Story: Street life

Page 5. Street trade and people, 1915–2008

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City street life did not totally disappear in the 20th century. Some traders managed to remain in business, including many street prostitutes (streetwalkers). Meanwhile, the homeless continued to be tolerated as a colourful, if sometimes disturbing, aspect of street life.

Plain and popular

In an ordinary day Jim Samuels made between 10 and 12 dozen pies for his Nelson pie cart, which he set up in 1935. His recipe was simple: the filling was made of mince, salt and water. This was thickened during cooking, spooned into pie tins, covered with pastry and baked. Jim’s pies were famous in Nelson. On public holidays or before a big game he would make 20 dozen pies to meet demand.

Pie carts

With its blazing lights and promise of a quick, filling feed, the pie cart succeeded coffee stalls as the night owl’s eatery in the 1920s. Rather than actual carts, they were usually long caravans, with an open counter down one side, sheltered by an awning. Inside, the galley kitchen featured blackened stovetops, stacks of crockery, and gleaming tea and coffee urns. The standard fare was ‘pie, pea and pud’ (pud being mashed potato), all for the price of one shilling (10 cents).

The cart came into its own when cinemas and dance halls emptied. With few other places open, people flocked to the carts to eat, gossip and flirt. On cold evenings crowds would huddle under the awning, warming their hands on steaming drinks. From the 1990s the rise of late-night cafés and fast-food outlets reduced pie cart numbers.


The cry of boys selling newspapers was a feature of city life until the demise of metropolitan evening newspapers in the late 20th century. A standard pitch was for one boy to start a call and for other boys to carry it down the street, like an echo.

Coffee carts

Coffee carts returned to city streets in the mid-1990s, now as a day-time rather than night-time business. Most catered to office workers wanting a quick espresso to take to back to work. Others were sited on the main streets of towns to attract passing traffic.


In 2003 Parliament decriminalised prostitution. Despite the fear of some, this did not lead to a steep increase in streetwalkers. A 2006 survey showed numbers actually declined in Auckland and Wellington. In the same year Christchurch police found girls as young as 12 soliciting on Manchester Street. Some argued under-age prostitutes should be driven from streets, but others said this would push them into less safe areas. In 2007 streetwalkers made up about 17% of all prostitutes.

Street gangstas

Inspired by hip hop and ‘gangsta’ rap culture, Los Angeles-styled street gangs arose in New Zealand in the 1990s. By 2007 there were 2,000 street gang members in Auckland alone. These gangs particularly appealed to Māori and Pacific youth. Members rose through the ranks by committing crime, including robbery and aggravated burglary.

Street criminals

Thieves and criminals remain a hazard of street life. While few people become crime victims, the incidence of serious street crime – including assault and rape – has risen since 2000. The increase has been blamed on the lowering of the drinking age (to 18) in 1999 and the widespread availability of alcohol and drugs.

The homeless

In the past homeless people were classed as vagrants, but government benefits mean few now have no means of support. While most live in temporary accommodation – such as night shelters – a small proportion sleep rough on the streets or in parks.

Many homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts, and cannot hold down a regular job. Some are children who, escaping domestic violence or abuse, find support in street gangs. Others have mental illnesses. In 2007 it was estimated there were between 250 and 400 homeless people in central Auckland alone.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Street life - Street trade and people, 1915–2008', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010