In Wellington at 6.30am I get a bus to the ferry, get a ferry to the South Island, get a bus from Picton to Christchurch, get a taxi to the hostel and check-in at 7pm. I’m too travel-weary to walk the city in the dark. The taxi driver has also warned me against walking alone.
‘It’s not that safe anymore. With all the construction work on. With all the men.’
So instead, the next morning, I look around.
Christchurch is quiet despite the sound of drilling, bulldozers, cranes, machines, trucks, cement mixing. It’s full of odd spaces; barricades, closed off streets and footpaths. The men wear hard hats and florescent orange jackets.
But there’s no chatter. No music. No bustle.
There’s no centre either. It’s gone.
A bunch of shipping containers have been converted and kitted out by shops, cafes and banks. They run parallel to the old high street that has shop-fronts unchanged from 2011. The buildings are condemned and await demolition. 70% of all the city centre buildings have already been or will soon be demolished.
The city gives me chills and when I see the state of the famous cathedral, my eyes well up. It’s a mess, sealed behind fencing, gaping open at the front where the tower and entrance collapsed in the earthquake. Debris and damage. It’s depressing.
There’s allegedly over 6,000 Irish lads working on the rebuild. I meet a few of them in the hostel. They are lovely guys from Armagh, Meath, Louth and Clare. One of them offers me a slice of a red velvet cake he’s bought for himself.
‘Is it your birthday?’ I ask and accept the slice.
‘Nah. I just love sweets.’
I ask them about work. The Armagh buck says, ‘They’re much nicer to us here than they were in Oz. They still give out about us taking their jobs. We’re like the foreigners in Ireland before the Recession.’
‘Or like the Irish everywhere before the Celtic Tiger?’
I decide to learn more about the earthquake which razed Christchurch and killed 185 people (who are memorialised in the poignant ‘Empty Chairs’ art installation piece by Pete Mejendie).
‘Quake City’ is a museum devoted to the earthquake in 2011.
Things begin with a short film on Maori mythology. Mother Earth and Father Sky have an unborn baby who kicks and stretches under the earth causing volcanoes and earthquakes.
On to information, videos, pictures and artefacts from the event. I read how New Zealand is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, on top of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates which collide and drift and stress against each other.
CCTV footage of the deadly 2011 quake shows a man running into a doorway and dropping, covering his head. The building crumbles above him but he remains unscathed. Once the trembling stops, other people in the street check each other to see if they are okay and then they all run into the dust, towards the centre, to help.
A documentary gives us personal accounts of the day. A girl who lost her fingers ‘like in a horror movie,’ after glass slashed them off questions ‘what if?’ What if she didn’t go to work that day? Her hand would be intact. What if she met someone for an early lunch? She’d have died.
A nun relays being in the cathedral as it came down. She said when she went to call for help, her mouth was stuffed with dust and debris. The roof fell on top of her, denting her back with bruises and holes.
A teacher was in a staffroom when the earth shook. An unnatural ‘noisy’ silence descended, things were still but sirens sounded. Their school was located near red cliffs and they had fallen apart. When they checked the evacuation zone, all kids were there except one class group of juniors. With dread and panic, the teacher ran around but visibility was low as the red dust from the cliffs filled the air. Then she spotted the missing kids in a crocodile formation walking to the evacuation spot.
‘Their hair and clothes were covered in reddish-brown. They looked up at me with their little eyes and had these clean tear tracks down their muddy faces.’
Another mother says how she frantically searched for her son, phone signals were down so she went by his school. Nobody knew anything except the school had been hit hard by the quake.
She sprinted back to her neighbourhood and said it was like ‘seeing him for the first time, other than the day he was born.’
Her 14-year old son ‘Bieber-haired’ was out with a shovel, working hard, staying calm and helping his neighbours get their car out of the silt.
‘I was so proud of him.’
The next video is of two kids singing a song with lyrics:
‘The cathedral has become a tourist attraction again/
New Christchurch is awesome so we sing with joy.’
Throughout the exhibition, I am struck by the way people reacted to the quake. The army, emergency services, non-profit organisations and Urban Search and Rescue workers did stellar work but alongside them were 100 specialist volunteers from the Japanese Disaster Relief Rescue Team. The Student Volunteer Army, mobilised by Sam Johnson through a Facebook event and the ‘Farmy Army,’ from rural farming areas near Christchurch immediately brought what they could to help.
Creative ideas to ‘fill in the gaps’ in the city are suggested by citizens. Ideas that ‘celebrate, mourn and criticise’ what they’ve lost and offer ideas for the future to revitilise the place. They’ve experimented with pop up parks, festivals, photographic exhibitions, fun fairs, bowling, book exchanges, lifesize chessboards, paintings, a sauna, cinema and a dance area.
There’s an emphasis on the Maori phrase – Te Ao Hurihuri (the forever changing world) – which means the past has an intimate connection with present so events like earthquakes give an opportunity to reconsider history and influence and the future.
The Christchurch Centre Recovery Plan is utilising the most cutting edge urban planning to transform the gaps with scenic green spaces, modern but low rise apartment blocks, offices and convention centres and ultimately create a prosperous liveable and confident city.
It will also probably give lots of Irish lads jobs for the next decade or so.
When I leave ‘Quake City’, my vision’s all changed.
I see how colourful and vibrant the shipping container shops are and how meaningful ordinary, everyday posters for ‘New Stock’ or ‘Live Music Here Tonight’ are.
I see how the construction workers are busy; engineering, building, fixing – creating.
I see a lot of resilience in Christchurch. And hope.