Saturday, 27 April 2013

Christchurch - a city with a broken heart but a fighting spirit

Demolition and bulldozers everywhere
In September 2010 Christchurch, New Zealand's second most populous city, was shaken by a magnitude 7.1 eathquake.  Although it was a sizable shake and there was damage to many buildings no one was killed and repairs to affected buildings began in earnest.  Nobody, however, expected 
the second deadly earthquake which occurred in February 2011 killing 185 people, and causing widespread devastation across the city and suburbs. Many of the city's buildings, already weakened by the first earthquake, were unable to withstand a second big shake.  The disaster was the second deadliest in New Zealand's history, after the Hawkes Bay earthquake of 1931 when 256 people were killed.

What was once a thriving city centre
I live in Auckland, in the North Island of New Zealand, and my knowledge of the earthquake came from what I had seen on TV and read in the papers.  We Aucklanders knew it was major and many of us did our bit to assist through donations and support for the people of Christchurch. But TV and newspapers cannot give the full picture so it was with shock and amazement that I saw Christchurch first hand last week.  I simply had no idea how big a disaster had occurred.  Christchurch is a city I had visited often, both for work and to visit friends and family. It was a city I was fond of and where I had favourite places to stay and cafes to frequent.....they are all gone.  The inner city just does not exist anymore. There are a few multi storied buildings still standing but many of them are due for demolition soon.

The beautiful old Theatre Royal (1907)with its facade propped up in the hope that
 it may be saved and a new theatre built behind it

 When I arrived at the new temporary bus station in the centre of the city I was completely disorientated.  There were no landmarks I could recognise and I felt completely lost.  With the help of a charming old man, a long term resident, I eventually found my accommodation, having to walk a long and circuitous route due to blocked off Red Zone areas (too dangerous to enter).

Christchurch Cathedral, the heart of the city. The damage is worse than it looks.
The hotel behind it is due for demolition
A once trendy mall off Cathedral Square now derelict and overgrown
One day I took a specially licensed tour of the Red Zone and just could not fathom how much has been lost.  Christchurch had an iconic Cathedral, the centre point of the city, which is now in ruins and the subject of a fierce debate as to whether it should be restored or demolished.  There is little else left in Cathedral Square, the heart of the city.  All the main shopping streets are gone and vast areas of the city are either bull dozed waste land or buildings in the throes of demolition.  I walked through some suburbs and saw a lot of damage to houses.  At least 100,000 homes were damaged in the quake and it is estimated 10,000 of those will be demolished.  The liquefaction caused by the quake was estimated at 400,000 tons which bubbled up around and invaded homes and had to be laboriously shoveled out. As with many a disaster it brought out the best in people and volunteer groups of students and farmers quickly arrived to offer help.

Sad sign on a damaged shop

Poignant installation art remembering the 185 killed

Christ College , Christchurch
Fortunately some of Christchurch's best loved old stone buildings have survived around the fringe of the inner city.  The much loved Arts Centre is badly damaged but will be restored and Christ College, the more English than English boy's college, suffered relatively minor damage and has been repaired

 The earthquake has taken a huge toll on the health and well being of the local residents.  It is heartening, therefore, to see signs of recovery and clever morale boosting projects popping up around the city.  I was deeply impressed by the resilience of so many and the thought and creativity that has gone into cheering people up in incredibly difficult times.  I strolled past a big corporate event being held in a bulldozed uneven carpark.  Prior to the earthquake it would, no doubt, have been held somewhere swanky and upmarket....but there is nowhere like that left.  Those attending the event seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I guess, for them, this is just how things are at the moment.

Put $2 in the converted washing machine
and dance your cares away - Christchurch
A library for all to use outside someone's house

Furniture made from grass and painted daisies to brighten up the city

The funky and popular container mall
Christchurch's  old, well established, flag ship department store, Ballantynes, is in the heart of the city.  It was damaged in the quake, but not badly, and was quickly restored and renovated. It was the only shop left in the city centre.  Stepping inside it it is as if the earthquake never happened.  It is a beautiful store with a lovely cafe and must be a great boost for the locals. The main shopping street has been completely cleared and in its place is a smart trendy container mall consisting of stacked shipping containers painted in bright cheerful colours which house a number of eateries, shops and even a bank.  It is attractive and fun and although it is a temporary measure it doesn't feel that way.

Signs of recovery - the repaired New Regent Street opened for business late April
It is a strange thing to say but I really enjoyed my time in Christchurch.  I felt sad for the people of the city and
shocked at what I saw but also impressed by the air of positivity and the feeling that life and people are what is important, not bricks and mortar.   A quote I heard at the graduation ceremony I was in Christchurch to attend sums it up well : "The best of things happen if you make the best of things that happen"