As circumstances have prevailed, I have found myself making a new beginning in the city of Christchurch. When I arrived here over a year ago, I was shocked and a little bit dismayed at the state of my soon-to-be home city. Sixteen months on, and I am now proud to be a part of the city’s new beginnings whilst I strive through my own. It seems somewhat fitting to make a leap of faith with a new country, a new lifestyle, and a new partner in a place that is making itself new too, albeit after a much more dramatic upheaval than my own.
I arrived in New Zealand with no set plans of where I would end up, how long I’d stay, or how easily I’d get work. As I travelled round the North Island of New Zealand, another story to my life was unfolding, only this one was unplanned and unexpected. For this one was a love story. I had been in contact with an Aucklander, thanks to a mutual friend, who had moved to Christchurch prior to me arriving in the country. As time went on, our communications evolved into a meeting and a shared life in this changing city.
In September 2010, Christchurch was rocked by an earthquake which was followed by a series of aftershocks, the most devastating of which struck at 12.51pm on February 22nd 2011. Multiple buildings collapsed, trapping and killing people within, and bringing the city to its knees. Over the successive 2 years, the city has battled to restore order and business to the devastated city centre and crumbling suburbs amidst a mess of red tape, cordons, and dissatisfied people.
When I first arrived in Christchurch, it was an overcast, rainy day in February 2012, and honestly, I thought I’d made a big mistake by agreeing to live here. My tour guide and new partner, drove me round the edge of the ‘red zone’, the cordoned-off city centre, and out to the suburbs to show me the damage. I was shocked and unprepared to see the empty plots of land, the half-demolished buildings, and the abandoned houses overgrown at every turn. There were pot holes and cracks in the road all over the place, and streets that were supposed to be flat were full of uneven humps and bumps. Even the bridges were out of alignment.
Those first few months, the aftershocks were very regular and took a bit of getting used to. They varied in strength and depth, and many of the first ones were early in the morning, so I would be woken by the bed shaking gently from side to side. As time went on, I got used to the little ones, but every now and again something stronger would rock through the ground, and it was more unsettling to be sitting on the couch when the television and the balcony doors started rattling whilst the couch jerked underneath me. I haven’t experienced anything stronger than a 4.8mag aftershock, but after starting to work in the city, I regularly came across people with all sorts of stories from that day in February. Even the gentle shake created by a truck driving past was enough to set off palpitations in some people.
When I first arrived, the ‘Red Zone’ encompassed a large part of the city centre. I could see through the fences, but not very far, and having never seen the city before, I had no idea what was gone, or what I was missing out on within. I was very curious though. Looking at images on Google street view and relaying that onto what I saw in real time, didn’t help me. One of the poshest hotels in the city, the Crowne Plaza which stood domineering the corner of Durham St and Kilmore St, began to be demolished a couple of months after my arrival. Not yet having a job to go to, I spent many days at the fence line watching it being nibbled away by ‘Twinkle Toes’ the largest ‘claw’ of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. A year later, and it is hard to remember how it looked when it was entire. In its place, the large empty foot print has been converted into a quirky bar and cafe, made out of wooden palettes. At the time of writing, a large archway had just been constructed on the site too.
In August 2012, the Newstalk ZB building became the first, and to date, only building in Christchurch (and indeed New Zealand) to be brought down by implosion. After its neighbouring buildings were demolished, an auction was held for charity to win the right to press the button that set off the charges. It was a cold, grey Sunday morning, but myself and my partner joined the massive crowd that gathered to watch New Zealand history in the making. It was a proud building where it stood, but it took only seconds to slide gracefully to the ground in a pall of dust, its crumpled shell looking mournful where it lay. It was the most people I had seen in one place within the city, but amidst a quiet jabbering, the crowd dispersed afterwards into the surrounding streets like a mist.
The ‘red zone’ shrunk in little patches, each new area being filled with nosy citizens wandering in a daze through streets they no longer recognised. Many of the empty areas have become temporary car parks, and thanks to a charity project called Gap Filler, temporary art works pop up in various spaces to give colour and interest and joy to the beleaguered people of Christchurch. Where once there was a building there would appear a football pitch, or a mobile dance mat, or a sculpture, or a painting, or a square from a Monopoly board. Where once there was a business, there appears mobile cafes and takeaway trucks to offer somewhere to eat when many eateries are closed or out of reach.
Initially, there was no way to see inside the ‘red zone’ but in the winter of 2012, a tour bus was allowed exclusive access. On signing a disclaimer, it was possible to go ‘beyond the cordon’ and drive through the deserted streets of the city centre. It was eery, and strange. Many locals were on the bus with me, and I could overhear them discussing their sadness about one business or another being missing, or how they couldn’t orientate themselves without the usual landmarks or street names to guide them. Then we reached Cathedral Square, the biggest issue of contention with the rebuild. The Christchurch Cathedral is the iconic building of the city, and probably the building who’s future has caused the most debate. When I first saw it (albeit through a fence), the tower had lost its top. The second time I saw it, on the bus tour, the tower had been nearly completely pulled down. Before anything else could be done, the political debate had flared up so much, that the demolition was halted whilst the various parties fought it out. A year later, and there has been no perceivable progress. The experts can’t agree on the safety of the building, and the safety of a rebuild, and there are those traditionalists who want it restored brick by brick. Then there are those who want a tasteful replacement built that will be safer whilst still providing the city with an iconic building.
