Story: Street life

Page 4. Street life declines

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The 20th-century drive to regulate streets and remove perceived obstacles to efficiency came at the cost of street life. Among the first casualties were hawkers.

Moving on hawkers

Hawkers with baskets were allowed on Wellington footpaths as long as they kept moving. The rule proved ineffectual: hawkers would move from a lucrative spot when directed by a traffic officer, but would quickly return to it once the officer was out of sight. In 1939 the council prohibited hawking in central city streets, with the exception of flower sellers.

Hawkers banned

Hostility to hawking from shopkeepers had been growing since the 1900s. As the pace of city streets became faster, councils restricted them to back streets. Other hostility was racially motivated. In Wellington critics complained that the ‘Bombay men’ (Indians) dominated the fruit and vegetable trade at the expense of Englishmen.

Cruising streets

Increasing regulation did not stop streets from remaining important pick-up places for gay men. Requests for a cigarette or a light between strangers might lead to an invitation to a movie and sex. The Exchange in Dunedin (on Princes Street) and Auckland’s ferry building precinct were popular cruising areas. Police often turned a blind eye to such activities, but those caught having sex faced severe penalties. Homosexual sex was not legalised in New Zealand until 1986.

In 1915 Christchurch bowed to ongoing criticism and pledged to stop issuing licences to fruit hawkers. Auckland restricted hawkers’ selling times, while Wellington erected fixed stands, leasing them to the highest bidder. These were discontinued in 1933 on the grounds they were an eyesore, though some suggested it was really because white shopkeepers were unable to compete with the low prices of the Indian stands. Soon after, Christchurch prohibited all but newspaper and race-card sales in city streets. Other cities followed suit.

Buskers

Buskers faced further regulation as well. They were banned from busy streets and allowed to play only for a limited time on any one spot. Complaints from the public could see them quickly moved on.

Six o’clock closing

Government measures also affected street life. The most important was the introduction of six o’clock closing of bars in 1917. With a leisurely evening pint no longer an option, men crowded into bars at five o’clock and drank heavily for the next hour. Women were excluded from public bars, and generally stayed at home. The early evening promenade of earlier times – where men and women walked the block after work – gave way to the rush (or swagger) of men piling onto trams after the bars closed.

Friday night shopping

Late-night shopping switched from Saturday to Friday after unions argued it was unfair that shop workers only got one-day weekends. Christchurch made the switch in 1913, followed by Wellington in 1915.

The early exodus made city streets dull places in the evening. The exception was Friday, with late-night shopping, and the brief interlude after cinema screenings when crowds flocked to pie carts or one of the few late-night eateries, such as Wellington’s Green Parrot Café. Street orators also sometimes enlivened evenings.

Suburban street life

Overseas visitors in the 1950s and 1960s often grumbled about the deadness of city streets after working hours, but few of the locals seemed to mind. By this time most New Zealanders lived in the suburbs, seeing ‘town’ mainly as a place to work, shop, and catch the occasional film or play. For them, street life meant children playing football or hopscotch, and the ‘suburban symphony’ of motor mowers, power drills and revving cars. As the satirist Austin Mitchell wrote in 1972: ‘Americans flee the noisy cities to the quiet of suburbia. [In New Zealand] if you want weekend peace you must go to town.’1

Footnotes:
  1. Austin Mitchell, The half-gallon quarter-acre pavlova paradise. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombes, 1972, p. 110. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Street life - Street life declines', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/street-life/page-4 (accessed 21 November 2019)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010