The Comfort Pursuit

Christchurch four years after the February 2011 earthquake

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The impact of the 2011 earthquake, and the many thousands which have followed, continue to effect [sic] the lives of everyone in Christchurch and its surrounding towns and regions. Conversations with friends in the pub or round the BBQ often turn to vexed issues of repairs, rebuilds and insurance. However, the first question Christchurch locals will ask those they meet for the first time is: ‘Where were you when the quake hit?’ (stuff.co.nz)

Everyone who was in Christchurch on that 22 February 2011 has a story to tell, and I have previously told mine here. Christchurch turned into the broken city seven days after I arrived. When I am asked why I stayed, I still joke that the airport was closed. Truth is I had good reasons to stay, and was very lucky to be safe. My Christchurch is the broken one. My Christchurch has never had a centre, apart from the ‘Container Mall’. Christchurch was the focus of my doctorate, and I learned to love it, to appreciate all the novelty and creativity this period has produced, and above all to believe in its renewal.

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Re:START project, the ‘Container Mall’ in Cashel Street

It is interesting how friends ‘put countries on the map’, or if we know where the countries are geographically, friends can put them into a ‘real-life perspective’. I’ve heard that many times from both sides: my family and friends in Brazil who say they now feel like they know New Zealand very well; and from my friends and colleagues in New Zealand, who say now they understand more about Brazil. Despite this feeling of closeness, it seems that people who have not been in Christchurch after the earthquake have little or no idea of the extent of destruction. I still remember when I first went back to Brazil at the end of 2011 and got many questions about the earthquake, most people had heard of it. But we humans have short memory for things that do not affect us directly. Today, apart from close friends and family, when I mention the earthquake it is common for people in Brazil to dismissively say they didn’t know about it. To that I guess they are probably picturing something under a 4.0 shake. If you are from Christchurch you know that under 4.0 the quake can go unnoticed, but above it it would make you at least stop and think of what is happening. You’d probably make a comment or two about the earthquake the next day. But unfortunately the Garden City wasn’t lucky enough to have only friendly or unnoticed shakes.

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Tuam Street this morning: new road layout, construction on one side, and an empty building on the other

We are currently still faced with traffic changes, roads that are closed or opened on a daily basis, temporary projects that emerge, disappear or move to new sites, and the noise of machinery during business hours. Christchurch remains the cone city, the broken city, and a dystopic environment. Last Sunday, flowers were once again placed on thousands of traffic cones around the city. It is a beautiful spontaneous manifestation, but it does emphasise the enduring presence of the cones. In my research, an interviewee said that the transitional city projects are beautiful, but they “don’t want to see it here for too long”. Indeed it becomes sad when it’s too long. I spent six months away last year, and was very excited to see what had changed in that period of time. Truth is, nothing much. The central city is still very much a post-disaster environment, especially its east part. The west, close to Hagley Park, is slowly coming back.

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The Christ Church Cathedral, in the heart of the Central City, still faces an uncertain future

Is this largely unfinished and ever changing context, it is challenging to put together people’s different perspectives. On one hand are the locals who want to keep the memory and frequently mention how bad Christchurch is now compared to how it was, but who acknowledge the need for new people to help rebuild their city. On the other hand are the new comers, who have this broken environment as all they know about the city. This is their life and new home, this is what they want to like. I have been here for a while, but probably fit better into the second group. Memory and identity are fundamental, but I don’t believe focusing attention on the many problems help new bonds to be developed, and they are much needed. When you feel attached to a place, you care and look after it.

The earthquake left psychological marks on everyone. After all this time, I still think twice before entering an elevator in New Zealand, usually up to 5 floors, I choose the stairs. I still check where the exits are every time I walk into a building. But I was lucky not to have any physical marks, and despite all the disruption I am proud of seeing Christchurch coming back, even at a slow pace.

Note:

If you are interested in reading amazing stories of people saved by a last minute plan change, and many others, you can go to the stuff.co.nz website.

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