30 June 2013

Ans Westra: Wellington 1976

Recently I was delighted to secure a second-hand New Zealand book I'd never seen before, in amongst the buck-a-head collection at Thorndon Antiques across from the supermarket. The photographic collection Wellington: City Alive combines the imagery of the renowned Dutch-born New Zealand photographer Ans Westra - famed for her long career including the then-controversial 'Washday at the pa' photo-essay for the Department of Education - with text from the writer and editor Noel Hilliard, who is perhaps best known for his 1960 novel Maori Girl and his later career in print journalism including a stint with the Listener from 1965 to 1970. While Wellington: City Alive contains plenty of images that show off the capital's photogenic side, there is also a strong sense of social realism at work, both in Westra's subject matter and Hilliard's writing. This is not a photo book for tourists; rather, it is a book that tries to get under the skin of what Wellington was really like to live in in the mid-70s. (Which is way before my time here, of course).

The images of Wellingtonians at work and play are a reminder of how remote the mid-70s are to New Zealand life in the 21st century. The elderly dressed much as they would have in the 1940s, but young people were in the thrall of long hair and afros, big beards and plenty of denim. Westra covers the events she's interested in - protest sit-ins; a man re-painting the artwork in front of the Purple Onion striptease club while a boy looks on, intrigued; workmen drilling up the surface of Grey St; striking Maori meatworkers picketing the Gear Meat Company head offices, with one striker politely obscuring the cover of his copy of Playboy magazine for the camera. Carmen makes an appearance in Vivian St, and the night-time streets of Courtenay Place gleam in the rain.

The striking topography of the capital is evoked in some traditional hilltop vistas, but Westra is adept at finding new angles to approach the subject, such as the striking industrial detail revealed in her southward views through the railyard jumble, or the cover photo of a reclining youth gazing out over a sunny city from Mount St in Kelburn. This view and many others are intriguing because so much of what was visible in 1976 has been altered as the capital grew its high-rise CBD. In many city street scenes it's hard for a recent Wellingtonian to establish their bearings because so much has been torn down, rebuilt and torn down again in the intervening three or four decades. There's a shot of a homeward-bound commuter pausing to grin for Westra at the Bunny St crossing outside the railway station, standing in front of a modest two-storey 1930s apartment in the spot where the 17-storey Asteron Centre now looms. And on the corner of Lambton Quay and Bowen St, pedestrians huddle against the rain outside Rene's Takeaways ('Drink Fanta Orange - the real, real taste of orange'). How great it would have been to have a takeaway downstairs when I worked in Bowen House! (But of course that iteration of Bowen House didn't turn up until 1990).

Below: a selection of Ans Westra's photos from Wellington: City Alive. I do not own the copyright of these images, and will take them down if the owner requests.

Back cover: The Parliament lawns. Splendid tie, that man. 

Perrett's Corner (Willis & Manners St)

Early morning quiet, Jervois Quay

Traditional lawn (cliff) mowing attire, Karori

Courtenay Place at night

Ranfurly Shield match at Athletic Park, 21 September 1974.
Wellington lost to Auckland, 13-26. But there was sunshine!

Motorway & railyards from Sar St, Wadestown. I can see my house.

Aro St, Sunday morning.

In Hilliard's text there's also a reminder of the long-running war between traffic planners and the city, when he writes about the Wellington Urban Motorway, which at the time the book was published had reached as far south as the Hawkestone St / Tinakori Rd exits but would not reach its conclusion at the Terrace Tunnel and Ghuznee St until 1978. Huge tracts of old Thorndon including the Bolton St Cemetery had been ripped up to make way for the new motorway, and more was to come:

Progress used to be the advancement of the human person. But in the view of those with power to shape Wellington's future, progress is the care and feeding, accommodation and facilitation of the motorway. Well over $100 million is being spent to set up the private car in hostile competition with an already heavily insolvent and constipated public transport system. This expenditure takes the form of a motorway that will speed the passage of cars to a city centre already so clogged that the public buses can scarcely move at peak hours. The assumption is that the best means of moving people into and around and out of the city is the private car. 
Most big cities these days try to keep cars out of them - or keep out as many as they can. In Wellington the thinking is that if you build a huge motorway - a progressive thing to do even if it takes as much as a quarter of your prime ground space to do it - everything else will just happen. More room for cars, less room for people? [...] 
Under the original grandiose plan the motorway would have disgorged its hordes into the thriving metropolises of Hataitai and Kilbirnie. What were they to do when they got there? One dared hope they might do the only logical thing and drive right on into Cook Strait. But even this hope was dashed. The scheme was modified, and modified again; and then, with a sudden flash of brilliant insight such as comes to the very great, the decision was made to abandon the project at Ghuznee Street - the very heart of the city. In the downtown area between the railway station and Courtenay Place it's already quicker to walk than to go by bus, taxi, or car. 
The biggest sufferers so far have been the historically rich area of Thorndon and one of the most pleasant parts of the inner city, the Bolton Street cemetery. So attuned are planners and engineers to the beat of the internal combustion engine, so intoxicated by the fumes, so intent on building a motorway the mere mention of which will bring car and petrol and tyre salesmen cheering to their feet, that they are desensitised to every other consideration.

It is impossible to believe that future generations will find anything good to say about this hugely boorish car-sewer.

I suppose in a way it's a small mercy that the destruction caused by building the motorway in the 1970s only went as far as Ghuznee St, but as recent events have shown, engineers will always try to get their way in the end. After the bleak, Te Aro-splitting inner-city bypass and the new Karo Drive, NZTA currently want to link the new Buckle St trench with the Mt Victoria tunnel by means of a massive graffiti-magnet flyover, thereby despoiling the entire neighbourhood around the iconic Basin Reserve test cricket ground. And if they get their way at the Basin, the next step is to rip up part of the Town Belt on the other side of the tunnel to double the width of Ruahine St. Perhaps if the huge changes to the capital since Wellington: City Alive are anything to go by, present-day Wellingtonians shouldn't expect to recognise much of their city if they live to see 2050.
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