Hard News by Russell Brown


The Golden Mile

A discussion of Auckland councillor Cameron Brewer's views on the retail character of Queen Street has sprung up, somewhat incongruously, at the bottom of a thread about technology and national security. And even though Brewer's comments are as much a function of his pressing need to draw attention to himself -- it's a bad week for Cameron when he's not in the Herald -- I think it's a discussion that deserves its own place.

To catch up: the connection with the earlier discussion is an ethnic one. Most of the micro-shops on New Zealand's main street are Chinese-run and you really can't talk about "shoebox retail" without being taken to imply there's something wrong with that -- especially when unnamed "retail experts" are quoted fretting that "some stores were being operated for immigration purposes."

DeepRed expressed the view that:

If Cr Brewer had his way, Queen St would probably look like just another cut-and-paste shopping mall minus the roofing. I’d have Cuba Street over that any day.

But Matthew Poole disagreed:

No, I think his vision is more like the premier shopping streets in Australian state capitals and major European shopping cities: lots of medium-to-large shops (instead of lots and lots of little shops) that sell high-value goods.

The discussion has become about some imagined racist vision that wants no small Asian retailers, which wasn’t, as far as I could tell, Brewer’s real issue. His issue is that the street has lost its position as the premier shopping street and is, instead, becoming more like the shopping strips in the likes of Otahuhu. We already have a bunch of strips like Otahuhu, all over the city, but we only have one Queen Street.

"So," responded Steve Barnes:

... we have some migrants coming over here and setting up shops, eking a living and offering the consumer unlimited variety. What would we rather have, “People coming over here and going on the dole” and an EazyBuy or a Costco every 100 mtrs along Queen Street? Like I’ve said before, I fear the corporate white guy more than the “Yellow Peril”.

"At least there are people back in the street," noted Simon Grigg:

A decade back you could roll a runaway steam engine down the footpath from top to bottom on a weekday afternoon without causing human harm.  Now it bustles along quite well. 

I tend to agree. It's a market, and if the market tends -- for various reasons -- towards micro-shops, then that's what we're going to have. The $50 million upgrade of Queen Street has not been in vain -- it was looking genuinely shabby before -- and it is what it is. I'm not sure that attempting to wrench back the upscale chain retail from Newmarket is either viable or desirable. No offence, but in a lot of ways, Newmarket sucks.

Much of the CBD action, it must be said, has been in the Britomart precinct, with its bars and restaurants and pop-up fashion retail. But that's okay -- it's a good thing that the life of the city is creeping back towards the waterfront.

Queen Street has never followed the planners' edicts. It was never meant to be the main street -- it's just that more merchants and residents chose to set up on the edge of an open sewer called the Ligar Canal than to follow the city's original, elegant east-west plan, with its spectacular concentric circles.

Update: here's a .jpg of the same map from Auckland Council Libraries' Heritage images:

Big version here.

(Acknowledgement: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 4611. And thanks to Petra Jane for spotting it!)

And I do feel bound to note that the last time I set foot in a big, fancy Queen Street store -- Smith & Caughey, to browse the cookware in its sale -- I felt very uncomfortable about being shadowed around as if I were a shoplifter. Say what you like about the shoebox shops -- they're glad to have you in the door.

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