Impressions of a city ruined

It seems a strange thing to do on holiday - go walking around some empty lots, derelict buildings, office blocks being demolished and a once grand Cathedral now standing in ruins, but a trip to the centre of Christchurch is almost unavoidable when visiting this city.

It is a bit like going to see a good friend injured and bruised in some dreadful accident: it is unpleasant, but duty binds, and perhaps in some way you can bring comfort, or even speed repair.

The sad thing about my visit to Christchurch is that nearly six years after the earthquake of February 22, 2011 the wounds still look so fresh and gaping.

Christchurch is not my city, but it is my family’s city. I’ve been coming here on and off most of my life - a student traveller, on holiday from work, now with kids to spend time with extended family.

Five generations ago, a young couple and their baby arrived on one of the first four ships bringing settlers from England to the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island.

As my great-great-great grandparents walked over the hills from Lyttleton Harbour to the fledgling settlement, plans were already underway for a garden city centred around a prominent cathedral.

Christchurch Cathedral was completed thirty years later, not in wood, as originally planned, but in locally-sourced stone.

It dropped its first piece of masonry in an earthquake a month after consecration.

Two generations later, my family was gathering in Cathedral Square, impeccably dressed for a day out in the city, posing for photos that are now an important part of our family record.

That is what the centre of Christchurch was for so long - a place where people came together, a truly vibrant heart of a beautiful city, a focus for businesses and tourists, hotels and restaurants. 

Now there are wide gaps in the perimeter of the square. So many damaged buildings have been demolished you would be able to see the horizon, were it not for the hoarding around vacant plots.

There is very little life left in the place.

The tram still brings visitors through the square, but the other stops on its route look more appealing and picturesque.

The main attraction here is the sad and contentious ruined Cathedral.  

It is damaged beyond repair, deconsecrated, stripped of its stained glass, and propped up by overbearing steel structures that obscure its characteristic and potentially lethal stonework.

Nearby is a sideshow where the work of tearing a building down has been halted halfway. 

It is a study in twisted rebar and crumbled concrete, neatly counterbalanced by demolition equipment in perfect working order. 

A messy assortment of informal traders and buskers have set up in the square to catch the curious, the sentimental and the duty bound.

Among them was a women who tells me she was confirmed, aged 13, in the Cathedral.

She wants something done with it, progress of some sort towards resolution, possibly replacement.

My mother agrees. 

She grew up nearby, but is this time visiting from South Africa. She’s seen the battered centre of the city on previous trips, so is not surprised at its state.

She is just annoyed that it is still such a shambles.

Of course there have been efforts to keep people coming to the city’s centre - the container mall nearby, pop-up coffee stations, street art, and concerts.

And some practices have carried on as before: chess is still a drawcard for the strategically minded. 

Players get together for intimate games in the shade of the square’s feature trees.

Others play it as a spectator sport, choosing the oversized version that attracts curious bystanders.

After all these years, most attempts at reviving the heart of the city now feel like half a decade worth of CPR.

The commissioned street art dotted around the ruins is impressive, but it is hard to miss the graffiti that blights the city centre, and makes the place feel like a disused industrial area. 

Spray can wielding artists have proved their prowess at scaling demolition sites by tagging the half-obliterated block on the edge of the square. 

Elsewhere, their creations embellish wide windows in an abandoned building, and appear to have been applied from the inside.

Even the still intact, recently sold and soon to be re-opened Millennium Hotel has been defaced.

In time it may all be restored and revived.

Until then, massive weeds will continue to grow up among the cordoned off flagstones, where so many used to gather after celebrations and services, or for holiday snaps and family shots. 

The weeds are in full flower, attracting butterflies and small birds.

With much of the west wall of the cathedral missing, the full splendour of its wooden elements are visible.

A small flock of pigeons shelter and socialise along the totara and matai timber beams.

For now, there is more life behind the fences around the cathedral, than on the streets around it.