Walking round Christchurch NZ city centre is a sobering experience. The outskirts appear to be thriving with all the usual suburban indications of traffic, garages, corner shops. What if there is a little boarding over in places? It seems, at first glance, to be few in number: we have derelict houses in parts of London.
But stop and look at these more closely. At first, I don’t like to pry. It’s disrespectful and as John raises his camera, I frown and move him on. But he is right- look again!
See how the lintel over the door is cracked, the glass in the windows shattered, one whole wall missing. This is way beyond mere dilapidation.
Just down the road, whole sections are laid bare waiting for re-newal. It’s strange to see the houses on either side in tact, unharmed, perhaps.
Here is a wooden house, crumpled. Someone has tried to salvage it: windows stacked this side; bundles of similar wood slats tied in an effort to regain order. By there is no order. The task was hopeless, overwhelming. Someone was forced to leave it.
Churches lost their steeples; their walls. Shops have cracks gaping. Office blocks stand empty with earth-movers demolishing them, systematically, methodically.
The casual phrase “the city centre is closed” transforms into harsh reality. The core of the city is encaged. The noise of bulldozers, pneumatic drills perpetuate. There is no bird song. A few scruffy sparrows show the same determination as the citizens of Christchurch to pull through and find some crumbs of comfort.
In contrast to the busy suburbs, the centre feels deserted. Huge swathes of offices and shops had gone. No work, no youngsters. They are re-locating to Aukland. Rents are rocketing, motels are full of business people. It’s a massive tragedy. We drink coffee in a street cafe, the owner says it is not safe for customers to come into the premises, but she has set up bright chairs and tables and has made incredibly good soup, smoked salmon bagels and a wide range of other treats. We et opposite the noise of builders working on the casino.
Around Cashel Street, clothes stores had burst through the rubble. Bright containers, two stories high with modern verandahs, made for iron girders, create a shopping centre. Banks, clothes and shoe stores and cafes predominate. Today there seem few people, apart from tourists keen to support and see.
It’s a brave statement. It’s amazing what has already been achieved. The infrastructure required, the methodical organization, the money! I’m in awe!
But I’m also desolate! Christchurch posed a huge dilemma for me. I oscillated between an empty hollow shock and sadness, an empathy and a warm disbelief of how indestructible the spirit of Christchurch is. How incredible the people who live there are.