Town and country, Simon Upton

The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840-1920
Ben Schrader
Bridget Williams Books, $60.00,
ISBN 9780947492434

I live in a very large city – Paris. It is a melting-pot of anonymity, dynamic and dangerous. There are futuristic experiments in eco-design and saturated motorways; new season glitz on the cat-walks and terrorist attacks. The Bataclan attacks started just five minutes from my apartment. It is all very exciting. But I am not a city person.

I grew up on a little farm on the edge of Ngaruawahia. My first city memory (Hamilton was a town) was going to Auckland, which seemed to be an endless wilderness of traffic lights and corner businesses. But, then, a more worldly schoolfriend who had been to Sydney on holiday informed me that Auckland wasn’t really a city. And, then, my French teacher revealed that cité did not mean city and that was distinct, again, from a place like the City of London …

Ben Schrader’s The Big Smoke traces the development of five New Zealand colonial cities – Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin, although Nelson quickly drops out of the picture. No-one would quibble with the choice of these gateway cities, commanding access to a deep hinterland. They were dynamic, fast-paced and, given their gateway status, must have had that element of anonymity that seems to me essential to city status.

One of their characteristics was their sheer modernity. The determination of a generation of historians and cultural commentators to assert a post-colonial indigeneity has made it unfashionable to underline the Britishness of the colony at its imperial noontide. But, over and over again, it is Britain and London that are the reference points in the settler accounts that Schrader cites. Whether it is fashion, technology or real estate (the first allotments sold in Auckland matched London prices), we are constantly aware that New Zealand was, from the outset, a window on the metropolitan centre.

That window was as much a window of imagination as reality. A lithograph of “Auckland City” enables Schrader to make the essential point: “Clearly it was not [a city] but most viewers would have understood its future orientation: the village was a city in waiting.” The idea of these ports as imagined metropolises seems to me a powerful insight. So is Schrader’s use of images. They are the outstanding feature of this beautifully produced volume from Bridget Williams Books.

Schrader is described as an historian specialising in urban history and historic preservation. Faced with a restoration or preservation challenge, I can’t imagine a better adviser. He has an unerring eye for interpreting the visual historical record. His selection of paintings, photographs and other visual cues demonstrates an unparalleled mastery of the available sources. The accompanying captions are invariably shrewd and insightful. Whether it is spanking new civic architecture, crowd scenes or street hawkers, Schrader curates jewel after visual jewel.

I can’t summon quite the same enthusiasm for his written style. There is a clear determination to root the book’s underpinning thesis in the scholarly literature of urban history. Each chapter recapitulates the literature relevant to its theme and closes with the sort of summary some lecturers hand out to students whose concentration or memory may have wandered.

The spatial turn in urban history is a particular drum-beat that is never far away, with repeated references to the “production” of various types of space. It is a useful metaphor, but its persistent repetition becomes jarring as capitalist space, intellectual and cultural space, representational space, national space and all manner of urban, colonial and social spaces jostle for attention. I found myself half-expecting a settler diarist to confide that she had decided to go into the city to produce some new cultural space by “performing specific spatial practices”.

Stylistically, the book falls between two audiences. A more determinedly academic book would have given more space to theory and the literature. A book seeking a general audience (which the alluring presentation of the book strongly suggests) would have dispensed with some of the heavy-handed resort to theory. In Schrader’s defence, it is not as though he is charting well-ploughed turf. So, seeking to engage general interest while at the same time signal a largely virgin territory for more focused research, is arguably fair enough.

The single chapter I enjoyed most was that concerning Māori and the city. After a more interesting than usual survey of the international literature on racial assimilation and segregation, Schrader deftly covers a history of commercial engagement, alienation during the land wars and progressive marginalisation, but one in which Māori agency never ceases.

The sections on Māori carnivals and native hostelries – as superbly illustrated as any – are particularly memorable. I had no idea that the Mechanics Bay native hostelry in Auckland survived right up to 1966, only to be demolished for a motorway feeder route that was never built. As Schrader sourly records in a footnote, 50 years later in 2016 the site was still only occupied by a car park – a potent symbol of the confiscation of public space that motorisation has imposed on cities around the world.

Chapters on city crowds and street people (prostitutes, hawkers, coffee stall proprietors and larrikins) yield a raft of fascinating cameos. Some traditions seem timeless. The motivation of the crowds that cruised the city streets of colonial New Zealand on Saturday nights at the turn of the 20th century seem barely distinguishable from the throngs that gather to this day.

A chapter on healthy cities provides a fascinating summary of the debate between “environmentalists” and “contagionists” as officials sought to pinpoint the sources of public health risks. There is a particularly nice vignette of the 1913 smallpox epidemic which spawned a nasty myth that Māori were a vector for the disease. An apparently enlightened Minister of Health, Heaton Rhodes, comes out smelling of roses for refusing to accept a baseless and racist theory. And, despite Schrader’s repeated complaints of “laissez faire-ism”, his account of the handling of the 1913 influenza outbreak suggests a rather progressive response.

Schrader is explicit that his book is intended to be a reaction against a ruralist myth of New Zealand’s settlement. He locates its roots in a wider civilisational reaction against urbanisation reflected in phenomena as various as Romantic literature, the development of rugged masculine stereotypes (in part a response to the participation of women in the workforce) and the health and wholesomeness of rural living (in contrast to the squalor of the city). Such was the strength of anti-urbanism in colonial society, he complains, that no myth arose celebrating the pioneering achievements of townspeople, noting the stark contrast that represents with America, where people like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford became heroic figures.

But is that the result of the strength of a myth or a reflection of the radically different economic forces at work? To this day, there is no Dallas or Detroit in New Zealand. And is the claim even accurate? Sir Stephen Tindall, whose fortune is in retailing, has been arguably a more heroic figure than many rural business leaders. And if rugby once found deep roots in rugged provincial masculinity, it seems to have become equally associated with the extraordinary contribution a generation of urban migrants has made to the game.

While the thesis of cultural neglect of cities makes a good polemical substrate for the book, I was finally unconvinced. Surely the co-dependence of town and country is the real story? There are brief acknowledgments of this throughout, but it is a tale that never emerges. Perhaps that is the inevitable result of a book that, for perfectly good reasons, focuses on cultural and social life rather than economic life.

The reality of the economy is that town and country are closely bound. It is also true physically and in the way we imagine our cities. The fact is that the country is nearly always visible. And, in our only serious conurbation, the sea always beckons, as it did when John Mulgan in Man Alone (whom Schrader cites) writes of “the sunlight splendid on the blue Coromandel range across the gulf”.

Even in a country as ancient and urbanised as France, the rural myth lives on. We carry a Virgilian compass in our unconscious imaginings. It is as much anthropological as it is poetic. The very dynamism of cities is constantly erasing their history. That is a reason to preserve what we can. But, in doing so, we should never forget what ties cities to the physical environment on which we all depend.

Simon Upton is Director of the OECD Environment Directorate in Paris.

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