In a quiet, leafy corner of downtown Auckland the past is trying to speak. It has been given a reserve on a grassy bank dominated by a grove of sprawling pohutukawa just below the point where Princes St meets Shortland St.
Hidden in the trees there is a monument. Not a grand one and the dedication is not particularly memorable. It honours John Frederick Churton, who was chaplain of the colonial garrison when he died in 1853.
Above the inscription a metal tablet has been bolted to the stone commemorating "the centenary of the laying of the foundation of St Paul's Church on this site, 28th July 1841, by his excellency Governor Wm Hobson RN, first governor of New Zealand."
By that time, a century later, not just the church was long gone, so was the garrison's barracks and the very promontory it occupied, Britomart Pt. But at least the Waitemata would still have been visible in 1941, beyond the port for which the point had been flattened. From that grassy bank today all that can be seen are the tatty back balconies of multi-storey apartment blocks.
This has not been a judgmental history. Present social values should not be imposed on the past, nor should the past impose obligations on the present. If modern Auckland feels no need of its heritage, if it is deaf to the echoes of the people who walked these streets at a different time, so be it. But to read about these people and hear the echoes is to better understand our present and future.
Readers of this story might have been as ignorant as its principal author before he started his research. How many besides the tangata whenua knew, for example, that Ngati Whatua invited Governor Hobson to make his capital here? Who knew how empty the isthmus was at that time, and why?
Who knew that Princes St-Waterloo Quadrant was once the epicentre of the country's government and that representatives from all provinces came to a Parliament that stood somewhere in the vicinity of the High
Court today? All that remains is a side street by the court curiously
named "Parliament St".
The Waikato Wars ended Auckland's days as a capital. Who knew they began as South Auckland wars? Discoveries abound as the story proceeds.
Who today knew that exactly a century ago, the city's population had doubled in 10 years? Those were prosperous years when many Australians
like Mick Savage migrated here, attracted by New Zealand's living standard and social advances. Those were also the years that Auckland built its Town Hall, paved Queen St and electrified its trams.
The tram-linked town was a compact place, with people living mainly in the villas of the inner western suburbs that have been renovated in recent years. Today, planners would like to see more than the villas restored. Public transport, perhaps including trams known today as "light rail", is their answer to the suburban sprawl created by the post-war proliferation of the private car. Inner city apartments have been encouraged and more dense residential zones proposed around suburban railway stops.
But the car may be only one cause of Auckland's sprawl. Climatic and
coastal attractions are others. Our city surely has one of the longest and most beautiful coasts of any in the world, spanning two harbours and two ocean shores, one swept by strong currents and big surf, the other sheltered and calm, the shore of a Gulf sprinkled with islands and indented with bays.
The Herald has published this history to mark the imminent uniting of the city's government for the first time. Ever since it started to grow beyond the Queen St valley, Auckland has been partitioned, first as road districts, then borough councils, more recently as separate "cities" of Manukau, North Shore, Waitakere and Auckland (isthmus).
The divisions have no doubt contributed to the centrifugal forces of
climate, coastline and cars, creating a city that has seemed to outsiders to be nothing more than a collection of suburbs.
A united city will have the resources to restore the centre. It will inherit plans for a public transport network that radiates from the city centre, and designs for the central city waterfront that promise to make the most of this neglected jewel. The mayor to be elected by all of Auckland, an unrivalled council, will have the task of building on the past to fashion a city that is even better.
History cannot answer every question, it can only tell us about ourselves.
We started this story with the observation that many of us are migrants.
Auckland is our chosen home, a place with attractions and magnetism
so obvious it seems superfluous to say so. This story is for Auckland, not for those who resent its appeal. It is our story, ours to discuss, enjoy, remember and keep.