It’s taken me four years to get around to telling my earthquake story. One reason for that might be a craving for normality. I’m not a person who readily welcomes big changes in my life, and sometimes when change is forced upon us, the easiest way to deal with it is to keep focused on that which is familiar and stable, rather than the new and unexpected.
Another reason might be that it has taken me this long to realise that actually, the earthquakes have had a pretty big impact on my life, but if anything, it’s been a positive one and perhaps I feel that this somehow makes it less significant.
It doesn’t seem right to feel grateful for something that had such tragic implications for so many. I was really fortunate that no one I knew directly, nor my house, was badly affected (it definitely helped being a student and living on the west side of town). Instead, the earthquakes have opened doors and provided new opportunities. From where I’m standing the walls that crumbled in Christchurch weren’t only those made of bricks, but the metaphorical sort as well – the sort that kept us contained within our rigid, inwardly-focused ways of life. The sort that reinforced the status quo and discouraged us from being spontaneous and experimental, daring and playful.
For a long time I dismissed my experiences as irrelevant because they didn’t fit the more conventional picture of grief and devastation, whereas now I can look at things from a different angle and see that even worse would be failing to appreciate and make the most of the opportunities that arose. Because I haven’t had to deal with the stress of insurance claims, or the grief of losing my home or someone close to me, I’ve had the chance to get out and explore this tentative new city emerging from the rubble. It opened up a space in which I felt I could contribute something, and the fact that I can seems like enough of a reason to do so.
There are many things I miss about pre-quake Christchurch. I miss lazy Sunday afternoons at the Arts Centre, where Daegan and I used to get lunch from one of the vendors (usually satay chicken kebabs on rice), then wander around the galleries and sit in the sunny quadrant. I miss late nights at SOL square, particularly the underground Culture Club with its graffiti-covered concrete walls, 80s beats and alternative crowd. I miss the free electric buses in the CBD, and the bustle of the central exchange.
More and more, as they come down at an ever-increasing rate, I miss the heritage buildings, and wish I had looked up more and really noticed the architectural intricacies from bygone eras. It’s just like Joni Mitchell sang: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone / They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot”.
Much of our central city has been converted into car parks, and it’s only now as I sit at my computer at work, archiving photographs of the buildings that used to exist in these spaces, that I see them in their full beauty.
But it was the emergence of these concrete wastelands that sparked artists and creative types into action. No one talks about the outcomes of the Christchurch earthquakes without mentioning Gap Filler, and I’m very aware that I’m adding yet another cliched anecdote to the dialogue surrounding Christchurch, which comes packaged with buzzwords such as ‘community’, ‘resilience’ and ‘temporary’.
As a ‘creative type’, however, I have really appreciated and been inspired by the expansion and disruption of the Christchurch art scene. From where I stand, Gap Filler were the initial ‘disruptors’, with their DIY, try-it-out attitude, and a desire to encourage us to consider what we really value when rebuilding the city (hint: it’s probably not the car parks). Soon there were creative happenings on vacant sites everywhere, and other groups and organisations forming, such as FESTA and Greening The Rubble. It felt like Christchurch had woken up, and was asserting itself to the rest of the world as a city of culture and character.
This feeling was reinforced after visiting New York in the middle of last year. Everyone knows New York is an artist’s dream, but I couldn’t help feeling that a lot of the things that make it so great are things that we now have here in post-quake Christchurch: the street art, the pop-up shops, the community gardens and collaborative work spaces. The high chances of running into someone doing something a bit strange and different, because they can. The walls are down – there is more room to move.
If it weren’t for this change in atmosphere, I wouldn’t have stumbled across a rather obscure field of art known as ‘social practice’, which I delved into during my final year of Fine Arts. My ‘art’ came to exist as public projects, events and interventions. I joined an artist collective called The Social, and was excited to find there were others in Christchurch thinking along similar lines, who may have also been feeling a sudden sense of freedom and opportunity to explore these ‘new age’ styles of creative practice. Of course it’s completely possible, given this sort of art has existed in other places around the world – particularly Europe and the US – for quite some time, that it was making its way over here anyway, but something tells me the reception in Christchurch would have been quite different had it not been for the earthquakes. We’re a bit more open-minded now, more spontaneous, more willing to engage with strangers. More… connected?
Although I find it hard to adjust to change, I know it’s inevitable. By letting our experiences and environments shape us, we grow as people. I think it’s important that we allow ourselves to be changed, and to realise that if we want to, we can also create change, all around us. It’s up to us to shape our cities so that they can continue to shape us.
It was this desire to see the potential of our future city realised that prompted myself and several others to form the Christchurch branch of Generation Zero in mid 2013. Generation Zero is a nationwide group of young people who want to see our country on the path to a low-carbon future. Although the earthquakes were probably to blame for a Christchurch group not kicking off a couple of years earlier alongside the other main centres, the rebuild gives us a unique opportunity to create a sustainable, future-focused city that’s designed for people.
I probably wouldn’t be writing this reflection at all were it not for my current position with CEISMIC – the Canterbury Earthquakes Digital Archive. My job is probably the most obvious thing I have gained as a result of the earthquakes, and a project which I feel privileged to be part of. At first I felt pretty apathetic towards the material we were working with – I didn’t feel connected to the earthquakes in the same way that the people who’s stories and content we were collecting clearly were. But I think as time has passed and we’ve started working with more material centered on the recovery and re-build, I’ve begun to see that while my part of the story doesn’t take place in the initial chaos and devastation, this doesn’t make it any less valid, and that goes for anyone in Christchurch. In fact that could probably be extended to the rest of New Zealand – we’re a small country and the fallout from a disaster of this scale isn’t confined to the city it strikes.
So here’s to our city, Otautahi, four years on. It’s clear when standing amidst the wastelands, the piles of gravel, the road cones, cranes and construction sites, that we still have a long way to go, but at the moment I’m enjoying the journey, and I’d like to think that we’re on our way to creating a city that’s better than it was before.