It’s been years since I was in Christchurch – no, actually make that a decade (where does the time go?!). I lived there in my university days, before I had seen the world, and before the world had seen the devastation of both the September 2010 and February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. I watched with horror from London when the big one struck, and saw the face of the city I knew so well change into a complete stranger.
So now, almost five years on from the quake, and a decade since I last saw the city, I’ve headed back to experience the new Christchurch, a city that my local friends say I won’t recognise.
So what are the new first impressions?
Driving in, I was feeling anxious. I was nervous about what I would see, and the closer I got to the central city the more awestruck I was. The major routes into the city look the same, but the city’s landmarks are absent – I have a pretty terrible memory at the best of times, so finding my way around was a little tricky.
Arriving at our hotel just off Cathedral Square was confronting. Past empty, gravelled lots turned into carparks, shambled buildings, and property after property fenced off and cautioned as a hazard, it reminded me of a war torn city.
What’s it like to visit the city now?
Perhaps the biggest difference, and the most surprising for me, was how the city’s vibe has changed. There’s a make do and knuckle down vibe that didn’t exist before in what was a known as a bit of a ‘posh’ city.
Its half-crumbled buildings and wide open lots make it oddly dystopian, but that gives it a fresh edge when paired with the new bursts of street art, the new bars and restaurants popping up with all the character required to confront the adversity served up by the quake. Smash Palace for example, a very simple outdoor bar where drinks are served from an old bus, and the food is dished out with just the right amount of heart and soul.
I found myself marvelling at the destruction and the change, then all of a sudden hit by nostalgic familiarity, discovering an untouched part of the city, like the Curator’s House in the Botanic Gardens, or the areas around the university in Ilam and Riccarton. But even then, the orange caution signs, road cones and hard hats are never far from sight.
The soundtrack of the city is construction noise. Jack hammers and power tools and sledgehammers and trucks, they’re always just there, humming in the background and reminding you of the incredible hard work and dedication that is going on right on the surface, never losing momentum in the rebuild that seems like it’s only just getting started.
Through all the brave faces and positivity, there is an underlying sadness here. It’s not always obvious, but it’s there – and fair enough too, given the short years since, and the long years ahead in replacing, rebuilding and renewing. But it’s compensated by a growing vibrancy that make this an interesting, visually and emotionally engaging city to visit.
What do the locals think?
Understandably it’s been a very tough time for Christchurch’s residents, and many have chosen to move to sturdier climes. But with almost five years having passed, the locals have been able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and look to the future with positivity and strength thanks to the support they’ve had from around the country and the world.
They are now focused on ‘future Christchurch’. The earthquakes, devastating as they were, have provided the previously very conservative city with the opportunity for regeneration, to rebuild a city that has a vibe the locals have craved. The city can now become more modern, with a liberal edge, which is already supported by the street art scene that is popping up, and which is actively encouraged by local body Scape8 to enrich the city with diversity and put art at the city’s heart.
Now is the time to build a city that Christchurch locals want to live in, and will be proud to welcome a new breed of visitors to when it’s ready – however they’re quick to realism around the time this will take, with a solid decade or more until this ‘future Christchurch’ comes to fruition.
What can a first time visitor expect?
Honestly, it’s probably not the place for a sole destination trip, but if you’re doing the South Island it’s more than worth a visit to experience a city that’s fearlessly rebuilding. Despite the rugged surface, the city has a beating heart that’s emerging via new bars and restaurants which are giving the city a diversity that was a little harder to find before, and makes it a great place to spend a few days.
Eat and drink
The city will seem very quiet, and options for entertainment limited – but all that means is that the great bars and restaurants that do exist are busy and vibrant. Try Smash Palace for a relaxed outdoor happy hour, Strange’s Lane for an inner city urban vibe that’s almost Melbournian in nature, and Tequila Mockingbird on the central city’s northern edge for a pun-filled experience of delicious food and swish cocktails.
During the day, visit New Regent Street just opposite Cathedral Square, where you could easily think you’re in the heart of New Orleans, with vintage facades, pedestrianized street and a cable car rolling through. You can enjoy brunch or lunch at any of the cafes on the street, and jump on a tram to see the city’s landscape and hear more about Christchurch before and after the quakes.
Enjoy the untouched part of the garden city
The city’s gardens are a peaceful and beautiful haven in the centre of the city. Hagley Park is 164 hectares of green, tree-filled floral delight, the perfect place to spend an afternoon wandering, lounging, punting down the river or enjoying a drink or snack in one of the cafes (try Ilex Café in the Botanical Gardens, or the Curator’s House on the Eastern Edge for tapas).
A different kind of shopping mall
In the aftermath of the earthquake, the city needed to pick up and keep on trucking, so shipping containers were brought in as makeshift buildings to house goods and services essential to keeping the city going.
What was the Cashel Street Mall is now the Re:Start Mall, a hive of activity surrounded by cranes and building frames, with food trucks and temporary banks rounding out the usual mall offerings. It’s shopping with a difference!
The art walkway
A proud support for the arts has always been a cornerstone of Christchurch’s culture, and this is only becoming more prominent as the city rebuilds.
What is now forming is a public art walkway, with pieces popping up around the city centre in an effort to encourage the formation of new connections with a city in transformation. It’s complemented by large murals around the place that are brightening the faces of some of the torn and tattered buildings in the city centre.
Paying your respects
There are a couple of important sights at which you can pay your respects to those lost in the Christchurch earthquake. On the site opposite the Canterbury Television building (which collapsed in the earthquake, killing 115 people), stands a memorial of 185 empty white chairs, one for each person who died in the quake.
Just one block north stands the Cardboard Cathedral – the transitional house of worship erected as a stand in for the devastated historic landmark of the Christchurch Cathedral (which, by the way, is heartbreaking – it literally looks like a bomb has hit it). In equal parts emergency construction and sustainable building, the church is largely made of cardboard tubes, and makes for an interesting piece of architecture.
Supporting an important rebuild
Although the face of Christchurch has deteriorated somewhat, and the options for entertainment are limited, a visit to this city is easily rewarded with a developing vibrance and unexpected enjoyment and appreciation for the uniqueness of the city that is unfolding.
Your tourist dollars will help the city rebuild, and if there’s ever a city that’s worth rebuilding, it’s this one. Because it will be built with more strength of character and indestructible tenacity than the city that stood before it – the seedlings are here already.