Sunday, 1 September 2013

Disaster tourism.

I lived in Christchurch for 22 years from 1972 until 1994.  Last week I went back for the first time since the earthquakes that shattered the city and eastern suburbs in 2010 and 2011.  I visited friends who kindly took me on a tour of the damage and the restoration; sadly there's still more of the former than the latter in evidence.  I felt reluctant to rubber-neck, but my friends wanted me to see it, because, like many in the city, they feel the rest of the country has forgotten them.  I don't think we have; well, I certainly haven't.  It's just that there's not a lot one can do at a distance, and it seems true that one of the things we can't do at a distance is understand.

We started the tour with breakfast at a cafe on the Port Hills, overlooking the city.  It was a splendid sunny spring morning, and everything looked pretty good from here.  Then we drove over the hills to Lyttelton, pretty close to the epicentre of the February 22 earthquake that did the worst of the damage.

If you didn't know Lyttelton and Christchurch before the quakes, the following photos aren't going to mean much.  Lyttelton was a delightful small harbour town that time had passed by.  The main business district was a couple of blocks near the port, with lovely old 2—3-story buildings.  It's nearly all gone.  The scene below shows one of the many bomb-site spaces where buildings once stood.  A few are still standing, with their windows boarded over and tarpaulins stretched across the roofs; others have broken windows letting the elements invade the interiors.

The facade of this smaller building is still standing, thanks to strong timber props.

But in the middle of the desolation and fenced off stony spaces choked with weeds, space hijackers have made a mark, and provided places where people gather to enjoy the sun and each other. Everywhere I went were places like this, with thriving markets, buskers, and throngs of people.  I don't know which were sanctioned by the council and which were more subversive.

From Lyttelton we went through the tunnel (undamaged, except for the portal building, now gone) and via Redcliffs to Sumner.  The Redcliffs causeway was closed for repairs and all the busy traffic was diverted along the old road, which has slumped deeply in places.  It's all a bit much for an ordinary car, and it seems a rugged four wheel drive is the way to get around now.  Shag Rock used to be a prominent monolith at the entrance to the Avon-Heathcote Estuary; now it's a pile of rubble, shaken to bits in the February quake.

At Sumner, parts of the cliffs fell away, taking houses with them.  For about 2 km, a 2-story wall of shipping containers protects the road from rock falls.  Several half-houses at the top of the cliff are separated from piles of rubbish at the bottom

The house at centre right of the cliff top is split, and some of it is at the bottom of the cliff.

This sad house has a broken back, one of few timber houses that were badly damaged.

From Sumner, we headed back towards town and briefly crossed the residential red zone.  The road suddenly dropped about 1 m as we entered the zone, and the first house I saw was half sunken into the ground.  In many streets, most houses had been removed and just empty gardens remain; other houses had boarded windows, graffiti, and rubble.  I couldn't bring myself to take pictures here.  The road was dire: pot-holes, subsidence, and broken surfaces.  Here the approach from the riverside to FitzGerald Avenue has settled, and produced a rough ramp.

We drove down FitzGerald Avenue to the Roman Catholic Basilica, in my opinion Christchurch's finest church.  A poster outside shows what it used to look like:

Now, the domes and towers are gone:

... and from the other side:

From there into the city centre.  What struck me here is the amount of empty space.  Some whole city blocks have almost gone, with only one or two buildings left standing.  Sometimes, you can see for long distances where city buildings and shop fronts used to block the view.  Here's the Cashel St–Colombo St intersection:

But on the other side of Colombo Street, Cashel Mall is transformed into the container mall. Ballantyne's is still trading, and the mall is filled with little shops, cafes and boutiques built with modified shipping containers.  The demolition of buildings on the north side lets the sun in, and crowds were enjoying the spring warmth, the shops, and the buskers.

Container shop:

Container mall looking east:

But most of the city is devoid of any commercial activity, and most offices are now re-located to the suburbs.  Around the corner, nothing remains of the bustling night-life centre of the city, the Strip, on Oxford Terrace.  This used to be wall-to-wall cafes, with indoor and outdoor dining.

And a bit further along, so many buildings have gone that you can see right through from Oxford Terrace to the cathedral ruins in the Square:

The old tourist information centre is heavily braced, pending repair I hope.

The Square used to be the heart of the city, and maybe it will be again.  However, not just the Anglican cathedral is damaged, but many other buildings have gone: Farmer's Department Store is an empty lot, and the BNZ tower is reduced to 3-4 stories of desolate ruin.  I took a panorama 360 degree view that you can drag and zoom in to.

The cathedral itself is worse than I'd imagined.

But here too, some clever soul has added a quirky and colourful portal, returning colour and hope to the Square.

North of the Square the old National Bank is standing, but boarded up and empty, among vacant lots.

And looking back towards the cathedral, so many buildings have gone that you can see all the way to the Port Hills.

When I lived in Christchurch, funding was being raised for the restoration of the Theatre Royal.  All that's left of that restoration is the facade and the dome, but it's being rebuilt and seems to be well ahead of many other buildings.

The casino is still standing; that's one building I think Christchurch would be better off without.  If you believe earthquakes are acts of God, you'd have to say he hates churches and likes casinos.  Nearby, someone has cleverly built an enclosure of blue-painted pallets, where people were selling art and crafts from stalls, while others played and listened to music.

The Bridge of Remembrance is being repaired, I guess with a view to the anniversary of the first World War next year, and Gallipoli the year after.

And some of the old stone buildings of the Arts Centre, the old University of Canterbury, are being repaired.

This is what the arts centre looked like, back in 1972 when it was the University of Canterbury:

I hope it can be restored to its former glory.

Canterbury Museum is already up and running.

My overall impressions?  Shock I think, at the extent of the damage and the disruption and loss that face the people every single day.  Also delight, at the funky creations that are springing up all over, some sanctioned by the authorities, others more subversive.  And awe and respect for the people who live amongst it all, with frustration, fear, patience, and hope.  My friends have wondered about the wisdom of living the rest of their middle years in a city that is so damaged and will be so long under repair.  But they have decided to stay, and among the loss that surrounds them there is great hope and growing excitement for the future.  

My other impression is from the first day I arrived, before I saw the damage.  The shuttle trip from the airport to Lincoln took me through suburbs so busy and bustling they were more like Auckland than the South Island.  Here the commercial life of the city has reinvented itself and people have come to live in sprawling new suburbs that are marching across former farm land.

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