Christchurch: Conspicuous resumption

By Ewan McDonald

For two years we have seen images of Christchurch, a broken city. Ewan McDonald visits a community picking up the pieces.

The colourful staircase at the Christchurch Art Gallery. Photo / Supplied
The colourful staircase at the Christchurch Art Gallery. Photo / Supplied

We have all seen this movie before. Water laps against crafted stone stairs that lead to fountains, a terrace, a majestic building of mirror glass and buffed stone. Queens and presidents and brides once posed here.

There are no people, no anthems, today: only a lament from a bird. Grass and reeds have reclaimed their territory from the flagstones that civic puffery laid over it.

It is an end-of-days movie, where humans have fled the metropolis and the rats and the cockroaches and the weeds and have taken it back: I Am Legend or The Quiet Earth.

I am lying in a punt gliding on the Avon and this is Christchurch Town Hall. Decaying.

It is the end of a day of contrasts and contradictions and juxtapositions. Landing at the airport, rebuilt bigger and better than before - a singleman's hut would have been better than before - and driving into the city, the graceful trees and contented suburbs with their contemplative gardens and satisfied mansions pretend nothing has changed in a century.

Closer to the centre, the roads are bumpier. Here a house asks scaffolds for support and there is an empty space.

My hotel re-opened a few weeks ago; nothing else in the street has. Nothing else that is left standing, that is. At its side, the hurricane wire fences of the cordon. Inside, hotel-chain bland, lobby and restaurant and rooms pretend nothing has changed in two years.

Just across the carpark that used to be - oh, who knows, a 10- or 12-storey office block? This is one CBD that has no shortage of parking - is the Re:start mall, the ingenious street of 60-odd containers hammered and shopfitted and wired into shops and cafes.

Friday lunchtime, and if it is not quite as busy as St Lukes, there is a till-pleasing crowd of mostly visiting shoppers and local shop staff, eating, strolling, photo-taking and occasionally buying. The venerable Johnson's Grocers purveys comestibles; a younger crowd fondles toys at the Mac store.

The Dowager of Canterbury watches the world go by. Inside the sliding glass doors of Ballantyne's it is as if there has been no interruption to service. The white marble floors. The black-dressed staff. The air of assurance. And affluence.

Outside, at a fence pressed hard against the store, passers-by gaze into the wrecked Square, the shattered Cathedral. Two steps from display case upon display case of $400 bottles of perfume, surreality bites.

The bus tours, the punt cruises, the red zone walks. There is a queasy moment when the thought insinuates: is this earthquake tourism? Am I conspiring in this? Ghoulish, as charged?

HERE, THERE, if not quite everywhere, are the signs of life reviving. The mall is the grandest, but that was engineered by those baronets of Canterbury who have known which levers to engage and wallets to woo since the First Four Ships dropped anchor.

There's another vacant lot across the street from the hotel. This one has been laid with artificial turf and goalposts: a miniature Wembley for, from afternoon until late into the night, United and Barca wannabes of all ages. Once was nightmare, now field of dreams.

On a nearby corner, four yellow speakers on top of poles; choose a beat from the washing machine-jukebox and step out at the Dance-o-mat.

These are Gap Fillers, a loosely organised outbreak of pop-up public art, individual craft and community meeting-places on empty sections throughout the city. On the corner of one of the Avenues, the land has been paved, benches planted and plants potted around the one-time Coke cabinet now serving as the neighbourhood book exchange. Where there is no library, the people open their own.

The most ambitious is under construction near the art gallery, which is structurally sound but can't open because insurance companies refuse to underwrite the collection. Thousands of blue wooden pallets are being stacked into an amphitheatre, the Pallet Pavilion, for summertime outdoor performances.

Popping up, too, are pubs and cafes and small businesses. Some are disaster-chic bars: Smash Palace, created from two buses; Revive, from demolition timber and objets d'trash. Sydenham locals buy milk and morning papers from their usual dairy, unusually operating out of a fully plumbed and powered shipping container.

For most, necessity has overcome the bother of invention. On Bealey Ave, Chris serves Thai takeaways (or eat-in, at patio tables, if the weather's good: it wasn't, on this night) from his kitchen and servery inside one of those 50s caravans that almost every Kiwi has spent at least one summer in.

"We had a restaurant in town," he recalls across another portion of fresh spring rolls, "and we lost everything. We got some insurance but not what you'd call a monster payout. My wife and I have three kids to feed, we had to have some money coming in."

He found the caravan and converted it, uses a container for fridges and stores. Within weeks he was up and cooking again, on a former house site near medical centres and apartments, at Thai Container.

"Actually, we're doing better than before." Former regulars didn't take long to find him; and the nearby workers and residents give him two bites at the chili sauce every day. He chuckles. "And we've got much lower overheads."

