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I hadn’t know what to expect from Christchurch. I knew a year on from the last major quake that it was still struggling to get back on it’s feet. When I’d seen the New Zealand news, there were reports on the numbers of families who are giving up trying to get their homes sorted and just leaving the area and sometimes the country altogether. There is also much discussion about the christchurch politicians and how they’ve been slow and inept with the funds. There seemed to be a lot of frustration that things weren’t moving quickly enough in many respects.
First driving into Christchurch you don’t see any signs that anything could be wrong. We drove in through the suburbs, around the ring road and got to our hostel, only 20-30 minutes or so south of the city centre, without noticing much, other than what we’d seen so far wasn’t especially inspiring. The suburbs seemed ok, but the area around the hostel and south of the city centre is mainly made up of out of town type places, big stores, garages, maccy ds, burger kings etc. There is also a lot of cars here. Aukland and Wellington always seemed pretty light on the traffic so that was a big surprise.
We dropped off our rental car and got advice from them where to head up to in the city and they marked off the redzone for us on our map. We crossed the wide, busy roads, passing the streets still full of the blocky trading estate type buildings, until we came across our first sign that something big here had happened. It was a huge, catholic church which was fenced off and had been undergoing/was due demolition of parts of it, as clearly it had been affected, with either side of the main columned part of the building missing the frontage. It was odd to see inside these rooms. Like when they do the demolitions on the mass blocks of flats in London and you can see into the rooms and see the flowery wallpaper and whatever was abandoned.
There was a safe hanging off one of the inside walls which caught our attention. Most impressively the main frontage of the building with huge, tall columns and intricate statues up top, remained in place. I don’t do religion but if I did…
As we walked on further we saw the odd building boarded up. Nothing other than the church had stood out as particularly unusual though. There is always so many boarded up buildings at home – particularly in places which are mainly working towns like Slough, Bracknell etc , that it didn’t seem strange. Then all of a sudden we hit a road that was cordoned off, the beginning of the ‘red zone’. The street went on quite deep and had other roads going off in different directions at the bottom of it. Interesting streets with shops and restaurants and bars, all abandoned. As we moved around you could see large office blocks with half the windows boarded up, tall buildings, tilting a little to one side or with shonky roofs. The thing that was most shocking was realising the size of the area, how much was in it and how, more than anything that this was slap bang, totally in the centre and the heart of Christchurch. If you look at any of the tourist maps (much of the literature hasn’t been updated), most of the areas you are directed to or would head for are in the red zone. When we’d watched the movie set in Christchurch in the 1950s, there had been a part at the beginning showing footage of the city centre at the time. That seems more poignant to us now that we had seen where much of this was caged off. It really does look like a ghost town. Stuff still in the shops, signs still out on the streets, bikes still chained to railings. As you walk around the safe areas there are still a huge amount of shops and businesses shut down. As you head up towards the park at the edge of the city centre, Hagley Park, the huge arc at the bridge or rememberance is cordoned off so no-one can get too near. It looks sound enough, but I guess there’s a real worry with all these buildings that someone can get hurt and they have to be sure of their safety. It seems so cruel that it should be this ‘heart’ of the city that was taken away. That’s a tough thing to come back from. The places in the UK that had their centres trashed in the Blitz or wiped out by dire 1960s city planning (to be fair, often as a result of the former), never have the same appeal as the ones with a the old buildings, creating the natural hubs. Coventry and Farnborough being two examples that spring to mind. I do hope Christchurch manages it and they don’t lose too many people or motivation in the meantime. You have to admire all the Christchurchians who are doing what they can to bring back as much life to the centre as they can. I can’t imagine the complexities of how to sort it out. You could have 75% buildings in there perfectly fine but it’s too much of a risk because of the dodgy 25% and the cost of sorting them out is huge and it takes time. In the meantime of course, the 75% are left to decay, adding another element to the problem. Mind bending, I think. Whether the politicians deserve the criticism they are receiving, or not, I don’t envy them this task.
But things are looking up and looking good. They’ve created an amazing shopping area around that abandoned area, using huge shipping crates, transformed into shops and restaurants. They have lots of cute food carts around there and music and there’s lots of colour (and the odd colourful character). On the plus side for the shopper or the tourist, the parking is darned cheap. I guess they have all these buildings they’ve had to flatten and so there is large open spaces around providing ample parking and as it’s so cheap and as more things open (or re-open) hopefully it can lure more people back to the city centre and away from what I guess their main rival, the out of town mall. We’ve had the displeasure of walking through one of their main ones in the suburb of Riccarton and I, never a fan of such places at the best of times, really hope that’s not what becomes of Christchurch.
But the silver lining could be that some of the non-descript suburbs/areas of Christchurch become hubs for displaced business. Areas such as the one our hostel is in, which is mainly garages and older and more battered business are becoming renewed as some ‘cooler’ business move in. I have read that in a particularly industrial area of Christchurch they are working with the existing architecture to create interesting spaces to bring in, in particular the creative businesses. I did notice that the old warehouse area in Auckland, near to where we stayed, was a fantastic example of how to do such renovations well. This has a lot of designer furniture stores out there which work really well with the aesthetic of the big, looming brick buildings.
Not far from our hostel, tucked behind a shell garage, behind a newly built coffee shop and deli, we found a fantastic bar/venue which had been setup in this grungy, industrial space. It was very cool, having been designed with the exact amount of comfort and style with a major nod to the buildings origins. A small stage, great music playing on an incredible sound system, comfy leather sofas, japanese inspired bar menu, great beer and wine – what’s not to love. We only wished we’d found the place sooner.