The Big Smoke – putting New Zealand’s cities centre-stage
by Ben Schrader
I wrote The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 because I’d long felt that New Zealand history, as taught and written, did not resonate with me. The history I learnt at school and university had emphasised the ‘rural myth’. This asserted that Pākehā had come to New Zealand to settle land alienated from Māori. Settlers would buy a parcel of forest or grassland, and then clear, fence and farm it. Alternatively, they could reside in towns, and provide goods and services – grocery, blacksmithing, stock and station supplies – to those on encircling farms. Cities only functioned, in these accounts, as markets and ports. ‘Real’ New Zealanders, it seemed, lived on the land.
The inferior position of cities was emphasised in New Zealand’s cultural production. I grew up reading Barry Crump’s ‘Good Keen Men’ books and thinking his ‘Man Alone’ protagonists were archetypal Kiwi blokes. At secondary school I joined the tramping club and during the holidays headed into the bush with others. I looked forward to the physical challenges these trips provided, but for me the attraction of tramping was less the scenery and more the sociability: there is nothing like putting the world to rights around a campfire. The prospect of going into the bush by myself held no appeal. I could never be a Good Keen Man. This was confirmed to me at the end of every tramp by the elation I felt on returning to Wellington and the trappings of civilisation, not least a hot shower.
On examining my family history I realised I was not the first Schrader to have an urban sensibility. My great, great grandfather, James, was born in 1834 in London. In 1862 he sought a new life in New Zealand. He landed in Dunedin and soon found work as a post office clerk. Ever since then the Schraders down my line of the family have lived in large towns or cities and pursued urban occupations: as clerks, tailors, grocers, restaurateurs and writers. Their homes have not looked out upon pasture or bush but the street and their neighbour’s fences. All have lived with the sights, sounds and smells of the people about them.
Whereas many historians have situated Pākehā identities in the land, I have always had a much stronger affinity with cities. I can appreciate the beauty of the snow-clad Southern Alps glistening in the sun, but the vistas that enthral me are city ones: the gradual revealing of Wellington as the motorway leaves the Ngāūranga Gorge; Auckland’s towering skyline from Waitematā Harbour’s undulating surface, or the ornate Victorian buildings lining Dunedin’s Princes Street. In other words, my social identity is grounded more in the streets and lanes of the cities where my forebears and I have lived than in the forests and farms that surround them.
Of course I knew my family were not the only ones to prefer city life; the rapid growth of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin underlines this. But the rise of these cities and those who built them has been underplayed in New Zealand history writing. This is surprising, considering that since the 1910s most New Zealanders have been urban dwellers – 86 per cent in 2014. Yet we know surprisingly little about these people and the spaces in which they lived. New Zealand generally lacks the substantial studies of urban life that are standard in national histories overseas.
So why hasn’t urban history captured the imagination of New Zealand historians? I proffer three suggestions. The first is that many adopted the anti-city bias of mid-twentieth-century nationalist literary culture. Writers like Rex (A.R.D.) Fairburn endlessly celebrated the naturalness of country life over the artificiality of city life – even though he lived in Devonport. The two most influential histories of Pākehā society, Jock Phillips’s A Man’s Country? (1987) and Miles Fairburn’s The Ideal Society and its Enemies (1989), are both rural-centric. The bias has carried to the present, most notably in environmental history. Overseas the sub-field has a strong urban strain, but in a new edition of Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand (2013), just two of the eighteen essays consider city environments.
A second possibility is that many historians avoid spatial analysis. It is not surprising that disciplines with a spatial bent, such as urban design and geography, have long been at the forefront of city research. Since the 1950s, scholars like Kenneth Cumberland, Eric Pawson, and Garth Falconer have employed spatial analysis to chart New Zealand’s urban development. Conversely, historians have generally seen cities as places where events happen, rarely considering how space – buildings, streets, landscapes – frame and shape these events.
The third reason is that in a small history community like New Zealand’s, there is less room for the diversity of sub-fields that characterise the profession overseas. The research interests of most historians have simply lain elsewhere.
If urban history has been in the wings of scholarship, The Big Smoke is an attempt to bring them centre-stage. It examines what cities looked like and how they changed. It considers why women especially lived in cities and how Māori experienced and shaped them. It explores the ways the street was a living room and stage for city life. And it explains why New Zealand so quickly became a nation of townspeople.
I hope the book will appeal particularly to those who, like me, do not identify with the ‘Good Keen Man’ stereotype. Certainly, there is growing evidence that New Zealand’s rural iconography no longer resonates with how most New Zealanders see themselves. Symptomatic of this shift was the ending of the long-running Speight’s ‘Southern Man’ advertising campaign in 2012. A Speight’s executive explained that New Zealand’s urbanisation meant the relevance of the great outdoors had changed. Future campaigns would be city-based, he said.
The same goes for our history writing. In a modern age of mega-cities we can no longer think of ourselves only as people of the land. If we are better to understand what is happening in our society in the present, more historians need to enter the city streets, lanes and cul-de-sacs of its past.