In 2013, things have progressed so much that the ‘red zone’ barely exists anymore. Most of the streets are now open to at least pedestrian access if not traffic as well. There were around 1900 buildings earmarked for demolition in the city, and now the city is a patchwork of empty ground and lonely buildings stood solitary where once it had neighbours. I can’t imagine this city in any other way, and in some little way, I feel sad that the city is to become built up again, as it is currently nice and ‘open’. Part of the plans for the rebuild involves keeping buildings capped at a 7 storey maximum, and there is to be a lot more green space created within the city limits, so I for one, hope this is enough to keep some fresh air in the place, and allow light to get into the streets below.
Every few weeks, myself and my partner take a walk round the city centre to see the progress and the changes. Some streets are so empty now, but finally, the hotels are starting to reopen and businesses are returning. Cashel Street was previously one of the main shopping precincts. Half of it is now devoid of buildings, and the other half has been transformed. Christchurch is known as the Garden City, and its two city icons were probably the Cathedral and Hagley Park. Now, the city is famous for cranes and shipping containers. Where once the skyline was dominated by tall buildings, it is now dominated by tall cranes, and in many places, shipping containers have been collected for use in all sorts of ways. Cashel Street is one example. When there were no buildings to trade from, shipping containers were stacked together, painted in vibrant colours and kitted out to allow a shopping ‘mall’ to be created, and this is the Re:Start Mall on Cashel St. Here, you can buy food and coffee, and shop for souvenirs, clothes and homewares. On weekends, there are often street performers drawing a crowd, and it has become a popular place for locals and tourists to go.
Away from the city centre, the shipping containers have been used as storage, but more importantly, they have been used for ballast and support. On the road to Sumner, a beach side suburb round the coast, the cliff crumbled during the earthquake, taking homes and large rocks with it. Parts of the cliff are still unstable, and so the roadside is stacked high with shipping containers to protect road users against any falling debris. Many of these have been painted with murals to detract from the ugly reality of the container’s presence and purpose. Within the city, some of the facades of old-fashioned buildings are currently being supported by these same containers whilst the building is resurrected behind them.
The housing situation is an entirely different matter. Whilst, in my opinion, the city centre is progressing, the reality of suburban rebuild is causing a lot of distress. I have driven down ghost streets, where every house has had to be abandoned, or streets where only solitary houses remain where all its neighbours have fallen down or been pulled down. There are streets in the suburbs of Christchurch which look like the Apocalypse struck. The term liquefaction was a word I had never heard before moving here. Having spoken to people outside of New Zealand about it, it appears to be a little known effect of earthquakes in the general public. Most people think of the ground shaking causing cracks and buildings to fall down, but in areas such as the eastern suburbs which were built on marshland and sandy soil, they suffered another problem: liquefaction. Water-saturated sediments in loose soil fragments act like a liquid in an earthquake, and essentially push up through the path of least resistance to bubble or pour up through the ground. The result is pools or waves of silty thick liquid coating the ground in surprising depths and then drying like clay. It also undermines the ground surface creating hidden sink holes that claimed many vehicles. People had to dig out their homes and cars afterwards. The sewage, water, and storm pipes took a hit, and many people were left for months without plumbed-in sanitisation, having to empty their toilets into silos in the street, and to this day, many of the drains still struggle on a rainy day leading to flooding. The water table also shifted. Christchurch has two large rivers flowing through the region, and under the ground are multiple streams. On an aerial view of the city, you can almost map out the path of these underground streams based on the pattern of damaged buildings. In the suburbs, the river bed rose, and the banks dropped, meaning that many streets now sit below the water table. This can be seen on a drive round the streets that line the Avon river where many of the houses sit on a lean.
Things are starting to return to a level of normality though. Homes are being fixed, new homes are being built, and as much as buildings are still coming down in the city centre, new buildings are finally going up in their place. There are now more and more cafes, bars and restaurants to visit. Businesses are slowly beginning to return to the city centre, and whilst roadworks are still the norm, traffic is finally starting to move through the city centre again. Importantly, the tourist attractions are re-opening as well. In Cashel St is Quake City, a relatively new museum set up to commemorate and inform about the earthquakes of the region. The Gondola up the Port Hills to the south of the city reopened earlier this year, and the view from the top is amazing. On one side is the beautiful Banks Peninsula with Lyttelton harbour, and on the other is the expanse of the Canterbury Plains with Pegasus Bay, and the Southern Alps on the horizon. It is a popular site for paragliders. On the ride up, it is possible to see some of the damage created by rockfall from the earthquake, and at the summit are various walking routes to explore.
In the city itself, there are now various guided tours around what used to be the ‘red zone’ giving the history of the place. The river Avon offers the chance to go punting, and the magnificent Hagley Park with the Botanical Gardens are perfect on a sunny summer’s day for a wander or a bike ride. The Gap Filler mini-golf is a city-wide golf course, taking you on a wander through the city whilst playing some ridiculous holes of mini-golf, 1 of which is creatively made out of material to resemble the rebuild of the city. Outwith the city is the fantastic International Antarctic Centre, all about Antarctic exploration as well as a blue penguin rehabilitation centre, and beyond there are all sorts of parks and recreation areas such as McLeans Island and the nearby Orana Wildlife Park. There is plenty of reason to come to Christchurch, and with an ever-evolving city centre, and an optimistic blue-print planned for the new City of Christchurch, I am hopeful and excited for the future of the city that I now love and call home.