Last Monday was my first trip to Christchurch (New Zealand) since the devastating earthquakes of 2011. We had been warned in advance not to expect very much but on the taxi from the airport all seemed quite normal, albeit with extensive building works. Then suddenly the ruins of the Victorian cathedral appeared in front of us and we realised that the empty blocks we had been passing were not some unused land between airport and city centre, it was the former city centre, now mostly demolished. A sobering moment, as the taxi driver explained how just clearing the unsafe—but still standing buildings—had taken years to complete safely in part due to the amount of asbestos they contained.
The next morning I took a photo walk around Cathedral Square. It was eerily deserted except for a few other like-minded camera wielding tourists but then I remembered it was a public holiday and so not unexpected that a CBD would be quiet at 9am. The cathedral and two other buildings in the square are still derelict, fenced off and slowly being reclaimed by nature. Surrounding the square are wide open spaces, punctuated by the occasional buildings standing out like tall poppies in a field. A couple of these buildings are marked “to go”, but others are shiny new edifices including two new business hotels and a modern office block.
Away from Cathedral Square, the former main shopping street was still closed and under scaffolding but elsewhere there were signs of new life. One street had a row of gaily painted boutique shops and the former grand colonial Post Office building is the home of C1 Espresso, a hip café serving great coffee and interesting food, delivered to your table through the pneumatic tubes leftover from the building’s previous life. To get there required walking through several quiet streets of closed up and scaffold-clad buildings so finding such a vibrant venue amongst all the reconstruction seemed like a good analogy for Christchurch as a whole—exciting new shoots of life appearing in places but overall not yet in full bloom.