Christchurch : reinvention or apocalyptic premonition?

I am very lucky that in my role as an executive I get to travel reasonably extensively and regularly to a number of different cities around the world. It is one of the benefits of my role, that in my advancing years, I never take for granted. Not for me is the pitiful executive cry of “well, I’m just soooo busy focussed on work I never get to see anything beyond the airport, the office and the hotel”. Bollocks. You do if you try. And I try.

My Christchurch routine is now pretty well set. Day 1. Fly in as early as possible, usually half asleep and either throwing coffee down my latest fresh shirt or boarding the wrong plane (my last two trips); spend a few hours in the various operations attempting to lead, motivate and enthuse; visit a random couple of relevant sites on the way back to the city; and then stay right in the city centre. Always bang in the centre.

Why the city centre? The warnings get thrown my way every time. Soulless. Tall buildings mean danger. Nothing to do. No one from the city goes there in the evenings – the “action” is in the burbs. Well you can keep “the action”. I love it in the broken middle. A veritable pot pourri of the best pastime in the world – people watching – awaits.

First up, the sporadic coach loads of foreign tourists who randomly bustle around the cities even more sporadic central hotspots, trying to make sense of the emptiness, and cheerily attempting to visually capture the experience of a “broken” city for their friends families back home as well as for their own posterity. Another novel travel experience to tick off. They are needed here. Desperately. But they are only a noisy but small part of the story.

Next is the disaffected youth. If this was a different, more malicious country, there would be more of them, and they would be dangerous. Not kids – the kids leave at the end of the day. But the youths stay, moodily. They proudly maraude around the cool sites like the bus station and the reinvented malls, much like in any other town or city, but somehow in this seeming post apocalyptic world, they are more natural, both in their habitat and their moodiness. In fact moodiness does them a disservice – they SUIT this world. Maybe this is an early futuristic vision for this next generation. Making super cool sense of the disorder. Replacing eeriness with a certain type of serenity and calm, but always with an attitude that throws the age old maxim of “respect your elders” on its head. They know what we have screwed up for them. And they are getting ready to take control of it, wherever it leads.

Then there are the hardy souls. The “we will not be beaten” brigade. Old and young together jockeying for space and service in the newest and oldest haunts – the Canterbury club, the newest trendy restaurant or bar, pretending that this is all normal, and that the lack of density is transitional and only to be expected as the rebuild – “oh isn’t it taking a long time” – continues to evolve. I find these the saddest. 5 years now and they still haven’t morphed full time to the suburbs where some kind of real life remains. Refusing to accept that no one actually inhabits the city and overtly desperate to resuscitate it, they do bring evening life to the place – and a little more every time I visit; but it is not real. It is a ritualistic day trip to yet another isolated pocket until the clock chimes and its time to leave the city again to its despair and isolation. Don’t think for one moment this is knocking this city or its brave brave people – they deserve all the praise and plaudits they receive for their ongoing bravery and stoicism – but this will never be “just another city”. The sands of time will not allow it to be. And these proud hardy souls are the people it will hurt most.

There are of course the workers. Bar owners, hotel staff, waiters and chefs. These are the people who find this closest to normality. Not creating life, but creating a pathway to life by earning a wage. The innovative and the plodders bracketed together, doing what they can to keep the wolf from the door.

Finally, there are the homeless. Like everywhere their tragic plight deserves pity, respect and charity. There but for the grace of God go I. Yet somehow, here, they seem more in tune with their surroundings. Happier almost – at least more content. Perhaps it’s the coach loads of tourists that dig deeper with nothing else to do, perhaps it’s the wide open spaces, perhaps it’s the eerie quiet that descends allowing a less troubled sleep than elsewhere. Whatever it is the cap seems to fit.

If the future of this place is with the homeless and the disaffected youth then what does that say for society at large? Is this to be the blueprint for the future? Will every city in turn, gradually or suddenly, turn post apocalyptic? Or is this an unnecessary scaremongering tale that belies the fortitude of a place and resilience of a people. Let’s hope for all our sakes it’s the latter. But let’s never forget that despite our supposed intelligence as a species, in reality it’s Mother Nature who holds all the cards, and will play them in her own time. Today Christchurch, tomorrow a city near you. Unless we wake up…..

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