Take a minute with me to think about a few things. Start with your house or wherever you live. Think about your room, your space and all of your things. Now think about your town and your neighborhood – family and friends’ houses, your favorite restaurants, bars, movie theaters and places where you recreate and hang out with your friends. Finally, think about all the places you go to take care of things – the bank, the grocery store, hardware store, pharmacy, sporting goods and fashion outlets. Think about your day-to-day life.
Now imagine all of those things being shaken, crushed, pulverized and reduced to piles of broken concrete, shattered glass, twisted metal and rubble. Your home town, flat.
That is what happened in Christchurch.
Christchurch is a city where there used to be a city, as someone here put it. I arrived here a few days ago having heard about the 7.1 and 6.3 magnitude earthquakes that rocked the area on September 4, 2010 and February 22, 2011, respectively.
Almost a year after the last “big” quake (there have literally been thousands of aftershocks over the months since), the city is still in full recovery mode.
Walking through town has a distinctively eerie, unsettling feeling. Approaching the central business district you can see plenty of tall buildings in what appears from far to be a large city and busy downtown area. As you get closer though, you start to realize that things are not as they appear.
You might see a cafe or a tavern from a distance away that looks open for business; as you get closer though, through dark and dusty windows you can see the damaged interiors and handwritten signs with different versions of “closed due to earthquake, not sure when we will reopen.”
Buildings that were destroyed or badly damaged in the quakes have gradually been demolished and the lots cleared, leaving empty, fenced-off spaces with only small piles of rubble and weeds growing. Walls with no buildings attached to them are held up with support beams.
Most of the downtown area is fence-off completely in the “Red Zone,” but there are still a few areas you can walk though. Through the chain-link fencing and beyond the “EXTREME DANGER: KEEP OUT” signs you can plainly see the areas that have yet to be cleared, with rubble and destruction spilling over into the streets.
It feels like there should be more people here.
It’s not all depressing though. There are signs of life and recovery. People are coming back and rebuilding their fair city.
I got hooked up with a local organization called Gap Fillers, (be sure to like them on Facebook) which “aims to temporarily activate vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city.” There are all sorts of different projects, from a temporary movie theater operated by stationary bicycles, to artwork, to music venues. Instead of a vacant lot, there is something there.
The project I worked on was simple but clever: a life-sized chess board that anyone can stop in and play at their leisure. Most everything was already there, we simply had to remove heaps of recycled glass (broken down and used for filler, almost like sand) and replace it with gravel of sorts (the glass had unfortunately been cutting a few people wearing sandals and jandals (whatever those are)).
With about 10 volunteers we crushed it in a matter of four or five hours. In the process I met a few awesome people, including Lane Perry, who you’ll have to hear about in a later post.
Considering the state of the city, one day’s worth of work was pretty insignificant, but this outfit now has over a dozen gaps filled throughout the city. And with as many vacant lots as there are, it’s nice to lay eyes on something beautiful or useful or peaceful instead of weeds and rubble.
Seeking out a few more days of work, with Gap Fillers or another group, before moving on through the South Island.
Noteworthy: favorite new Kiwi saying (there are plenty): “she’ll be right mate,” closely followed by “good be on you.”
Have you ever experienced or lost something in a natural disaster?.