In September 2010, a 7.1 earthquake hit the Canterbury region of New Zealand. Just a few months later, in February 2011, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, destroying most of the city’s buildings and infrastructure. It did not, however, destroy the city’s spirit.
It’s been over six years since the fatal earthquakes, but just by looking at the city, you’d think only a year or so had passed. Christchurch is still very much a work-in-progress, with construction sites and crumbling buildings everywhere you turn. Gates and warning signs surround historic structures. Gravel lots outnumber operating buildings, amplifying the emptiness left behind by the quake.
While traveling around New Zealand, plenty of people told me how eerie Christchurch was. They told me about the damage, and how it was still in shambles. And yet, when I finally arrived, I was shocked to see that entire city blocks still sat unused. In my mind, it was unfathomable that a major city could sit so long after such a disaster without being rebuilt. Perhaps that thought was naïve.
I wandered through the streets many times during my stay in Christchurch. During the day, there were at least tourists out and about. Just outside the city center, there was even more life. But after 5 pm, and especially once the sun set, the city felt like a ghost town. Shops closed early and there weren’t many restaurants left open in the evenings. It seemed that most residents left the city center at night, and tourists didn’t have many places to go other than their hotel rooms.
Christchurch isn’t all doom and gloom, though. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Despite the wide-spread damage, the city feels very hopeful.
The streets are quiet, mostly empty, but signs of life are popping up everywhere. Blank walls are turned into colorful murals; empty lots are turned into community gardens; chain-link fences are turned into art installations. While I couldn’t possibly forget about the earthquake while being surrounded by rubble and construction sites, I also couldn’t help but see the high spirits within the city.
People gathered where they could, and supported the businesses that were up and running. Tourism in Christchurch has been a huge part of that.
The city needs money in order to rebuild, and bringing in tourists over the last few years has been integral to funding it. Having big attractions like the Canterbury Museum and the Christchurch Art Gallery in operation has kept people coming to visit. Getting the Christchurch tram running and extending the line; creating Quake City to shed light on what happened; allowing visitors to congregate in Cathedral Square, the historical heart of the city, even though Christchurch Cathedral is still off-limits—these are all things that have made Christchurch a viable tourist destination.
One of the most popular post-earthquake attractions in Christchurch was the Re:Start Mall. This shopping center was constructed out of re-purposed shipping containers to give businesses a temporary storefront. The plan was to keep it in place for 6 months, maybe a year, but for over 5 years it remained. It was a symbol for the city and attracted a lot of people. It was an important aspect of Christchurch after the quake, giving businesses a place to exist while permanent structures were being rebuilt.
Just before the holiday season in late 2016, permanent shops began opening their doors in the city center, and more are on the way. These permanent retail precincts are a sign that Christchurch is truly back in business.
In late April 2017, the Re:Start Mall as it was known came to a close. The plan is to make way for a farmers market. While the mall was a beloved feature of Christchurch, it was only meant to be temporary. Businesses are able to relocate to permanent storefronts now. The fact that the Re:Start Mall has closed is a positive thing: it means Christchurch is rebuilding. The city is finally coming back to life.
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