After the fall

Author: Max Anderson
Photography: Courtesy of The Tannery

Christchurch was crushed by the 2011 earthquake and now the recovery effort is in full swing, writes Max Anderson.

When a city's walls have fallen how do you turn a corner? It takes time.

It has been nearly three years since a 6.3 magnitude earthquake claimed 185 lives and destroyed 80 per cent of the inner city of Christchurch in February 2011. By the beginning of this year the sound of demolition had all but ceased and the barricaded "red zone" was pulled down mid-year - a corner, of sorts.

While huge challenges remain for residents, rebuilding has begun in earnest and travellers are being encouraged to visit a very different Christchurch from the genteel pre-quake city.

Five hotels have opened in the past seven months: Novotel, Heritage, Quest Serviced Apartments, Hotel 115 and the Rydges Latimer. "In the peak summer months we were running out of hotels and backpacker accommodation," says Tim Hunter, chief executive of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism. "People would come into town, find they couldn't get a room and head back out. Now capacity is 68 per cent of where we were before the quake - and we have a much broader range of accommodation types."

International tourism to the city was decimated, but Hunter says tourism, too, is recovering. "Christchurch was getting 1.5 million international guest-nights in the city before 2011; that's now at 840,000, up from its lowest point of 740,000."

Some attractions were unaffected by the quake, including the city's Botanic Gardens, the International Antarctic Centre and punting on the River Avon. In April, New Regent Street - the 1932 boutique shopping street built in Spanish Mission style - was refurbished, reinvigorated with new businesses and reopened. In October, the city's trams began rattling through the streets again and the first of about 70 retail and hospitality outlets planned at The Tannery in Woolston - a stunning piece of industrial architecture - have opened.

As for the city's new attractions, they're unique responses to the massive challenge of rebuilding, mostly born of necessity, and a determination to use vacant space with some wry Kiwi humour.

Re:Start is a brightly coloured shopping mall fashioned from shipping containers. The 700-seat Cardboard Cathedral opened in August as a stand-in for Christchurch's ruined centrepiece - a statement of astonishing bravura. The Pallet Pavilion is an outdoor arts and performance amphitheatre made of, yes, wooden pallets. There are arts projects ("Ghost Poems" on city walls will disappear as new buildings go up), sports projects (Gap Golf, offering nine free golf "holes" where buildings once stood) and a raft of pop-up cafés and bars, such as Volstead Trading Company ("Think an old converted garage, furniture that is reminiscent of stuff your granny might have, a piano turned into a barbecue and a cute little caravan from which food offerings appear," says the Pop Up City Christchurch website).

Collectively these colourful and quirky ventures are referred to as Christchurch's "transitionals": expedient but likely to be temporary. Something else is emerging from the vacant lots: a new and permanent inner-city Christchurch.

Sam Crofskey owns the popular C1 Espresso café, which he promoted before the earthquake as "the greatest café in New Zealand". After evacuating on 22 February, he wasn't allowed to return to the ruin of his business for three months, and only then to rescue some belongings. He reopened his café in November last year across the road in the Art Deco former post office building, one of the few heritage structures left standing. "It's now the 'greatest café in the world'," Crofskey says. "It's no joke. It's bigger and better. It has to be. Something good had to come out of this f-ing earthquake!"

Crofskey says he's seizing opportunity from the disaster. Everything in his enlarged premises has significance: bits of the old café have been fashioned into the new space as a tribute to the much-loved spot; the new property is energy-efficient (even the heat from the roasters is reused); and the roof of C1 has been turned into a garden, with vineyard, citrus orchard and beehives.

Christchurch, too, he says, is seizing its opportunity. "Before the quake, it faced south, but now the whole city is being turned around to face the river. And we're acknowledging our past in a better way - the Ngai Tahu [local Maori] are telling their story in the city, whereas before we were a very English city. We're actually reflecting on who we are."

Hunter is optimistic about the upcoming summer, especially if Asian and European tourist numbers keep increasing. But he'd love to see the return of the city's biggest international market. "I think Australians were most impacted by the horrific images back in 2011," he says. "They watched it live, they saw it as it happened." The implication is Australians continue to perceive a city in crisis - not in recovery.

"We have 790 cafés restaurants and bars," says Hunter. "Of those, 220 have opened in the last 18 months. That's the rate of buildings going up. There's still a long way to go, but visitors don't need to worry that there'll be nothing here. Hospitality is coming back."

So, it seems, is Christchurch.

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