In July this year, I returned to Christchurch, New Zealand, the city that had been my home between 1997 and 2012, and a city that over the course of 2010 and 2011 had suffered a series of destructive earthquakes, the most harmful of which was in February 2011. It was the first time I’d been back in more than two years and the first time I had visited what was the central business district since December 2012. The CBD had been cordoned off, ‘red-zoned’, after the February 2011 quake, but then in 2012 they started running ‘red zone tours’, a kind of voyeuristic disaster tourism. I couldn’t help thinking of the scene in the first season of HBO’s Treme, when a tourist bus travels through the devastation that had come to the Ninth Ward, and I thought they were a terrible and insensitive idea. But I still went, in part because we had family visiting from the US who had never been to Christchurch and were understandably curious about what we’d been through, and also because, hell, I wasn’t a tourist and I was about to relocate to Edinburgh a couple of weeks later and I wanted to see the centre of the city that I had lived in and in which I had raised my kids before I left. It was an emotional excursion to say the least. I was leaving Christchurch as a direct result of the post-quake restructuring that had afflicted the University of Canterbury, leaving my husband and co-author and our NZ research funding behind at Massey University in Wellington. Disasters, as Naomi Klein (2007) and Jamie Peck (2006, 2009) have amply illustrated in their work on Hurricane Katrina, are frequently seen as opportunities for accumulation by those that endorse, promote and benefit from neoliberal policies. They are often seen as a chance to displace low-income residents and gentrify the city. In the case of UC, the disaster was an opportunity to dramatically downsize the humanities and social sciences, displace academics in these fields, and align the university with the NZ government’s neoliberal STEM agenda, a philosophy euphemistically described as “disinvesting to reinvest” (cited in Dean 2015: loc 28). As Johnston, Sears and Wilcox (2012: 17) note, one of the administrators kept citing US economist Paul Romer, saying that ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste’. I had been demoralized and unhappy there for some time, the cautious optimism that I had expressed in Transactions shortly after the quake (Cupples 2012) had vanished, and it was time to move to a new institution where the humanities are still valued, where I could advance my research project on media convergence and also live without aftershocks and the threat of ongoing seismic activity (by now we had experienced some 11,000 aftershocks). Rapidly neoliberalizing universities are bad enough, but when you throw disaster into that mix and everyone keeps celebrating how resilient we all are in the face of adversity, they can rapidly become intolerable.
The red zone tour back in December 2012 was both distressing and disorienting. So much of the central city had been destroyed, it was hard sometimes to figure out where we were. Then I would recognize a building that remained, and it would bring back memories. I started reliving the past fifteen years, and all of the times I had walked through Cathedral Square, the things I did with my kids when they were little, the restaurants in which we were regulars. It was hard not only because I was leaving, but because I realized that the city was so transformed that coming back would always be a little traumatic.
Major disasters become global media events for a temporary period. Like the large earthquakes in Haiti or Chile just prior to ours, we were splashed over global media for a while. The usual dominant media framings emphasising resilience and individual acts of heroism were reported and there were lots of pieces to camera in front of piles of rubble (see Cupples and Glynn 2014). Friends all around the world got in touch to make sure we were all right, messages came in from people I hadn’t heard from in a very long time. Conventional media coverage tends to be quite short-lived, however, and after a few days or weeks, the international news crews leave and rarely report on the aftermath and reconstruction process, often giving people outside the disaster area the impression that the disaster is now over. When I tell people in the UK that I moved to Edinburgh because of the earthquakes, it is apparent that many struggle to remember that media coverage. Those that do remember it kind of imagine that the disaster is now over and the city has gone back to normal. Most don’t realize that for many living in Christchurch at the time, when the international news coverage ceased, the disaster had barely begun. For many people, life got much more difficult in the coming months and years as people lost their jobs or were displaced from their homes and communities, or were forced to stay in damaged homes, live in garages or caravans, or have to battle incessantly with insurance companies and the Earthquake Commission (EQC).
