Christchurch: Coming Back After the Quakes
Our first two full days in Christchurch gave us a chance to explore the city several friends had identified as their favorite here. Nearly two years after the first earthquake, the Garden City’s charm still manages to show through. In many ways life goes on as before. Friends gather in a restaurant; families share a show at the annual Buskers Festival; folks wander a mall. This post will offer our impressions of the earthquakes’ effects and the city’s progress toward recovery. Later posts will focus more on typical tourist concerns.
It’s impossible for us to truly comprehend the intensity of people’s experiences during and after the major quakes. Gone now is most of the rock-hard dried silt that had pushed up through cracks in the earth. The decaying smell of meals abandoned on cafe tables lingered for weeks, but has blown away.
Nonethelsee, you can’t escape signs of devastation. The central city sits cordoned off. The tram and the street trolley are closed. Chain-link fences surround old churches and modern motels. Braces hold up random residential garden walls. Apartments are empty. Offices still have papers on desks and broken glass on the floor. Bridges are closed. Blocks of closed businesses remind us of similar stretches in declined American cities.”
Locals feel like visitors in their own city, which no longer looks familiar. Black humor creeps in to cope with the unrelenting reminders of past trauma and future risks. A Weight Watchers leader jokes that folks can no longer climb stairs as an easy way to get more exercise: “There aren’t any two-story buildings.”
Recovery, if we can even call it that, is slow. Because insurance isn’t available unless they go 60 days without a quake and they’ve had only one 62 day period, continuing small shocks delay reconstruction. So people manage as best they can while most of the work is still tearing down and cleaning up.
Without sewage lines, some neighborhoods still sport large plastic bins labeled “FOR HUMAN WASTE,”where neighbors can empty their porta-potties.
Nonetheless, there is a general feeling of a community pulling together, reminding us of the New Orleans experience. There are stories of heroes who risked their lives to save others, of creative sharing that continues today. There’s an impressive display of quilted hearts in the Canterbury museum, sent from all over as expressions of love and support.
Many people have left the city and there’s a forward-looking atttude among those who have stayed. One surprise has been the creative use of cargo containers. They hold back hillsides, but also provide temporary space for businesses from banks to restaurants with decks. The implicit message is: we still enjoy living here.
And some things, like milk delivery, even harken back to a simpler time.
Christchurch faces a massive task at both the public and private levels. Most cities consider rebuilding a sports stadium to be a major project, but here it’s just part of replacing government offices, repairing bridges, and (of course) filling more potholes. Many individual businesses have closed or moved, so there will eventually be more open space.
Young people in particular seem excited by the prospect for improving their city. We commend to them words from a poster we saw: “If you plan a city for traffic, you get cars. If you build it for people, you get people.”
We wish Christchurch’s people well.