Always raw, raffish, the port is even more so, with added rubble. Humour helps: where a shop came down in the middle of town, road-metal and plants sprouted. Sand was laid and the Lyttelton Petanque Club constituted.

It's morphed into the Town Square, with a rough-and-not-quite-ready kiddies' playground, and some outdoor tables where the Lions hold a fundraising sausage sizzle - snarlers, onion and white-bread $1, but payment is optional - most Sundays when the tourists are here.

The cruise ships aren't: for at least two more summers they will moor off Akaroa and their well-heeled visitors be taken ashore on launches for a day's sightseeing that won't benefit the few souvenir shops and cafes open for business.

Lyttelton has long felt the poor cousin of Christchurch and the glacial progress of rebuilding has underlined that. Only two buildings on waterside Norwich Quay have reopened; there's no timeline for the timeball or the museum.

Locals are pretty much doing it for themselves, in the time-honoured Kiwi smalltown fashion: many community actions are funded by a timeshare scheme in which volunteers trade an hour of, say, gardening for an hour of driving a pensioner through the tunnel to pick up her prescription.

Wendy Everingham of Project Lyttelton chooses the glass half-full: "When you're starting from just about nothing, you have the freedom to dream."

Back in the city, four storeys up, my camera lens finds half a dozen bikes chained to and rusting against a brick building that Auckland planners wouldn't need the excuse of 12,000 acts of God to demolish. Who never rode home from work that day?

I walk past the skeleton of a church that is promising to rise again, its century-old wooden frame flexible enough to withstand the shakes while more modern constructions crumbled. Faded signs proclaim, "We're open for God's business," but perhaps it's not quite. And, "Searching for that missing peace?"

Many residents, and visitors, seek or see that at a street-corner memorial next to the empty space that was the CTV building.

It is moving in its stillness, complex in its simplicity, eloquent in its silence. Just 185 white-painted chairs, each one different from the others, one for each person who died on February 22, 2011. Eyes focus on the white baby-carrier in the third row. Or the office chair at the back, swivelled away from all the others.

This is where and when I find my answer to the niggling uncertainty about the bus tour, the punt trip. The last time I came here was 10 years ago, visiting a niece who worked on that perfume counter at Ballantyne's. I have watched the last two years on TV from the security of Auckland.

Maybe every New Zealander needs to visit to see and feel the Christchurch of today. And tomorrow.

GARDEN CITY TOURISM

When a TV network decides to make a reality show called My Job From Hell Tim Hunter will probably get the first episode. All the world has seen of his patch for two years is deaths and destruction. Maybe the odd rugby match.

He promotes tourism in a city where most major hotels are demolished. The airport is operating but cruise ships won't call for two or more years. There's no way to be polite: tourists have been scared off.

The CEO of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism is remarkably chipper.

"Before the earthquakes, we had three dynamics driving our visitor numbers. The first were New Zealanders, mostly from the region outside Christchurch and the rest of the South Island, who came for a weekend, for sport, for events and shows. That stalled but it's coming back as we bring back events like the Flower Show and the Buskers' Festival."

Those visitors mostly stayed outside the CBD in motels and caravan parks, which were less affected and quicker to get back on their feet.

"The long-haul tourists - from Japan and Asia - have mostly forgotten about the earthquakes and they are back. So are the Americans.

"The Europeans. We know what's happening in their economies. That sector is... " he searches for a diplomatic phrase. "Tired. Auckland and Wellington will tell you the same thing."

Australian campervanners, winter holidaymakers, adventure tourists were the backbone of Canterbury's tourism industry. "All they have is a perception of a city that is horribly broken. Two years of those images on Australian TV - every time there is another aftershock, they replay the footage - have left an impression on the hard drives of Australian minds."

How do you re-programme them? "The thing that will give Australians confidence is the understanding that people here are living ordinary lives."

Why would they, or anyone, come here?

"To see what a city in transition can do. To see that a city that was broken is still functioning, is back on its feet."

Before the earthquakes, Christchurch had 1000 eateries; it lost 330, mostly in the visitor-friendly inner city. It had 35 hotels and backpackers; most of the big ones in the CBD. Six have reopened; four more hope to put out the welcome mat before Christmas.

The double-edged sword has been the cruise ships. As more liners embrace New Zealand ports, Lyttelton is sunk. "We estimate 140,000 Australians will come to Canterbury on cruise ships this year; only 34 per cent will spend a day in Christchurch. On average they spend $US100 a day. We are blessed to have Akaroa in our region, and it will benefit.

"And, of course, Christchurch simply does not have the infrastructure to cope with those numbers of visitors at the moment."

* Ewan McDonald toured Christchurch with assistance from Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism

- NZ Herald

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