Building Christchurch

Returning to Christchurch

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I wasn’t looking forward to returning to Christchurch.

This was the city that I knew best in New Zealand. It’s where I’d escape to as a teenager and where I went to university. It’s where I had my first real job and where I bought my first house. Many of my old friends and co-workers still live there. If anywhere in the country felt like home, surely this had to be it.

Except it didn’t, and it wasn’t.

The massive earthquake on Feb 22, 2011 severely damaged much of the inner city and eastern suburbs. Now, almost two years to the day since the earth roared in Christchurch, I was finally coming back. I’d come up with many excuses during that time as to why I hadn’t already returned. It didn’t fit with my plans, or I didn’t have enough annual leave, or I was on the other side of the world.

All of those things were true, but they weren’t the real reason.

I just didn’t want to see it with my own eyes.

There were too many memories wrapped up in the crumbled masonry and destroyed houses. Too much had happened. Too many broken buildings, too many dead people, too many lives changed forever. I wasn’t sure I was ready to deal with it. I wasn’t sure I would ever be.

I was worried about the divide as well. Those who were there on that day and the long, horrible months of aftershocks and pain afterwards, versus those who were not. I could sympathise, but I could never truly know what it was like. I wondered whether sympathy could be enough.

Crane in Christchurch

We stayed in a room at Haka Lodge overnight, a small, highly-rated hostel around ten minutes from the CBD by car. The wi-fi wasn’t working the day we were there but everything else was great – an immaculate private room, clean bathrooms, large common area and friendly staff member was everything I could have hoped for during our short stay.

My mind wasn’t really on our accommodation, though. The following morning we were due to take a bus tour around the “red zone” – the part of the CBD that’s still cordoned off and protected by the military. If you don’t have a permit or aren’t on an authorised tour, you’re not allowed in. Period.

Warned by the guide and information cards that there was a risk of injury or death on this trip didn’t help much with my mood. On the way to the starting point I had driven along buckled roads, unexpected views glimpsed every few minutes through the gaps where buildings once stood. How much worse could it be, I wondered?


Chairs, Christchurch

185 empty white chairs sit on a small patch of lawn just outside the exclusion zone, a memorial sculpture to the people who lost their lives on that day. The baby seat in front was particularly hard to take.

Cathedral, Christhchurch

Christchurch’s city centre has always been dominated by its cathedral. Many of my memories include that old church – I used to work in the Press building opposite and, in later years, attend meetings in the nearby Telecom offices.  I was a regular in the bars that overlooked it, and the central location meant that I’d invariably find myself wandering past it most nights I was out in town.

I knew that it had been severely damaged, probably beyond repair, but to see it with its front ripped off and held up by scaffolding bought emotions flooding to the surface. I’m not a religious person, but the cathedral was more than just a place of worship – it was the symbol of the city. It’s not hard to understand why a group of locals is fighting to save it from the final wrecking ball, even if restoration seems impossible.

Cathedral side, Christchurch

Trundling slowly past boarded-up shops and restaurants, the memories flooded back. I spent a St Patrick’s Day in that bar, and a drunken birthday in that one. I danced until the small hours in that terrible nightclub, and bought late-night kebabs at that takeaway joint. I had a first date in that steak restaurant, bought a pair of jeans from that little shop and left my car in that slumping mass of concrete that used to be a parking building.

That the icons were gone was gut-wrenching, but it was the derelict remnants of a former life that hit me hardest. I wiped away a tear as the bus carried on.

Rubble, Christchurch

The tour only took half an hour, but it felt like we’d driven through the destruction for days. Walking slowly away, I wondered how the city could possibly recover from having its heart ripped out like this. The statistics were almost incomprehensible – 40 billion dollars worth of damage. 10,000 buildings destroyed and more than ten times that many damaged. Many people have left, perhaps never to return. Can Christchurch recover from a blow like this? Could any city?

As I explored more, though, I started to notice something surprising. A little sculpture on a street corner. Refrigerators repurposed as community book exchanges. A temporary music and events venue in the central city, made from wooden pallets and salvaged concrete.  A shopping mall constructed from shipping containers.

Re:START, Christchurch

Amidst the destruction, little seeds of hope had taken root and sprouted. Designers, artists, entrepreneurs were trying out new ideas. It was hard to see the earthquake as anything more than the disaster it was, but people were seizing the opportunity to do something different in ways they could never have before. There’s no shortage of vacant land in the inner city to try out a new idea these days.

Johnson's grocers, Christchurch

Talking to my friends, colleagues, random people in a cafe or bar, I realised something else. People are still dealing with the aftermath of the quake, and will be for years, decades to come – but they’re now starting to look to the future as well. The many thousands of aftershocks have finally become less frequent, and much of the demolition is complete. With the start of the reconstruction has come a dream of normality in a city that hasn’t had one in over two years.

I arrived in town unsure of what I would find, expecting only to leave my old home with a heavy heart. While seeing the destruction first-hand was perhaps even harder than I had imagined, I was surprised at what else I found there.

Christchurch still has an incredibly long way to go in the recovery process, and it will never be the city it once was. There’s at least a chance now, though, that it could one day be something even better.

Hope is a truly wonderful thing.

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  1. Loved reading this. I lived in Christchurch for 6 months during 2008… it doesn’t sound long but that city left a huge impression on me, it felt like home away from home and I left a little bit of my heart there. It’s so very sad that it got destroyed but like you say, it will rise again. It won’t be the same but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Great post!

  2. I lived most of my first 20 years there and have many memories of the place that was. To me (and likewise religion does not figure highly in my life) the old cathedral was iconic Christchurch. In the 1950’s you could the spire from my home in St Albans as the high rises hadn’t happened then. I heard a tremendous speech from Jason Pemberton (Student Volunteer Army) over the weekend and young people like him give hope that Christchurch will indeed do a Phoenix and rose from the ashes.

  3. Christchurch was for me the base from where to start the final leap to Antarctica, and the place where to meet civilization again after months of exhausting journeys to the White Continent. I remember the small airport with the paint footprints to the Antarctic Center, shopping downtown, the Sudima, the trips to the lakes, the harbor embedded in hills… and many other things. I loved being there.
    I don’t want to see it like this

  4. What a brave and wonderfully written piece this is Dave. I studied abroad in New Zealand in 2005 and returned in 2011 – it holds an extremely special place in my heart, a place where everything has always just fit right for me. I flew out of Christchurch the morning of the earthquake, having just landed in Auckland when it hit. It was a strange feeling having just walked on those very streets hours earlier.

    My full time job is actually in a related field to disaster response and I’ve heard from a number of wonderful people working to help the community recover and it’s so encouraging to hear these stories and see glimmers of hope through the tragedy. I’m looking forward to returning as soon as I possibly can.