I have kept in touch with post-disaster Christchurch through the media, through friends that are still there. I knew that the rebuild was going terribly slowly and many people’s lives have been severely harmed. Insurance companies were slow to pay out, and businesses that had been in the CBD were relocating to the suburbs or to other New Zealand cities. But despite this, my recent visit to the CBD was both profoundly shocking and intensely fascinating. Christchurch’s post-disaster urban geographies almost five years after the first large quake of 2010 and more than four years since the deadly one of 2011 are like nothing I could have imagined when we were living through the immediate aftermath.
It was now possible to explore some of the CBD on foot and it is even more disorienting now than it was at the end of 2012. Central Christchurch today is a bizarre assemblage of so many different elements. Many of these elements reveal the multiple failures and contradictions of the capitalist model and blatant neoliberal neglect. There are buildings such as Café Roma (see Figure 1) or the multi-storey carpark (Fig. 2) both on Oxford Terrace or Scorpio Books on Hereford Street (Fig. 3) that are still awaiting demolition or remediation (see also Figs. 4 and 5). They are slowly being reclaimed by nature as well as graffiti. There is a fascinating eeriness to these building remains. They are buildings in which I ate, parked, shopped, organized a geography conference (Fig. 6), but that now belong to a previous unrecoverable temporality. The Price Waterhouse Cooper building on Armagh St has been demolished but its foundations remain and have filled with water (Fig. 7). A plastic duck could be seen floating in the water.
Although the principal red zone cordon has gone, the CBD is full of no-go areas, that are fenced off, plastered with keep out signs, inaccessible to ordinary people (see Figs. 8 and 9) and are part of the multiple distortions to democracy that the disaster engendered. There are shipping containers everywhere, some creatively used as temporary shops and banks, but many there to stop damaged buildings collapsing on passers-by (Fig. 10).
The iconic and once majestic Anglican Cathedral in Cathedral Square (Figs. 11 and 12) remains in a liminal condition, subject to ongoing contestation. There is disagreement on whether it should be rebuilt, demolished or left as a ruin, as a site to remember and commemorate the disaster. Through longwinded legal, political and religious wranglings, the third option is asserting itself, while the Cathedral too is being reclaimed by nature and is cordoned off.
Then there are many empty spaces, where buildings have been demolished, but nothing has come to stand in its place. The gaps are accompanied by ubiquitous ‘for sale’, ‘for lease’ and ‘development opportunity’ signs (Figs. 13, 14 and 15), revealing the extent to which rebuilding New Zealand’s third largest city is seen by the government as a speculative development activity rather than one that demands urgent public investment. Yet there is minimal evidence that capitalist investors are interested, as the future is so uncertain. As my friend remarked to me, “it is not even apparent that we need a CBD any more”. With most of the English Gothic architecture now demolished and the statues of some of the city’s colonial masculinist heroes toppled (Fig. 16), Christchurch’s dominant place meanings (see Cupples and Glynn 2009) are struggling to survive. In their place are glossy images of the future utopian cityscape, the city to come (Figs. 17 and 18), urban regeneration deferred for now. It is not clear what Christchurch means any more.
Amidst the gaps, the rubble, the investment signs, there are however a few positive signs of repair and restoration. One notable one is the Theatre Royal on Gloucester Street (Fig. 19). There is also a museum on Cashel Mall, in which you can learn about the quakes for $20 (Fig. 20). I had absolutely no desire to see my disaster story selectively repackaged and I certainly no desire to pay for it the privilege. Maybe it is very good, I don’t know. Maybe it should be free for survivors. There are also places where you can walk away from rubble, demolitions and building sites, and catch little glimpses of Christchurch looking like Christchurch used to (Fig. 21).
And then finally there is the art. Where private investors and the New Zealand government have utterly failed, Christchurch’s artists have succeeded. Some of the damaged and abandoned buildings are covered with stunning artwork and murals, that stand as testament to serious corporeal risk-taking along with artistic talent, an attempt to remake a traumatized city. The capitalists aren’t prepared to take risks for uncertain financial returns, but the artists do so for no financial returns. One shows penguins melting as our planet warms (Figs. 22, 23 and 24). The creativity with which artists have painted the city redeems Christchurch, and leaves you with a sense of hope for the future of the city, a sense of what is possible.
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