reflect on consequences: in his preface, Moon describes the book as a ‘scrapbook of historical memories’. It’s arranged into chapters corresponding to each decade of the last century, a compartmentalisation necessary, Moon says, to ‘help rein in some material that otherwise might begin to ramble’. Although he notes the patchiness of the archives on hand, Moon is certainly a thorough researcher, and the book boasts a substantial bibliography. The result is an appealing historical snapshot of a voraciously growing city.

When 100 years of history is shrunk within the confines of a single book, hard decisions must  be made on what is left out. Some of the inclusions and exclusions will be controversial. Citing the ‘n’ word in full – in reference to a performance in the 1920s – is a perplexing decision on the part of both publisher and author. On the other hand, discussing the 1994 attack on the Monterey pine tree on One Tree Hill, Moon observes that, ‘One Tree Hill was now deprived of the very thing from which it derived its name, and which had helped make it one of Auckland’s most distinctive landscape features’, while neglecting to mention that One Tree Hill already had a Māori name, Maungakiekie, or indeed that a pōhutukawa or tōtara used to occupy the place of the pine.

Despite the book’s focus on infrastructure, the late Sir Dove Myer-Robinson, mayor for much of the 60s and all of the 70s, makes only a brief appearance. Although Robbie argued – presciently, if without success – for a rapid bus-and-rail transit system, and entered politics to oppose dumping the city’s sewage in the Waitemāta, he is only referenced in the part he played in setting up the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).

New Zealand’s biggest industrial confrontation, the 1951 waterfront dispute – which led to its worst incident in Auckland that June on ‘Bloody Friday’ – is so reduced in scope that it reads as mostly a squabble about overtime, rather than the culmination of decades of industrial conflict, with 22,000 waterside workers striking. Less skimpy in the narrative are the 1970s protests at Bastion Point. On the 506th day of the occupation, Moon writes, ‘the government finally abandoned any semblance of moral restraint, opting instead for what amounted to an invasion.’

In general, Moon is more intent on the city’s significant events rather than the key players, and he has an eye for the lively and telling anecdote. The celebratory scenes following the end of World War II included incidents on Queen St which might otherwise be forgotten by everyone bar the victims, with bottles being thrown, shop windows broken, and young women molested in the street, by ‘youths who have earned high wages in the past few years and have escaped the discipline of service life’. A description of a Robin Gibb concert illustrates that the 1970s weren’t much of an improvement on youth culture. Gibb is pelted with a tomato after he asks the audience if they’re having a lovely time; there are ‘flying cans and missiles’, and a ‘girl dressed in white makes it onstage and grabs Gibb around the neck, pushing him into the music stands behind.’

Contemporary commentary about these incidents isn’t included here, but Moon details the outrage directed towards the Hero Parade, the large-scale gay pride event that began in 1992 – originally on Queen Street, and later on Ponsonby Road, attracting crowds of over 100,000 and (eventually) a number of national politicians. Auckland’s political leaders were less enthused.

The city’s mayor, Les Mills, wrote to the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, expressing how he was ‘not prepared to personally encourage homosexuality or support the promotion of a homosexual lifestyle as an individual or by the Auckland City Council from city rates’ – a stance endorsed by Deputy Mayor David Hay, who argued that such events were ‘not what the silent majority want to see in our city’.

In the same chapter, Moon’s lens as an historian can seem blurred. He argues:

It is also significant that whereas in other Western countries — especially the United Kingdom and the United States — race riots periodically scarred several cities, Auckland’s response to the presence of ethnic minorities (though still far from ideal) largely sidestepped such brutal resentment. Instead, the city voted with its feet for a more integrationist approach. One example of the culture of migrant groups being insinuated into the character of Auckland took place at Western Springs Park in March 1993. This was the inaugural Pasifika Festival, which attracted an audience of 30,000.

