Phoenix Rising: The Optimism of Christchurch

Yesterday’s news that a large 6.5 earthquake hit Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, following a 5.7 rattler only two days before, was yet another reminder that New Zealand remains seismically active. When I was here earlier in the year, Mt Tongariro on the North Island erupted. Volcanic activity and sudden earth movement are alive and well here and throughout the entire Ring of Fire, which includes my own home state of Washington. Residents in my neck of the woods talk matter-of-factly of expecting The Big One.

Christchurch was famously struck by two big earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, separated by a mere 6 months. Tragically the latter resulted in 185 deaths. These were followed by the horrific Sendai earthquake in Japan later in 2011. Both quakes did significant damage to NZ’s second largest city, especially to the Central Business District (CBD) where a large number of older buildings was concentrated, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral. After the first quake, safety concerns led civil authorities to close down the CBD to public access. It remained inaccessible until about two months ago, after all unsafe buildings were razed, inspections completed and hazardous areas fenced off. Visible evidence of the destruction still remains, prodigious piles of rubble behind chain-link fences that will take years to clean up. The cathedral is a shadow of its former self.

Despite all this, as I walked through the area, I was really impressed with the positive spirit reflected in the downtown area, the optimism that comes from a people looking ahead rather than dwelling on the misfortunes of the past. Re:START’s project of sponsoring the construction of the container mall was a welcome, affirmative and symbolic gesture. Even if the CBD is mostly unrecognizable from what it had once been, there are indications everywhere that the phoenix is rising from its ashes. Whether it was temporary topiaries in the shape of animals, potted plants, decoration on chain-link fences, the fencing around the cathedral punctuated in front by a planter-box representation, or amateur entertainers performing for the public, these small signs signify hope for the future. With no motor vehicles, a big part of the CBD is for the moment a pedestrian zone. People were out in force today, many recalling with family and friends the former pre-quake landscape.

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