I lovingly finger a pair of circular wooden earrings in Toni Jackson’s little wood art shop at Worcester Boulevard in Christchurch’s central business district (CBD). On sale are candle stands with nativity scenes delicately carved out of wood, and some iridescent pāua shells. Jackson walks up behind me, her large jade pendant winking in the sun. “Those earrings are shaped like the rose window of the Christchurch Cathedral… it was ravaged in the 2011 earthquake; a symbol of the city itself.”
Jackson’s spirit—that urge to remember and rebuild—is reflected every so often in the Christchurch I see. An earthquake hollowed out South Island’s largest city on 22 February, 2011, but it might as well have been just months ago. The city is still reeling, and it shows. Jackson points to the 23 stately, neo-Gothic buildings smack opposite her shop—The Arts Centre of Christchurch. A museum, cafés, a theatre, a university’s music and classics department and other spaces were housed in what was Christchurch’s most vibrant 19th-century cultural cluster pre-quake. More than half of the spaces lie vacant or half-built, waiting for giant machines and incessant drilling to reconstruct their lost glory. And yet, new businesses have opened shop, such as the Canterbury Cheesemongers, where I had breakfasted that morning on bread and rich, local ‘OMG Brie’ cheese from the South Waikato district of North Island. The Arts Centre is also part of a public art walkway that runs across Christchurch, showcasing works of local artists.
“The wood carvers I worked with for years left the city in 2011, terrified. Now, some are coming back, and we will continue to create,” says Jackson, bagging the Cathedral memento for me.
I walk towards the cathedral that Jackson so misses, but take some detours along the parallel Hereford Street. Steel columns and beams loom from barricaded construction sites; gravelly areas are cordoned off, and there are more orange traffic cones around than street signs. I begin to see why people I met in Queenstown and Wellington shook their heads at my plans to see Christchurch, muttering, “It just isn’t the same.” The city nestled between Port Hills and the Pacific Ocean, that once revelled in its gardens and tree-lined boulevards along the Avon River, was a feeble shadow of itself.
But beneath this starkness is also a city that is picking up the pieces in innovative, creative ways. And it is this Christchurch in transition that I decide to trace during my time here. I don’t have to look very hard—beside every desolately vacant spot, something is rising.
According to Jackson, over 80 per cent of the CBD was almost flattened, and cordoned for two years. The insides of Christchurch Cathedral at the centre of Cathedral Square have been scooped out, as if war broke out here, but surrounding barricades sport murals in the brightest colours. Skaters whiz past me; nearby a bunch of silver-haired friends chatter and play chess on the floor with giant red and black pieces. This square welcomed soldiers returning from war in 1917 and ushered wild New Year’s Eves.
The party hasn’t stopped, just shifted venue. A few feet away from the square lies Dance-O-Mat, an open-air dance floor built in February 2012 by Gap Filler, an urban regeneration initiative that felt that some dancing would cheer up a hurting city. Two middle-aged friends tinker with the washing machine, plug their iPod to it, and insert NZ$2 to activate the power. The ex-laundromat washing machine activates the four speakers around the dance floor, and they dance, awkwardly at first and then twisting with abandon in the winter twilight.
At the farther end of Hereford Street, I reach the Cardboard Cathedral, shaped like a triangle. It is built of cardboard tubes, timber beams, steel and concrete, its colourful stained windows popping like a chequerboard cake. This ultra-modern building is a temporary structure that opened in August 2013 to lift people’s spirits until the Christchurch Cathedral was rebuilt. Now, it is the face of the city, the headline of its life story on travel brochures and website articles. The images on the triangular window of the Cardboard Cathedral are inspired from those on the original rose window Jackson was speaking about. I peer into the church and listen to the lilting tunes of the choral evensong, touched that something this beautiful could rise out of a tragedy. There’s more: Just behind the cathedral, cars zoom by a large grassy patch on 236 Cashel Street on which lie almost 200 vacant, white chairs. The “185 Empty Chairs Tribute” installation pays homage to the people who lost their lives in the quake. No two white chairs are the same—there are serious straight-backed chairs, comfy armchairs, carved vintage chairs, a wheelchair, even a baby capsule—to emphasise the individuality of each person the city lost.
