Fittingly, I am a nice Jewish girl living in a city called Christchurch. My decision to study in Christchurch was the result of many hours of over-the-top online research, but I finally beat my indecisiveness and made my choice. Christchurch had things going for it — it was on the South Island, where I knew I wanted to be, UC was the only school that offered a scholarship for international students, and, most interestingly, Christchurch had been destroyed by an earthquake in 2011.
Philadelphia always manages to dodge natural disasters, so the thought of studying in post-earthquake Christchurch appealed to me. “How cool!” I ignorantly thought. Christchurch would be a resilient place, a place fresh and new after the devastation of 2011. I would have a fresh start in a place built from a completely blank slate. Naively, I expected the city to be completely recovered four years after the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that claimed 185 lives and devastated its Central Business District (CBD) and residential areas.
Driving through Christchurch after arriving at the airport, I was shocked at how much rubble, construction equipment, and dilapidated buildings still existed along the streets…or just in the middle of the streets.
Christchurch was the opposite of what I had expected — it was messy, it was crumbling, it was slow, and it was nothing like the shining example of resilience I had read about. Over the semester, however, I have come to appreciate aspects of the Christchurch rebuild that I at first dismissed or didn’t notice, and to defend the city — kind of like a sibling: I can make fun of or complain about the rebuild, but out-of-towners can’t. I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, but also wanted to make sure I had a good enough grasp on the full picture of post-earthquake Christchurch. This post, divided into different components of the rebuild that I myself have come across, is my homage to the city that at first seemed so unfitting.
The Earthquake Itself
Christchurch (ChCh) is the largest city on the South Island and the second-largest city in New Zealand. In 2010 and 2011, the city and surrounding region were hit hard by the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence, which included the 7.1 magnitude Darfield Earthquake in 2010, the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that devastated Christchurch on February 22, 2011, and countless aftershocks. Most of my knowledge of the earthquake comes from my Environmental GeoHazards class, which focuses on hazard planning and disaster response. In class, we often use the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence (CES) as a case study, taking field trips to the Red Zone (the once-residential area deemed unfit for rebuilding), examining the impacts of the earthquake on Christchurch’s economy, and critiquing the response in 2011. The class has exposed me to a lot of behind-the-scenes details of the earthquake and, while one can understand the rebuild without this knowledge, it has definitely enhanced my experience in post-quake Christchurch.
Right after the earthquake, a huge number of people migrated out of Christchurch in favor of Auckland or Wellington, NZ’s biggest city and capitol, respectively. Often, Christchurch feels apocalyptic — walking to my internship at 11 am on a Tuesday, I don’t see a single other person. Those who stayed in the city usually fall into one of two camps, those who wholeheartedly love Christchurch and give massive amounts of energy and time to helping rebuild, and those who feel stuck in Christchurch and remain dissatisfied with the lack of progress.
The rebuild is slow. It’s taking a long time. Up until three months ago, the Central Bus Exchange (think Market East or 30th Street) was a strip of concrete in the middle of the city. There are many reasons for the crawling pace of the rebuild, many of them political or financial, but there is also a lack of personal investment or ownership of the city by its inhabitants. Many of the construction and structural engineering jobs in ChCh are done by people and firms from other countries. Often, instead of seeing a chance to craft an improved city, people who lived in pre-earthquake Christchurch simply mourn its loss. I am careful about appearing overly excited about the rebuild, as I understand how frustrating it is, and I am only here for a mere half a year.
On the other hand, many people in Christchurch absolutely adore the city and try their best to pitch in any way they can. There are tons of community events, and a tangible pride for the city. I have never lived in a city where I felt so cared for and supported, and with a smaller community there is a real sense of teamwork. These are the people I identify with more, and the types of people who are crafting the city I expected to find before coming to New Zealand.
As someone who did not live in pre-earthquake Christchurch and who has the luxury of leaving after a few months of constantly dodging construction equipment, I acknowledge that I can’t possibly fully understand the conflicted attitudes that people have towards ChCh. I do, however, very much feel a part of the rebuild. So many things exist here that couldn’t in a non-post-disaster place, and I can see the city growing.
In the second half of this post, I’ll detail the Community, Art, and Entrepreneurial scenes in Christchurch — stay tuned!