TRAVEL: Christchurch rising

Children admire the art in a popup pallet gallery in Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Katie Spain
Children admire the art in a popup pallet gallery in Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Katie Spain

Sometimes the simplest things are the most profound. A large Band-Aid sticker pasted across an old church’s toppled facade is the first sign that things are amiss on the drive in to Christchurch. The street artist’s sensitive gesture is one of solidarity three years after an earthquake brought their city down around them. 

In the city centre the visual impact isn’t so subtle. For a first-time visitor the shock hits with gut-wrenching force. Wide, open spaces gape where iconic buildings once stood, those which withstood the earth’s tremor are boarded up, vacated or in various states of repair. The sound of machinery cuts through the air as road works continue deep beneath the earth’s surface and if you look closely, some buildings lean to the left or right, depending on where you stand. The crumbling Anglican cathedral, once a proud city landmark, is a proud but sorry sight — its future still undecided.

Three years have passed but memories of Tuesday February 22, 2011, are crystal clear. The magnitude 6.3 quake struck the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s picturesque region at 12.51pm, taking 185 human lives with it. Previously, on September 4, 2010, a magnitude 7.1 hit and weakened the city’s buildings and infrastructure. The damage caused six months later was devastating. Ten seconds was all it took for a city to fall. More than half the fatalities occurred in the six-storey Canterbury Television (CTV) building which collapsed and caught fire. Today, 185 painted white chairs of all shapes and sizes sit on an adjacent block of land on the corner of Madras and Cashel Streets as a reminder of those who lost their lives.“Everyone reacted differently,” says Lord Mayor of Christchurch, Lianne Dalziel. “There is nobody who was untouched by the experience of what we’ve been through. Some have lost loved ones, some have lost their homes.”

The ‘Empty Chairs’ memorial to the victims of the earthquake in Christchurch. Picture: Greg Hefferan.

Christchurch born and bred, Lianne was elected as Mayor in October 2013. “I was terrified of being in an earthquake,” she admits of the fear she endured throughout 23 years travelling weekly to Wellington in a political role.“Then I woke up in Christchurch to the big earthquake that I was fearful of. I wasn’t expecting it to be in Christchurch.”

She pauses.

“The thing is I’m not frightened of earthquakes anymore. People talk about resilience and say that ‘you’re so resilient to contend with this all the time’ but what they mean is ‘stock’. We’re of good, strong stock here in Canterbury … that’s how we’re born and bred.

“People will be shocked by how much has been lost but the damage is localised. The hillside suburbs are the ones that have been affected the most — the rest of the city you wouldn’t really feel like much has happened.”

The shadow of a cross is cast on an adjacent rooftop in front of the Christchurch Cathedral as it undergoes repairs. Photographer: Brendon O’Hagan/Bloomberg

The CBD remains a sobering sight. I passed through Christchurch in May 2013, a first-timer from Adelaide with five days to spare and a desire to explore our sister city, a relationship formalised in 1972 with the intention of building trade and tourism links. Back then the cities were strikingly similar in look and feel.The closest a South Australian can get to visualising the devastation is to picture Rundle Mall and Rundle Street as rubble. Can you see it? I could … until a three-hour Christchurch Sightseeing Tour revealed a reality far beyond my wild imagination.

“The first happened at 4.35am in the morning,” said our guide. “In my apartment it sounded like 10 trains were going to go through the apartment and the whole place started to violent shake for 45 seconds, although it felt like half an hour to me.

“On the right hand side above your head the police building is on a lean. The police have left the building — like Elvis — but they hadn’t occupied the top few floors for some time. I prefer not to look at it as we go past … car parking used to be a premium in Christchurch but obviously there’s plenty of room for cars now unfortunately.”

Approximately 1700 buildings have been demolished or partly demolished in the CBD since 2011.

“Out to the east there are 10,000 dwellings that have to come down. The land out there will cost too much to rehabilitate, so it will become large green spaces. The people have no option but to take the insurance on their dwelling and the government is stepping up to offer the land value, since the land is not insured.

“They can take that money and move to the other side of the city, New Zealand or anywhere else. The problem is the value of the land on that side of the city is $80,000, but over the other side it might be $200,000 so they’ll come up a wee bit short.”

On the outskirts of town shipping containers piled with rocks line roads continue to protect passing cars from falling boulders and earth. On the coast houses teeter on cliff faces, many beyond repair and deserted.

“There is a bit of disconnect between the CBD and the rest of the city and also a real difference depending on where you live,” explains the Lord Mayor. “If you live in the Port Hills then your property is very damaged and the land is subject to certain risk factors like rock falls or cliff collapses and land stability issues. So you can be in a very different place to somebody who is in a very secure part of the city that wasn’t so badly hit. People over in the Eastern suburbs still don’t know what time frame (for repairs) they’re going to be operating under.”

Performer Sam Wills, aka The Boy With Tape on His Face was preparing for his show at Adelaide Fringe when news of the earthquake reached him through social media.

“I remember sitting in the apartment in Adelaide when it happened,” he recalls. “It was a case of just getting online and finding out as much as we could, trying to track down my parents (back in New Brighton) to make sure they were okay because the phone lines were jammed. It was crazy … I got second-hand information from friends that told me my parents were okay.”

