North Shore: Over the Bridge and far away

The Shore. So near but, in many ways, so far from the Auckland City isthmus. It likes to think of itself as warmer, sunnier and better than its southern sister city. But, asks proud Aucklander Shelley Bridgeman, is life there really such a sure thing?

Historian David Verran, a lifelong resident, recently wrote a book about the Shore. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Historian David Verran, a lifelong resident, recently wrote a book about the Shore. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The Bridge is the illusory key. The sprawling seaside city on the North Shore is connected to the Auckland isthmus by this eight-lane vehicular link. It is "The Bridge", that steel and tarmac umbilical cord, that provides proximity and interconnectivity between Shore and City but - more importantly - it is the thing that suggests there should be little difference between the inhabitants of these Aucklands that stare at each other from opposite shores of the Waitemata Harbour. Indeed, demographically they have much in common - sharing similar median ages, median incomes, percentages of people with post-school qualifications and percentages with no qualifications.

But it's at about this point that the affinities break down.

Any closer examination reveals a divide that can't be explained purely by numbers. The psychographics, the mindset, of those 225,800 people who live on the North Shore and those who live elsewhere in Auckland are noticeably different. However, nailing down the essence of North Shore-ites - or North Shovians, as some people like to call them - is no simple task.

While the stereotypes and signature characteristics of the typical "Westie" are well established - thanks, in no small part, to Outrageous Fortune - the attributes of their northern cousins are more elusive, perhaps more nuanced too.

Geography alone defines them as a people set apart from the rest of Auckland. Bordered to the east, south and west by water, there's none of the easy melding or intermingling with outsiders that naturally occurs between those who dwell in more landlocked locales. And while the sea offers space, fresh air, views and an upbeat vibe, it is also a barrier that isolates and breeds a certain insularity.

Lifelong North Shore resident David Verran, author of The North Shore: An Illustrated History, which is published this month, believes the beaches are one of the city's biggest drawcards.

"Just about wherever you live on the North Shore - apart from right in the middle of Glenfield - you can actually have a glimpse of the harbour. Even parts of Glenfield. Because wherever you are, you don't have to go too far for a beach. You've got a sense of shoreline and there's something about that that really seems to attract people. It equates with a feeling of relaxation, of getting away from it all."

Verran echoes the popular belief that his part of the world is blessed with more seashore than other cities that comprise the greater Auckland region. Indeed, North Shore City's website says it has 140km of coastline and lists a grand total of 21 beaches. Yet a cursory glance at a map shows that, while not being quite as rigidly cut off by it, the whole of Auckland is virtually surrounded by water. Auckland City's website lays claims to "28 beaches inside the Auckland isthmus" while Manukau City boasts of more than 300km of coastline, yet the respective inhabitants of these cities do not seem inclined to arbitrarily define themselves by these assets.

But as the saying goes, perception is reality - in the sense that it influences attitudes and sensibilities. And, it seems that many North Shore people have embraced the whole coastal thing. Rachel Lang, co-creator of Outrageous Fortune and of Go Girls - a television series set on Auckland's North Shore - certainly believes it's inextricably linked with its identity.

"The place is a really funny mixture of beautiful beaches and nasty car yards. It kind of interested me, even when I was working there, what a different world it was to over this [southern] side of the Bridge," she says. "I always felt like it was a kind of cut-price California. I mean the beaches, and it seems warmer over there. It seems sunnier and people seem more upbeat."

Even the dress code differs from that across the southside of the Bridge. Evidently white jeans are perennially popular. "I do think there is a tendency for them to dress as if it's always warmer than it is."

They're certainly an optimistic bunch. In a 2008 Quality of Life survey, 92 per cent of North Shore residents rated their quality of life positively. So this part of the world struck Lang, who spent many years working on Shortland Street in a Browns Bay studio, as the perfect place to set an "upbeat, positive, funny kind of show" such as Go Girls, which focuses on the personal quests of its characters. Go Girls is shot in Albany, a place Lang describes as "Albania, out in that industrial wasteland, which I also find fascinating."

There is certainly an industrial starkness to much of the North Shore, which is in complete contrast to the beaches for which it is known. Interspersed between the auto repair outlets, fast-food joints and sports bars are pockets of bland suburbia. Mundane domesticity is reflected on one of the Trade Me website's most popular message boards.

One thread, which has accumulated around 10 thousand posts since April, is devoted to North Shore inhabitants. Its early entries are peppered with reports of braving Albany's shopping centre ("never again! lol"), visiting Kmart and Number 1 Shoes. If the 200-odd pages of postings are anything to go by, life here is largely dominated by thoughts of bunk beds, double mountain buggies, multivitamins and loads of washing. No wonder there's a cringe factor often associated with escapees from the North Shore.

K Rd gallery owner Michael Lett recently said he was from the "deepest, darkest North Shore. Needless to say, I have not been back for quite some time."

Lett declined our invitation to expand on his views but presumably he may share sentiments similar to those of "Sarah" who started the "I hate the North Shore" Facebook group in 2007. It is dedicated to "anyone who ever suffered through the unfounded arrogance of a North Shore private school, the glares of North Shore mothers grocery shopping in their gold jewellery or the incestuous nature of the friendship and dating circles". Harsh words indeed, but still 34 people felt sufficiently sympathetic to join the group.