Everywhere I turn, I see more instances of how Christchurch is turning heartbreak into art. After the city’s famed colonial architecture turned to dust, international street artists from around the world made the rubble their canvas at the first street art festival Christchurch hosted in 2013. Places where homes, local bakeries, neighbourhood haunts and memories were lost are reclaimed by murals and graffiti, drawn on craggy remains of walls: There’s a masterpiece by local artist Wongi Wilson of two little girls playing hide-and-seek at intersection of Manchester and Gloucester streets; a chubby man chilling amid bees and wildflowers on the walls of the Millennium Hotel in Central City. A fellow passenger on a bus would later direct me to her favourite artwork—a giant ballerina on the wall of Isaac Theatre Royal (sadly, a new building hides most of it when I catch it).
The next morning, I stumble upon a long row of pastel coloured facades built in Spanish Mission Revival style at CBD’s New Regent Street. The bigger surprise is to hear the booming honk of a 19th-century tram behind me. The barista at the al fresco café, who had been regaling me with stories behind the 40-odd boutique shops and stores housed in the gabled buildings of this heritage street, shows me the way to the tram’s ticket counter nearby. Fifteen minutes later, I am out in the vintage red-and-yellow tram, venturing farther into neighbourhoods. The jaunty, 70-something driver keeps up the commentary, pointing at the calmness of Mill Island on the Avon River, High and Manchester Streets that are abuzz with newly built bars and cafés, couples punting along the Avon River, and Hagley Park, a vast shock of green bang in the middle of Christchurch. As we turn into Cashel Street, he proudly flaunts the mall made entirely of shipping containers in eye-popping colours. The Re:START mall opened just eight months after the 2011 earthquake. I hop off the tram (a day pass lets you get on and off the vehicle) and walk into coffee shops, souvenir stores and clothing brands in their temporary home. The place reads like a cool urban revival story, not one born out of tragedy. One of the mall’s main attractions is Quake City, a museum that tells the story of the infamous Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, the region’s geography and stories of locals and rescue teams, and displays the spire of Christchurch Cathedral and the railway station clocks that stopped at 12.51 p.m. on 22 February 2011.
The only place in the city that seems untouched by loss is the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. On the morning I visit it, the wind is so rowdy that the electric tour bus rattles ominously and even the gnarliest oaks seem bothered. But Faye, its driver and my guide for the tour, is all cheer and chuckle as she hands me a thick blanket for the cold. Faye took up the job years ago because she was a single mother “who missed having people around.” Funny, observant, and passionate, she breathes even more life into the lush 52 acres that include silvery beeches, rose gardens, conservatories, Asian and Kiwi species of shrubs and trees. We hop off near the Australian alpine ash tree, a looming, twisting leviathan that sheds its bark in long ribbons and is the largest in the garden. “Go on! How often do you get to hug an alpine ash tree!” she exclaims, keeping the camera ready. We pass children hanging goofily from branches, wave to Bob the head gardener, and stop by at the Fragrant Garden where smells of cherry and curry mingle. “We have trees planted in the memory of the quake victims,” says Faye. “I love this place for so many things; the changing colours of seasons, the paradise ducks bobbing on the Avon,” she beams.
On my last night in Christchurch, I walk along The Terrace, part of a two-kilometre-long promenade built along the Avon River. I notice a poem by a local Maori poet etched along the precinct walls, something about a flotilla of leaves, floating from their past into the future. I later learn that the poem is just one of the 15 literary panels being etched along the promenade. Moved by how art and poetry are kept handy for a city that needs it most, I amble to the Christchurch Art Gallery. It is shut for the day, but peering through the glass entrance, I see a rehearsal is underway. I cannot hear the music; the conductor sways lightly while directing his singers, and they laugh silently during break. As I leave, taking some of their warmth with me on this winter night, I notice something written in giant neon lights on the roof of the gallery. “Everything Is Going To Be Alright,” it reads. I believe it.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.