Public gardens in Christchurch shopping mall are part of efforts to improve the CBD. Photo: Katie Spain
Public gardens in Christchurch shopping mall are part of efforts to improve the CBD. Photo: Katie Spain

Sam and his wife, cabaret performer Lili la Scala, felt helpless and reacted the only way they knew how; by hitting the stage in a fundraiser at Adelaide Fringe venue The Garden of Unearthly Delights.

“I grew up in Dunedin but I consider Christchurch home because that’s where I really started performing. All of my friends and family now live in Christchurch … Christchurch and Adelaide are really similar. The people are very similar too,” he says.

In October 2013 Statistics New Zealand migration figures were released showing net gain of about 3900 people to the Canterbury region for the year to September. It was the first sign of population growth after two years of decline.

“There was a mass exodus out of town,” says Sam. I’ve got friends who relocated to Spain, my brother, after three years is finally making the move to Nelson because they’ve had enough of it.”

Sam and Lili are now based in the UK but visited Sam’s family in Christchurch three weeks ago.

“My parents are still fixing their house up,” he says. “It’s really strange when you go out to some of those suburbs … in New Brighton and a lot of the houses out there have been bulldozed so there’s just the lots.

“A year ago they were dust bowls but not they’re overgrown with grass and so there’s this really green landscape coming in which is really odd and a bit of an ‘apocalyptic wasteland’ kind of place,” he says.

“You walk down the high street and there’s still shops with torn down fronts and signs up saying ‘no entry’.

Even driving around you don’t realise how much you rely on landmarks rather than roads. It’s weird driving around thinking ‘I have no idea what corner I’m on because I’m used to seeing particular churches or buildings that aren’t there anymore’.

And there’s so many road works that every time you go out you’re navigating a different route. “It’s now a difficult place to be. There’s non-stop roadworks going on in some parts of town — other parts are completely fine.”

He pauses, thoughtful.

“But it’s an interesting city now in the sense that most places don’t usually get the chance to rebuild an entire city so they’ve got an amazing opportunity. It’s a huge undertaking from the council’s point of view. It’s that non-stop, in your face reminder as you’re walking around the city … you’re constantly seeing a lot of car parking and a lot of damage. It does take its toll on people.”

Lord Mayor Dalziel admits the three-year mark can be a very difficult time for residents.

“I’m very mindful of that in terms of talking about where we are and where we want to be. Three years is often also a bit of a turning point. I think that is where Christchurch is at the moment — at a turning point.

“We’ve demolished most of the buildings that need to be demolished in the CBD so the focus very much in that area now is getting the projects that have been signed off underway. So the private businesses and developers can get on with the work that they’ve got planned. So I think there’s going to be a real, concerted effort this year to get those projects off the ground.”

Gap Filler Summer Pallet Pavilion. Photo by Maja Moritz

There’s certainly no shortage of projects in the works. A stroll through the city reveals creative innovation in the most unlikely of places.A ‘Pallet Pavilion’ built on a vacant lot (formerly the Crowne Plaza Hotel) is used to host artisan markets and music concerts. Street art, a public Dance-O-Mat (powered by a coin-slot washing machine), cycle powered cinemas, free Wi-Fi throughout the CBD, mobile book exchanges and community bike sheds make for a buzz that has turned heads worldwide.

In place of the old shopping precinct a Re: START mall made of shipping crates stands vibrant and proud while a temporary cardboard cathedral by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban attracts its own fair share of attention.

Tours and a Quake City museum dedicated to the earthquakes provide insight into the earthquake experience and what lies ahead for this unique city.

It is an intriguing place to be and the wit for which New Zealanders are known permeates every quirky corner.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Lonely Planet named Christchurch as a must-see city in 2013 and in January 2014 the New York Times rated the city as the world’s second-best place to visit this year.

“I think that both Lonely Planet and the New York Times were struck by what we were,” says the Lord Mayor. “The transitional, the different, the edgy, the completely new and the way that emergent groups are coming to the fore and saying ‘look, there’s an empty space here … we can do something really interesting with it’.”

Dance-O-Mat, Christchurch. Photo by Trent Hiles

Groups and projects such as such as Greening The Rubble (‘relocatable park’), Life In Vacant Spaces and Gap Filler are among the forces driving innovation.“Coralie Winn from Adelaide is at the forefront of the Gap Filler project,” says the Lord Mayor. “She has spoken at TEDx events and really inspired so many people to think about what they can do.”

Ministry of Awesome (a group of young people dedicated to activating change) and EPIC (the Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus) is a two stage process to create a world class campus for innovative Canterbury companies in the heart of Christchurch’s rebuilt CBD.

Stage 1 opened in September 2012 and comprises a single building facility housing 20 companies and 300 staff.

Think Differently Book Exchange, Christchurch. Pic by Ross Becker.

“We’ve got all these other projects that are coming out of left-field,” says the Lord Mayor. “It’s almost like there are a group of people out there who have blossomed in the wake of a disaster. Instead of saying oh, well we couldn’t really do that it’s just an absolute ‘can do attitude’.”An advocate of hard work and positivity the city’s leader believes that stretch targets are important for morale and progress.

On February 14 the ICC International Cricket World Cup ‘365 Day Countdown’ was launched. “The first game of the cricket world cup will be held here in Christchurch on the 14th of February 2015,” she says.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for this city.”

Will they be ready?

“We’ve got no choice but to be ready — it’s important to have something to aim for.”

In the meantime, visitors are encouraged to explore the city.

“For people who want to see where we’re starting from and are intrigued by what happens in that transitional stage, absolutely — come and have a look. It’s really, really exciting.”

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