A thinly disguised smugness often radiates from those who live happily on the North Shore. There's almost a sense of the evangelical - the idea that those of us who live on "the other side" have yet to see the light. And despite the fact they've so clearly shunned the rest of Auckland by settling in the north, such dyed-in-the-wool folk still define their location in relation to the big smoke. Residents of Northcote Pt boast how close they are to Ponsonby while Devonport people appreciate being "a short ferry ride" away from the bright lights of downtown Auckland.

And who can forget that Albany car-dealer and his radio advertisement, in which he claimed to be a handy "12 minutes north of the Bridge"? For such devoted citizens of North Shore City, they sure spend a lot of time protesting their proximity to the CBD.

Andy Saker, playwright and head of drama at Rosmini College, understands what makes North Shore people tick. His play, Pear Shaped, which showed at the Pumphouse Theatre earlier this year, explores their preoccupations and idiosyncrasies. "It's about points of views and sensibilities of people that lived here. I've always thought it was a very 'Shore' play," he says. "Shore people, they're very relaxed and quite conservative in their ways ... there's just a good vibe. I like the kind of normality of it." Saker subscribes to the theory that the North Shore's geography underscores its emotional and practical detachment to the rest of the region. "You are separated by that body of water and an over-taxed bridge with not enough lanes on it."

On the opening night of his play, Saker was quoted as saying, "I sometimes get the feeling that people who don't live there perceive the North Shore as a social and cultural wasteland. It's pretty obvious Takapuna is fast becoming the new black though - Karen Walker has opened a very big shop here, the French Rugby World Cup squad will be headquartering here and, best of all, we have a mayor who epitomises the carefree outdoorsy-ness of the Shore by peeing in the bushes."

Set in a North Shore backyard, Pear Shaped reveals the classic North Shore lifestyle as Saker sees it.

"That's what people on the Shore do - in summer, anyway - that's how they socialise, is people come around and they drink and they have barbecues and hang out outside. And the conversation's about work, sport and other people they know. The Shore's quite a close place. It's quite a tight community. It's like a big village really, even though it's a city." While conceding his turf is overwhelming middle class, Saker adds it also has "a very strong bohemian culture" and "a lot of cool people".

No examination of a Kiwi sub-culture would be complete without considering the drinking habits. "I think Shore people, suburban people, drink a lot. It's very much part of what they do. It's kind of balanced out with sports and activities but they do drink a lot. If you went out west, you'd see the Lion Red drinkers. On the Shore, people are a bit more discerning. They're definitely not bogans. They'd be drinking Corona - slightly more upmarket - but no, they're not overly sophisticated."

Even a Takapuna stalwart such as Saker recognises an ingrained provincialism. "People have described the Shore as having a bit of Christchurch and Hamilton sprinkled through it. You know, you still hear a little bit of racist comment. It's still got a little way in catching up, I think, on across the Bridge. But, generally speaking it's definitely not backwards, redneck, but it's also not hip and styley like Ponsonby and Grey Lynn."

Lang, too, detects similarities with other parts of the country. "When I think of the sort of beachiness of Napier, it's got elements of a similar thing - and places like Tauranga. I think there are places in New Zealand that are quite similar to the North Shore in that way."

One of the North Shore's distinguishing factors is its relative lack of Maori and Pacific Island people. With a Maori population of around six per cent and a Pacific population of about three per cent, these groups are poorly represented here when compared to the rest of Auckland and the rest of the country. The North Shore is New Zealand's fourth largest city but it has only the 15th largest Maori population. "Yeah, it does feel less brown," says Lang. "You do feel it's multicultural over here but it's not particularly Pasifika," says Saker.

Verran puts it down to the fact that the urban drift of Maori in the 50s and the influx of people from the Pacific Islands in the 1970s were driven by jobs in industry, and the North Shore was not where the factories and job opportunities were located. "It sounds a bit simplistic but I think that's really what it is," he says.

Forty per cent of the North Shore's residents were born overseas. So what immigrant groups have settled here? South Africans are well represented. The emigratenz.org website, which mentions the "beaches and balmy climate", features an interview with Piet who shifted to the North Shore after relocating from Johannesburg.

Although he disapproves of what he interprets as institutional discrimination against Pakeha in this country, Piet is generally happy with his new home but he admits that for many of his compatriots this country may effectively be second prize. "A lot of South Africans come to New Zealand because for one reason or another they can't get into Australia."

The South African Kaffee in Browns Bay sells biltong (cured meat), Springbok maize meal and Klipdrift brandy to homesick ex-pats. Just around the corner is a branch of Bramptins - a British grocery store catering to the English set, which also has a strong presence.

Koreans, too, are choosing to settle in this area, especially in Sunnynook - and in such large numbers that Korean is the second most common language spoken on the North Shore.

In his book, Verran wrote of the entrenched collective drive to get ahead: "Those who moved to the North Shore from the 1960s onwards tended to have come from self-made backgrounds, with aspirations to live by the sea in a low-crime area."

Ultimately, defining the typical North Shore resident may be no more difficult than acknowledging that, by and large, they hold the same down-to-earth Kiwi values as inhabitants of many smaller cities and towns across the country. And perhaps it's as much about what is missing as what is present.

The North Shore may lack the "down home" attributes of Waitakere, the Polynesian vibrancy of Manukau and the slickness of Auckland City, yet its people are generally united by a common goal.

Says Lang, "The North Shore can be a state of mind as well. To me it represents broadly certain values, I guess. I think it represents one side of Kiwi ideals - that kind of belief in hard work and trying to better yourself."

The North Shore: An Illustrated History by David Verran (Random $49.99). Released on September 24.

- NZ Herald

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