Story: City children and youth

Page 2. Diversity and conflict

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Children’s and adolescents’ experience of city life was initially framed by their neighbourhood and class. In colonial cities the rich usually lived in roomy mansions on prominent sites, while the poor crowded into tiny cheek-by-jowl cottages on lesser streets.

Class and territory

Class and territory also defined relations between children. Children from different classes often viewed each other with suspicion, if not derision. In 1840s Wellington, fighting between two adolescent gangs – one based in working-class Te Aro and the other in middle-class Thorndon – was relatively common.

Cats vs rats

During the 1920s Beresford Street school in Freemans Bay, Auckland, was considered socially superior to Nelson and Napier Street schools, as more of the students’ parents were skilled workers and tradesmen. Hence the rhyme:

Napier Street the cats,
Nelson Street the rats,
When you go to Beresford Street,
You learn to raise your hats.

But there were also distinctions within classes. In 1920s Freemans Bay (a working-class district of Auckland) rivalry between children from the three primary schools was intense. Enmity between the children was often played out on the streets or sports grounds. After defeating Napier Street school basketball team, Beresford Street student Flo White recalled returning home ‘very bruised and sore’.1 Her team had been stoned out of the Napier Street playground.

Sectarian divide

To a lesser extent religion also divided city children. Catholic children were a minority in all cities, and were often taunted and teased by their Protestant peers. The difference was more marked when they attended church schools; fights between students from state and Catholic schools became legendary. In the 2000s growing secularism and the state integration of Catholic schools had diminished sectarian division in cities.

Ethnic differences

In the first half of the 20th century people in cities were predominantly Pākehā. Māori urbanisation from the 1950s and Pacific Island migration from the 1960s changed this. Ethnicity became another element of difference and, sometimes, friction. The occasional street robbery of Pākehā teens – of clothes and skateboards – by beefier Māori and Pacific youth in city streets unnerved some in the 1980s. Ethnically-based youth gangs re-emerged in Auckland in the 1990s; fights over territory have led to serious injuries, even death.

Clothing identities

In 1988 an Auckland journalist divided the city’s adolescents into six fashion sub-cultures: ‘mods (who wear serge army jackets, loafers and stovepipe jeans); trendies (Lacoste T-shirts, stonewashed Levis, genuine Chuck Taylor shoes); skaters (board shorts and singlets bearing legends like “100 per cent Mambo”); grommets/waxheads (teen surfers in board shorts with zinc noses, bleached hair, $500-plus surfboards); greasers (“individualists” with slicked-back hair, crepe-soled shoes, black stovepipe trousers); gothics/punks (spiky hair, black everything, Doc Marten boots, stovepipes).’2

Clothing and sub-cultures

Over time, clothing has become a more important signifier of difference. In the 19th century poor children often went barefoot or wore more ragged clothes than richer children. By the late 20th century clothing still spoke of class – designer labels were coveted by wealthy, image-conscious kids – but also identified city sub-cultures. For example, the loose-fitting trousers, hooded sweat-tops, skate shoes and bling (accessories) of rap culture were widely worn by its followers.

In the early 2000s neighbourhood and class still divided children and teenagers – the rich lived in leafy suburbs, the poor on barren city peripheries – but perhaps less than before. Cars had weakened territorial boundaries, with many travelling beyond their neighbourhoods for activities. Youth sub-cultures, such as South Auckland hip hop, traversed class and ethnic divides. The internet and mobile phones made it easier for the young to socialise and stay in touch, wherever they lived.

  1. Quoted in Diana Morrow and Jenny Carolyn, Urban village: the story of Ponsonby, Freemans Bay and St Mary’s Bay. Auckland: Random House, 2008, pp. 112–113. Back
  2. Carroll du Chateau, ‘Kids are different today I hear every mother say.’ Metro, April 1988, p. 72. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'City children and youth - Diversity and conflict', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 July 2022)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010