Post-war living standards were high and so were the expectations of new homeowners.
Welcome to suburbia
Shirley Redpath was aged 11 in 1949, when her family moved into the brand new suburb of Naenae. Her first impression of the neighbourhood was of ‘shock and disbelief, hardly a tree, shrub, plant, lawn in sight’. However, when she and her two younger siblings went inside their new state house in Seddon Street, they found it ‘welcoming, modern, attractive, with a large windowed sun porch’. The children left their shoes at the front door and ran excitedly through their new home. ‘Light streamed through the curtainless windows, giving a feel of lightness and airiness.’1
During the 1950s the populations of rural towns shrank as their residents flocked to find work in fast-growing industries such as motor-vehicle assembly. To accommodate them, suburbs continued to expand on the edges of major cities. Housing advances from the State Advances Corporation and cheap government loans enabled thousands of low-income people to buy their first homes in these areas. At Ōtara and Māngere in South Auckland, and in the Hutt Valley and at Porirua north of Wellington, very large suburbs made up of a mix of state and private housing were built. These suburbs often spread over large areas of fertile agricultural and market-garden land. The Hutt Valley was a market-garden area until large-scale state housing in the 1940s replaced the gardens, which were shifted north to Ōtaki.
Problems in the suburbs
The first New Zealand suburbs were considered the most desirable places in the country to live. They represented society’s victory over the problem of inner-city slum housing and almost everyone’s ambition was to move to the suburbs to lead a better life. By the 1970s, however, many new suburbs had come to be seen as boring and depressing places to live. Part of the problem was the lack of community facilities. After the Second World War the urgency of the housing shortage meant that nearly all development funding went into building houses, and little attention was paid to supplying the new housing estates with community facilities or public transport. Planners assumed that residents would have their own cars, and those who did not often faced a long walk to the nearest bus or train route. Geographer Kenneth Cumberland was one of the first to warn against this trend when in 1955 he condemned the ‘cult of the quarter acre’. ‘Subsidised housing sprawls over the countryside,’ he wrote, ‘inadequately roaded, sewered and lighted and unprovided with community services.’2
The Māori migration
In this period large numbers of Māori migrated from rural areas to cities, while shortages of unskilled labour encouraged many Pacific Islanders to emigrate to New Zealand. Government policy gave poor and young families first priority for state houses, and from the 1970s the new state-house suburbs were made up mainly of young, Polynesian and low-income people. The small three-bedroom houses were not well suited to large Māori and Pacific Island families or to major extended-family events such as tangi (funerals). With no community buildings available, tangi had to be held in private homes or in the garage. Concentrating Māori and Polynesian people into low-income suburbs caused a range of social problems and many of the Pākehā residents moved out as soon as possible. In 1966 Pākehā made up 62% of the population of Ōtara. In 2006 only 15% were Pākehā. They were outnumbered by Māori and more than half the suburb’s total population was of Pacific Island descent.
New Zealand had a very high birth rate in the 1950s and on fine days thousands of suburban backyards displayed rotary clotheslines draped with cloth nappies blowing in the breeze. Such suburbs were given the light-hearted nickname of Nappy Valley.
In 1954 the Hutt Valley was the scene of a national sex scandal involving local teenagers and older people they had met in milk bars. Milk bars were frequented by bodgies – males who often rode motorbikes and wore tight ‘stovepipe’ trousers. The more violent carried weapons such as sharpened bicycle chains and razorblades hidden in their clothes. Their girlfriends, the widgies, wore their hair in ponytails and typically dressed in ‘a black sweater, a shapeless skirt with a slit at the hem and a rope of (obviously) artificial pearls’.3
From the late 1950s some women began to question their role as housewives and mothers. Suburban neurosis – the idea that women feel isolated, bored and unfulfilled in the suburbs – gained widespread attention in the 1960s and 1970s. A 1968 article in Thursday magazine suggested that the condition was ‘filling our mental hospitals with depressed young women’.4