Most of us have grown up where at the end of the working week, you head down to your town’s main street and hang out.
What will become of our towns and cities without it?
There are still a few centres in New Zealand where main streets still work, like Thames for their redoubtable Saturday morning market, or on a city scale, Dunedin’s George Street, or indeed the refreshed Napier central network.
And others such as Invercargill will by 2022 recover from their comprehensive city centre reconstruction.
But they are now the exception.
A confluence of factors is removing that downtown experience from everyday life – and it’s hard to see it coming back.
Could Queen Street survive the closure of Smith and Caughey’s, just as the impending closure of David Jones is threatening central Wellington?
Promotional organisations such as Auckland’s Heart of the City work assiduously to bring more of that life back.
If you’ve been to the cinema in the last year, you are an increasingly rare being. Those theatres were marginal enterprises for malls given their floorplate scale, but they pulled in couples and families for dinner and shopping around it. They were a key part of retail viability for all main streets. Covid19 has been a big bang on nails into that coffin. Even those big cinema events like the latest James Bond
are now so delayed that they will be the last of a final breed of tentpole wonders released to theatres before the home versions: their downtown impact is now very muted.
This shifting of activity from the Queen Street axis to the waterfront axis is promoted by events that recolonise other spaces, such as this weekend’s ever-popular Round the Bays run, and next weekend’s great Chinese Lantern Festival, and of course the America’s Cup this weekend, which covers not Queen Street but the Wynyard Quarter precinct.
So it’s not as if the crowds aren’t there to be attracted for major events.
But all that civic boosterism is struggling against big commercial decisions such as the closure of David Jones in Wellington, and H&J Smith in the south.
Last evening, at what will shortly become New Zealand’s last reasonably high end department store, Smith and Caughey’s, I went to their sale.
What used to be a crowded and pretty competitive event was fairly easygoing, the piles of merchandise didn’t go down, and even the perfume sale wasn’t the usual heady scrum.
The effects of major construction in Auckland’s CBD have now gone on longer than World War One, and businesses have felt that hit for years.
Plans to remove cars from Auckland’s Queen Street are due to go into effect in just a few months.
Not unreasonably, advocacy groups like GreaterAuckland celebrate and support this.
And there are also plans to shut traffic out of Wellington’s main CBD streets, with pretty strong public approval.
People do not give up the potential of their CBD experience; they join groups and fight to improve it. And the radiating success of Cuba Street has since 1969 proved to be the most successful model that was never really advanced.
Except that, shutting cars down in one place means the malls in the suburbs with their free carparking gain a massive competitive advantage over the CBD.<
The same applies to that fighting city Christchurch, rebuilt once physically after the earthquakes and rebuilt spiritually after the massacre. But the crowds aren’t coming back. They have some exceptional bars if you’re in town and don’t need to drive home, such as the wayyyy-cool Austin Club.
Christchurch’s centre is still there held up with public services like courts and council and library and art gallery, and cool little things like the antique trams, but it is diminished.
In many of our cities and towns, civic authorities have poured billions and billions into physical regeneration.
But that regenerative spark is now found only with the big civic events.
Will we really miss Friday night down town? What is this melancholia?
Perhaps our main cities are too big for a single civic promenade, and that multicellular world of mall dominance is just the way it is.
Maybe we shouldn’t care that capitalism is just spatially evolving, landlords will survive fine, civic and retail nostalgia is tired futility, and for most of us online shopping is simply more precise and efficient.
I suspect what we are losing is greater than what we are gaining.