Lessons from Christchurch

The first time I went to Christchurch, like many tourists, I completely wrote it off.

I arrived the day after the one year anniversary of the February 2011 earthquake which killed 185 people and the city was quiet and the mood sombre. It was difficult to believe a whole year had passed since the magnitude 6.3 earthquake, as it looked as though it had happened only a week before.

The entire central business district (CBD) is still closed off and is declared a “red zone” and while there are lots of gaping holes where unsafe buildings have been torn down, many more are still waiting to be bulldozed.

Empty spaces are a common sight in the city.
Most of the CBD is still in the “red zone”.

For the residents of Christchurch who chose to remain in the city it has become a way of life, finding new ways to get to things and using new landmarks to give directions, but for tourists it can still be quite unnerving. It feels strange and almost a bit insensitive to look at and take photos of the destruction and as a result many people don’t stay long in the South Island’s biggest city.

Repairs are still ongoing in large parts of the city.

I only spent one night there before catching the train across to the west coast and thought I would just return to the city the night before my flight to Australia. However the more people I spoke to on my trip who were doing the same, the more I started to think about it. It had been a year, something must be going on in the city.

I started to research it on the Internet and discovered there actually was quite a lot being organised by both the local council and tourism board, as well as by groups like Gapfiller, which was set up following the earthquakes to help people to make use of the empty spaces which appeared where buildings had been torn down.

I decided I’d like to try and write an article about the effect of the earthquake on tourism in the city and returned there a little earlier than planned. My first interview was with Coralie Winn, the project co-ordinator for Gapfiller. It was brilliant to meet her and to hear how she and her partner Ryan Reynolds had set up the organisation with absolutely no funding following the first big earthquake in September 2010, when Coralie was made redundant from her job at the Arts Centre where she ran public programmes. She told me: “People felt very disconnected and disempowered. We couldn’t do anything about the situation and were just waiting for the rebuild to take place. We wanted to demonstrate that temporary use of space could bring a lot of life back to a place.”

However the February earthquake hit everybody hard and Coralie herself lost her home. At first she said the group discussed whether to continue with their work but there was a call from the community to keep going so they applied for funding and now have one full-time staff member and one part-time.

Activities have included building community gardens; creating a giant community chess board and putting up pieces of artwork where buildings once were. Events such as a bike-powered cinema have also taken place and when I met Coralie Gapfiller was about to run a Dance-O-Mat, where people could pay $2 to have 30 minutes of their music played through a washing machine.

The aim of Gapfiller is not just to be in charge of organising events but to encourage and enable the city’s residents to plan and run their own activities.

Community chess set.

It was really inspiring to meet Coralie and I loved the enthusiasm she had for her city. Personally it also made me remember all of the things I love about journalism, meeting people and hearing their stories.

Sometimes when you’re in a busy office everyday, working long hours and constantly having to hit deadlines, it’s easy to forget what it is you like about your job but having the time away has really made me appreciate all of the good bits too.

Coralie – a woman on a mission.

The next Christchurch resident I met was Josie Yeates, a retired teacher, who works for a non-profit organisation called Guided City Walks. I was the only person to take the tour that day so we spent a great couple of hours wandering around the city. Josie had obviously had to change her regular route following the earthquake but she saw it as a new way to explore her home.

She said: “Now that some places are closed you find yourself going to new and different places.” The thing I loved about Josie was how positive she was. She too had lost her home and is still living in rented accommodation but she always looked on the bright side and seemed to get quite cross about the people who complain about the situation.

Everywhere you go in Christchurch you can still hear people talking about the earthquake. It’s just a part of daily life now. I overheard people saying things like “Oh no, I lost that in the quake” and “Do you know that building’s gone now?”

In the Canterbury Museum an exhibition has been put up about people’s experiences and some of the city’s famous landmarks, such as the Christchurch Cathedral bell are now installed there. It felt strange that an event that is so recent, the effects of which can be seen on a daily basis, is now a part of history.

In the museum I also came across my favourite New Zealand story, about Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House in Bluff. Over the years the couple had decorated the walls of their home with paua shells which Fred had collected for Myrtle. Word had spread over the years and more than a million visitors went to their house which was open seven days a week, eight hours a day. In a video Myrtle said she liked the company. When the couple passed away the museum brought their house shell by shell to Christchurch so that people could still enjoy it.

During my time in the city I also went to one of its suburbs called Lyttelton which was badly damaged by the quake. Most of the buildings in its main street have now been pulled down. I met Maree Henry, a shop owner, just as she was saying to two policemen “All people ever talk about these days is the earthquake” and she was then horrified that I’d overheard her when I told her why I was there.

Like everyone I spoke to in Lyttelton, Maree praised the sense of community which kept everyone’s spirits up. She also had an infectious sense of humour and a positive attitude towards something which is entirely out of anyone’s control.

The day I was due to leave New Zealand I heard that a short route into the “red zone” would be opened for the weekend so that people could say goodbye to the cathedral (it had just been announced that it would have to be knocked down as it is no longer structurally safe).

Early in the morning I joined the crowds walking towards it and got talking to a lady who had lived in the city for more than 70 years. She said it was going to be a sad day to lose something which had always been part of her life.

The atmosphere at the site was very quiet and reflective. It is a strange feeling to be in a place with so many people but be in almost complete silence. But it felt like people appreciated the opportunity to see the cathedral for one last time.

A chance to say goodbye to a landmark.

Meeting the people of Christchurch and spending time in the city totally changed my view of it. I discovered there is still so much to do there and the residents I met taught me some important lessons. Coralie taught me to never give up on something you believe in and to never doubt that a small group of individuals can make a big difference.

Josie taught me to always look on the bright side of life and to be grateful for the things I do have. Maree taught me to see the humour in things and to appreciate the people around you. And Fred and Myrtle taught me to hang on to what other people may see as tat because you never know when it will come in useful!

Fred and Myrtle.