Story: Street life

In the 19th century New Zealand’s city streets were busy places where people gathered to chat and hawkers sold their wares. The 20th century saw the decline of street life, as cars took over the roads and people moved to the suburbs. But in the 2000s city life is bustling again, with the rise of café culture and inner-city living.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: The White Lady pie cart, Auckland

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Street life in the 19th century

In the 19th century city streets were busy and colourful places. Horses and carriages shared them with pedestrians and traders, and they were often used as places to socialise.

Hawkers – people who sell fruit, vegetables, flowers and other goods on the street – and coffee stalls were common in the 1880s.

Other people who were often found on city streets were:

  • prostitutes
  • vagrants (homeless people) and beggars
  • larrikins (delinquent youth) and street gangs
  • bootblacks, who polished people’s shoes for money
  • buskers (street musicians), who were often disabled
  • street orators, who would lecture passers-by about topics such as religion or politics.

The decline of street life

When cars were first introduced in the early 1900s, they had to drive very slowly, so it was safe for pedestrians. However, soon speed limits were raised and people who were walking had to keep to the footpaths. This meant there were fewer places for people to gather and chat on the streets.

Councils began to discourage street traders by restricting where and when they could sell goods. Buskers were also discouraged.

Between 1917 and 1967 pubs closed at 6 p.m. People, particularly men, would drink solidly for an hour after work and then go home, leaving the city streets empty. Most people now lived in the suburbs, rather than in the central city.

The return of street life

From the late 1960s life and bustle began to return to city streets. Some of the reasons for this were:

  • Street malls, which were closed to traffic, were opened in several New Zealand cities. The first was Cuba Mall in Wellington, in 1969.
  • Inner-city apartments became popular.
  • Cafés and bars were allowed to have tables on the footpath and stay open later. Coffee carts returned, and became popular with urban coffee drinkers.
  • Many cities introduced street festivals and carnivals.
  • Urban designers made city spaces more attractive to pedestrians.
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Street life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 March 2010