COMMENT: By Peter Curson
Another year, another pilgrimage home across the ditch. Another chance to walk familiar streets, catch up with old valued friends and relatives, to savour the wonderful interplay of land and sea and explore Auckland's inner suburbs.
For many years, I have always returned home and then written about my reactions to what I have found. Largely, I have been disappointed, even appalled, by what I have discovered about Auckland's downtown area.
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Ten years ago I wrote two pieces for the Herald on the "failed charms" and depressing nature of downtown Auckland. At that time, I expressed my disappointment with what had happened to the city centre. I also pleaded for High St and parts of Queen St to be returned to the people and made pedestrian malls. All my pleas, and there were many, fell on deaf ears and no one seemed to care.
Recently I made my way along Queen St and adjacent streets again and was moved by what I saw. Overall the Central Business District leaves much to be desired.
Once, Auckland's CBD was regarded as one of the best, if not the best, in the country. Now, leaving aside the rail project, it is an absolute shambles. Queen St looks tired and neglected and is now littered with small cheap shops - in my view, Smith and Caughey's and the Civic remain the few remnants of our past heritage. Otherwise, where are the bookshops and newsagents, the classic department stores and the cinemas, apart from those clustered above the Civic?
Okay, I know many people no longer read books or newspapers in the old style, rather relying on their iPad or laptop, and that people now do much of their shopping in suburban shopping plazas with their coffee shops, restaurants and grog shops.
Overall the suburban mall now reigns supreme and the city centre is largely left to workers, people living in close by apartments (of which there are now many) and visitors arriving by ship.
In essence, Auckland's CBD is now a motley collection of poor ill-fitting bits and pieces totally hiding the late Victorian, Edwardian and 1920s splendour that once characterised Auckland's centre. The close-by suburban centres of Parnell, Newmarket and Ponsonby are not much better and have lost much of their distinctiveness and verve.
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One or two remnants of the past continue to survive in the city, such as Marbecks in the Imperial Arcade, but little else. The allure I once felt for Queen St with its long history of top shops has evaporated. Our downtown history has been discarded, with many of Auckland's old beautiful buildings disappearing.
A few oases of hope continue to survive such as the waterfront, Albert Park, Sky Tower and the Britomart.
And what about the adjacent streets like High St, which remains a jumble of parked and passing cars and, even here, the bookshop has disappeared. (For the record, Unity Books remains on High St and has expanded with a children's outlet, Little Unity).
There are a host of other things that makes Auckland less than it once was. Take the TV news, for example. To my mind, TVNZ coverage leaves much to be desired. Compared with Australia, the news coverage, both local and international is poor and interrupted by advertisements and many of the newsreaders lack verve, panache and personality, relying on jokes and asides to carry them through.
Auckland's road system offers much frustration. Traffic is cluttered, slow moving and roads dominated by huge double-deck buses and merging traffic. Traffic lights are terrible insofar as they seem to take four times as long as those in Sydney to change, parking is almost impossible and, where available, expensive.
On the plus side, we found a really great restaurant in Parnell and Auckland International Airport must rank among the best for service.
And finally, why are things so expensive? Is it a reflection of a small country struggling to survive? Books, food and wine, parking fees, coffee and snacks are twice the price of what can be found in Sydney. Wine, in particular, is amazingly expensive - bottles of NZ sauvignon blanc, for example, being twice the cost of what can be acquired in Australia.
Overall, I value and treasure my links to my homeland and, outside the CBD, still see many aspects that I hold in high esteem. Takapuna and Milford still retain some of that, although Devonport is now a shade of what it once was. Matakana and Warkworth also hold much interest, as do parts of the western suburbs where I grew up and went to school.
• Peter Curson, born in Auckland, is Emeritus Professor of Population & Health at Macquarie University and Honorary Professor of Population and Security at the University of Sydney.
Editor's note: This article has been updated for clarity - such as the continued existence of Unity Books - following feedback.