Palmerston North — the city that keeps coming up smelling of roses

Professor Margaret Tennant looks back on 50 years of change in the city





Filet mignon and Hawaiian ham steak at the Steeple, fine dining at Monties; debutant balls, Kiddies Corner with Wendy and Harry the hedgehog. New celebrations: Ma¯ ori Language Day led by Ma¯ori Studies at Massey, and International Women’s Day promoted by the Palmerston North Women’s Liberation Group. Conflict over the need for a new Fitzherbert bridge; outrage at Massey students’ Chaff newspaper and its four-page supplement on growing and processing cannabis; gripes about the mayoral honorarium, bus drivers who played their radios too loud, and inadequate hems on pyjama pockets. The first issues of the Guardian in mid-1972 provide an insight into what exercised Palmerstonians at the time. At least one correspondent thought the city an “overgrown cow town”. Others, like About People columnist Delia Taylor, celebrated its growing cosmopolitanism, exemplified by the cross-section of people she observed enjoying a glass of wine and good food (possibly even a Hawaiian steak!) at the Steeple. The Guardian was itself a marker of change. Its directors promoted it as a fresh voice, filling a lamentable gap in a restricted field, especially since the demise of the Manawatu¯ Times in April 1962. The Guardian was to be “frank, outspoken, fearless and sincere in presenting readers with opinions normally frowned upon by many newspapers with strict (and restrictive) editorial practices”. There was an implicit criticism of the Manawatu¯ Standard here. Palmerston North had just celebrated its centennial. At the end of this year-long extravaganza, Mayor Des Black deemed the city to be moving from adolescence to maturity, and into a second phase of city planning and acceptance of culture. The dirty, smelly, dangerous railway line through the middle of the city had gone. Massey as a full university had well and truly arrived, its staff and students increasingly visible, its building programme an important boost to the economy. Changing of the guard There was a shift in the power structures of the city. In 1972 an old elite was waning, and the city had elected its first Ma¯ori councillor (Sam M¯ıhaere) and its first female councillor (Julia Wallace) in the 1960s. But in 1972 Joyce Dunmore was a solitary female voice on the city council. The Guardian chronicled her struggles, and in a July issue a letter noted how she was passed over for appointment as council representative on the local catchment board. Mrs Dunmore would have welcomed the council’s current gender balance with seven of 16 positions now held by women. Vivienne Broughton (Porzsolt), the 1972 spokesperson for Palmerston North Women’s Liberation, might have pointed out that women are still less than half the council’s membership. What further changes did the Guardian stand watch over during the 50 years from its establishment? The city grew, both in terms of population (though not as much as had been projected), and in area. It had some 52,000 residents in 1971, rising to 90,000 in the present. Totals were boosted, in part, by the expansion of the city boundaries and inclusion of satellite townships such as Ashhurst, Linton and Turitea, and in 2012, Longburn and Bunnythorpe. What it means to be a Palmerstonian in 2022 is complicated by other subsets of identity, geographical and social. When the Guardian publicised Ma¯ ori Language Day in September 1972 it was referencing another important development. The proportion of the city’s population identifying as Ma¯ori had already increased from 0.7 per cent of the population in 1945 to around 7 per cent in 1971. By 2018 the figure was 18.7 per cent, slightly higher than the national average. In 1972 the Guardian’s editor urged the retention of te reo, noting that “the Maori language is the key to a body of knowledge unique to New Zealand. How many New Zealanders understand the meaning of the place names they so casually mispronounce, or see any thought patterns of their neighbours and fellow nationals?”. He would surely have applauded the later emergence in the city of several kohanga reo, Ma¯ori immersion schools, and a wa¯nanga. Even the Guardian tended to write of Ma¯ ori as a relatively homogeneous group in the 1970s. Since then, the greater recognition of iwi and of Rangita¯ne as mana whenua and participating partner in the city’s wellbeing has been another welcome development. Along with this, Palmerston North has reconnected with the Manawatu¯ River in ways not anticipated in 1972. Then it was perceived as an obstacle to be bridged, a flood threat and, in certain parts, a dumping ground. Fifty years later it has become a recreational asset, enhanced by our wonderful He Ara Kotahi bridge and walkway. Interpretive panels tell the stories of mana whenua, and cyclists and walkers are connected to another important city institution, Linton Military Camp, now officially within the city boundary. Broader arts horizons When Mayor Des Black referred to “culture” at the end of the centennial year, he meant the arts. Palmerston North had long had a strong music scene. Its first art gallery had opened in 1959, and a small public museum in 1971, both in repurposed houses. There was a general sense that Palmerston North lacked the strong cultural infrastructure expected of a “real” city. Over the next 50 years much of this changed, with the opening of Centrepoint Theatre in 1974, a purpose-built art gallery in 1977, the Globe Theatre in 1982 and the Science Centre and Manawatu¯ Museum (now Te Manawa) in 1994. The Regent Theatre, an important heritage building, was saved from demolition, refurbished, and reopened to considerable acclaim in 1998. (Other linchpin heritage buildings, the old post office, the T&G (Ansett) building and All Saints Church are now even more in peril than they were in 1972.) In 2022 there is a more varied sense of what “the arts” mean, as cultural facilities host the creative expression of Ma¯ori, migrant and minority groups alongside other performers and artists. Kapa haka competitions had certainly been around in the 1970s, and various nationalities performed during the 1971 centennial — Greek, Chinese, Indian. The scene is more vibrant than in the past, a reflection of the city’s growing diversity, including its role in refugee resettlement. The Festival of Cultures, now more than 20 years old, symbolises this change. Economically, Palmerston North has had a steadier trajectory than many urban centres over the past 50 years. It is helped by its varied economy which continues to provide a hedge against decline in any one sector. The service sector has grown in importance since the 1970s, especially health and education, but these areas are now being rivalled by logistics. The manufacturing sector has taken a major hit. It provided employment for more than 20 per cent of the city’s workforce in the 1970s, and closer to 6-7 per cent in recent years. Some major industries like the Longburn Freezing Works, Glaxo, Sanitarium, Coachwork International and Sunbeam /Ralta have long gone. In the 1980s and 1990s economic decision-making favoured large centres over the provinces and international competitors over New Zealand manufacturers. But new industries have emerged. Firms such as Noske Kaeser Rail and Vehicle are taking advantage of Palmerston North’s reputation for a productive and innovative workforce, and for proximity to quality health and education services. In 1972 Palmerston North marketed itself, rather nonspecifically, as the City of Roses. After trying out other labels (Heartland Manawatu, Knowledge City), it now promotes its small-city benefits and big-city ambition. As larger cities throughout the world show signs of becoming unaffordable and dysfunctional, growth is no longer a virtue in itself. There is merit in being a good place for families while anticipating dynamic futures. Dine and dance at the Southern Cross and the Steeple is no longer a marker of Palmerstonians’ social sophistication. The Guardian no longer sends out photographers to record them enjoying the experience. But for a historian like me, the newspaper’s record of community achievements, grumbles and interactions, and even the paper’s advertisements, remain a touchstone of the local — in all its variety, creativity and eccentricity. * Until she retired, Margaret Tennant was Professor of History at Massey University. She co-edited City at the Centre: A History of Palmerston North.