Auckland doesn’t come from the same petri dish as either the United Kingdom or the United States, or indeed other Western countries, so these comparisons aren’t the right fit. In earlier chapters, Moon notes the terrorist acts committed in Auckland by Germany (in 1940, the German raider Orion laid 228 mines around the Hauraki Gulf) and the French (the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior), but doesn’t explore why German and French ‘migrant groups’ faced less opprobrium that other minorities in Auckland. The 1981 Springbok Tour protests, not least the helmets and shields deployed by both police and protestors around Eden Park, suggests a more fraught divide in the city around race relations. Does being prepared to fight in the streets about the national game say more than giving migrant groups a day for a festival?

Still, Moon describes the racism directed towards Chinese and Indian immigrants, primarily in the first decade of the twentieth century: the Chinese were punished with a poll tax, and the White New Zealand League was formed among the market gardens of Pukekohe. He is also clear about the racism that informed the notorious Dawn Raids of the 1970s:

[The] police minister responded to protests from Polynesian community leaders over the raids by casually observing that ‘in a herd of Jersey cows the odd Friesian cows will stand out’. This comment was inadvertently instructive, because it revealed that the targets of the raids were singled out because of their ethnicity. Around two-thirds of overstayers were non-Polynesian, yet did not have to experience the state invading their homes, dragging them off and putting them on planes heading out of the country.

Inevitably these topics, like the occupations and evictions of Ōrākei, can only be potted histories in a book that covers an entire century, and interested readers can seek more in-depth information elsewhere, like Manying Ip’s Unfolding History, Evolving Identity: The Chinese in New Zealand. (There are also the novels Dawn Raid by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith and Bastion Point: 507 Days on Takaparawha by Tania Roxborogh, both written for young people, and not included in Moon’s bibliography.)

Toward the end of his book – and the end of the century – Moon cycles back to infrastructure, Auckland’s ongoing challenge. One sore reminder is the ‘leaky homes’ issue – a fiasco, Moon observes, that gave the impression that ‘Auckland’s progress was turning back on itself’. Built with texture-coated fibre-cement sheets as a cheap alternative to masonry, these houses were popular in the 1990s and marketed as ‘a touch of Tuscany’ by real estate agents. Within a decade, the cladding collected enough moisture to cause the homes to rot from within.

As well as reminding us of how many buildings were haphazardly built, Auckland: The Twentieth-Century Story recalls the CBD power failure of 1994:

Apart from a few streetlights, the central city was suddenly without electricity. Lifts, alarms and even doors were no longer functioning in many buildings, and in some cases sewage and water that relied on electric pumps were not flowing as intended. Food began to spoil in restaurants as refrigeration units failed, and Queen Street was almost completely deserted.

Maybe these are just the teething problems of a city trying to keep pace with itself. Moon notes that the population of Greater Auckland at the start of the twentieth century increased 35-fold in 100 years. Comparatively, London’s population over the same period grew by one and a half times, Sydney’s by eight times, and Wellington’s by seven.

By the end of the twentieth century, in Moon’s telling, the city could boast a ‘singular character’, even as it became more like other sprawling cities. The Auckland he evokes is in a constant state of identity crisis:

Was the city merely a cluster of disparate suburbs, cultures and communities, corralled into a common civic geography, or was there the kernel of something that made the whole distinctly greater than the sum of its parts? At times, it seemed that the forces binding the city together were losing ground to those inducing its unravelling.

The unravelling was not entirely negative. Ngāti Whātua, ‘almost landless in central Auckland’ for much of the century, saw the return of Bastion Point, and the beginnings of a restored status. The name Tāmaki Makaurau – never used by Moon in this book – positions Auckland as a desirable place, a place where disparate peoples met, traded and flourished. The city’s crises ­– economic, social, environmental – continue; more cracks in its infrastructure appear. Aucklanders still sing the praises of its beaches and parks and long humid days, and complain, endlessly, about the traffic.


Auckland: The Twentieth-Century Story

by Paul Moon


ISBN: 9781990042355

Published: April 2023

Format: Paperback, 360 pages

Angelique Kasmara

Angelique Kasmara’s fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in NZ Listener, Newsroom, Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand. Her debut novel Isobar Precinct (2021, The Cuba Press) won the 2017 Wallace Foundation Prize, was shortlisted for the 2022 Ngaio Marsh Awards (Best First Novel) and will be published by Bolinda in Australia in 2024.