Welcome to Auckland, Southern California

To me Auckland never had the same romantic pull as a Paris, Rome, Istanbul, or New York. Even its pronunciation seems like something is in the midst of being spit out. With Paris, Rome or Istanbul, and especially New York, the city’s attitude is exactly the type that triggers passion—complete indifference to your unconditional love. Auckland never promises to win your love, but it does live on your polite affection.

Auckland’s downtown is remarkably uninteresting. It has that bland, banal quality that you might expect would result if you told someone to build as unenthusiastically as possible a commercial center. Queen Street is the main drag and on it there are many office buildings of the shape, color, and type found in the contemporary setting of a SimCity game. The buildings have the customary first floor shops meant to cater to label seekers and conglomerate-friendly patrons. While walking, I immediately noticed that there are few Kiwis. Passels of Asian students and collectives of German and French backpackers who, as a rule, have two backpacks sandwiching their torsos, appear to constitute the majority. The truth surrounding this observation is no accident. Here it’s common knowledge that Auckland’s soul and aesthetic is spread across its many suburbs.

An acquaintance drove me through one, Ponsoby, which is an affluent  neighborhood immediately west of Auckland City. Ponsoby is a stellar archetype for what I had imagined Auckland would be. It has a ubiquity of coffee shops, bistros with lines out front filled with people wearing felt hats and pull-on boots, and place names with the adorable linguistic tics of a commonwealth country, e.g. “The Food Room” and “Bird on a Wire” (a chicken rotisserie brasserie).

I wound up staying not in Ponsoby but in Mt. Eden, a southern suburb that keeps with my overall impression of Auckland, which is that it is a temperate version of a southern California city. I know that my Auckland to SoCal comparisons will erode, since much separates them besides an ocean. But in any trip’s initial stages I find myself naturally putting new environs into a known context. It’s a precursor to acclimation whereby I begin a process that completely sheds associations so that the newest environment stands on its own.

Auckland’s topography mimics, or at least accentuates, the fluted cumulus that have covered it since I arrived; the land is an isthmus and it breaks into salt water bays and shallow teal inlets the way clouds break to show sky, and the city’s forestry and volcanic geology is variegated in both texture and green color. Another thing to note is that Auckland’s air smells immaculate. It’s noticeable while stepping from the airport’s arrival terminal and tempting to mention at least once a day. The air is sharp and, I know this sounds stupid, light. If you’ve breathed in the viscous soup of a New York City August day then you know that air can have a shape. It can possess weight enough to press you into your mattress. Yoke your shoulders. Auckland air lifts you. It downright flutters.

Obviously the air is a marked difference from a California city where car exhaust and fog combine to lengthen dictionaries. But much like California cities, Auckland’s clustered suburbs suffer from short-sided urban planning.

Auckland is New Zealand’s only 1M+ city and its five decade population growth is just short of being exponential. (In fact the combined populations of the next fourteen largest New Zealand cities is barely higher than Auckland’s 1,495,000.) Yet it doesn’t have the infrastructure that a relatively compact 1M+ city should have. Auckland is simply a city that grew too fast and tried to put on its old britches. Kiwis make the accompanying pain that this has caused a point of emphasis. Homes are now too expensive for dual-income families. Affordable suburbs are too far. But easily the nastiest cumulative result is rush hours that result in, as an Auckland resident put it, “terrrrible” traffic.

Aucklanders discuss traffic and traffic patterns with the same perspicacity as do Angelinos and San Diegans. If you travel between 8:00 and 10:00 or 17:00 and 19:00, “Was the traffic bad?” generally precedes, or at least comes shortly after, “How are you?” Note too that the question is “was the traffic bad?” not “how was the traffic?” Traffic is the expectation, so what’s offered is merely a question of degree. I’ve either been fortunate with my timing or immunized by eighteen years of San Diego traffic, but traffic has yet to jam on me. I do notice that it takes a frustratingly long time to navigate to nearby suburbs. (In fairness you do see the effects of the government’s tardy amelioration attempts: A highway to take drivers directly downtown is under construction and the main transportation hub is in the process of being expanded.)

It is this through-the-bus-window style of exploration that makes me say Auckland resembles a California city. Many homes are bungalow-ed in the California style—one story affairs with slightly sloped roofs and straight forward floor plans. There are small purlieus overgrown with ferns and jasmine and various other florae that I have yet to learn. Bungalows, a Kiwi architect explained, are now heirlooms marked for preservation. Bay Villas are the more common home type. Absent a Google image search the best way to picture a Bay Villa is to imagine a Victorian home designed by someone who had a vague idea of what a Victorian home is supposed to look like and who is supremely lazy: There is the semi-intricate wood lattice work around its porch and columns, the windows are of the bay variety, and there are just one or two gables and almost always a single red-brick chimney, but it falls short of achieving the mystifying, intricate, and head turning aesthetic of a true Victorian. A home like this, surrounded with broad leafed plants, seems like a gift. One of the small ones under the tree that are hard edged and heavy, that you don’t quite see while you are going for a large one in glittery packaging. But after you open it and have it for a week, you realize it was the best gift of the batch.

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