ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
Dreams of Christchurch past
Even as one admires its resilience, the South Island's largest city makes you yearn for what it used to be
Christchurch in the second decade of the 21st century: Where does one start?
Sometimes, not very frequently, a certain language just doesn't have the word you're looking for. German, for instance, doesn't have a direct translation for the English word awkward, which, for the student of the German language, is just... well, awkward. The Norwegians have a lovely word - utepils - which simply means sitting in the sun with a beer. We need to shoehorn this into English somehow. An excellent word is the Portuguese saudade, which describes nostalgia for a time that never actually existed. Which is a near-perfect description of how I feel about Christchurch after my first visit earlier this year.
The earthquake of February 22, 2011 serves as a yawning chasm dividing the before and the after for the city. For those who visited before the calamity, Christchurch is a city of beauty and of yearning. For those who have visited before and after, it's a city of sadness and of confusion. For the not so fortunate - those on their first visit, like me, after the quake - it's a city of wreckage and questions: how did it look before? I, for one, was left longing to be taken back to a pre-earthquake Christchurch. I had never been, but I felt like I had saudade.
There's no escaping the fact that nearly four years after the earth heaved and claimed 185 lives, injured thousands more people, razed the CBD, damaged 10,000 houses and left 6sqkm of prime land unfit for use, Christchurch is not in peak condition. This was a rumble so devastating that it was felt as far north as Tauranga - that's 715km and a body of water to the north - and as far south as New Zealand's southern tip, Invercargill, some 560km away. Parts of the city remain without running water, while there have been multiple aftershocks (there will be more) and debilitating floods.
A walk through Christchurch provides instant, painful reminders of that devastation, starting with the most obvious symbol of the sadness: the once majestic Gothic Cathedral, now sans spire, tower and its resplendent rose window. And there are other signs that can't be camouflaged: innumerable buildings boarded up, seemingly endless wired fencing, and the drilling and clatter of hammer against slab produced by countless construction workers trying their hardest to get the place back into shape.
There are also the less tangible reminders of the shock: the eerie, haunting quiet of the centre of town, and the lack of hustle and bustle, especially at night. No one lives there now, after all. There's also the fact that one keeps getting lost, even in a relatively straightforward grid urban street plan because, frankly, rubble doesn't have too many distinguishing properties. There's the fact that - and here's a First World problem for you - when you search for "AMI Stadium" on your smartphone, the darned device takes you to Lancaster Park (another boarded-up relic of a bygone time), which took that sponsor name until it was damaged beyond repair by the earthquake, and not its temporary replacement in the suburb of Addington, which has taken the same name since 2012 and is proudly used by the city's favourite sons, the Crusaders rugby team. Even Google can't comprehend the destruction.
The previous two paragraphs might make you think that the week I spent in the city of Christchurch, covering rugby, wasn't an enjoyable one. Quite the opposite.
The very English splendour of the days of yore - that cathedral, the wider architecture, some well-to-do folk - is thin on the ground, but is retained by glorious Hagley Park (home to Hagley Oval, the new ground where cricket World Cup games will be played), and the names (Gloucester, Worcester, Salisbury and more are streets are in the town centre, while Cambridge and Oxbridge Terraces line the north and south banks of the River Avon respectively). Hagley Park is a vast space, perfect for a walk, a run, a read, a swing of a club or, now, taking in the sound of leather and willow. Based on my stroll up to the site's edge, the Hagley Oval will make a fine international ground, not imposing on - or changing the character of - the park itself.
Watching sport in Christchurch is a joyous experience. Before Crusaders games - I took in two, one for work, one as a punter - which are always sellouts, spectators see some of the finest pre-match entertainment, including blonde maidens, noble steeds and actual crusaders. The new AMI Stadium, on the site of the rugby league ground, is a rickety thing, a temporary structure that befits the city's current thrown-together, patchwork style. It was erected in ten weeks in 2012 with the help of the local community. And how it rocks on game night.
Those same folk who helped build it partied well in Addington after they left the game, as well as in nearby Sydenham and Riccarton. The CBD may be no flaneur's paradise but these suburbs, with buildings less tightly packed, fewer tall structures (and thus less destruction), serve as a fine locum. There are other pockets of Christchurch life that have emerged from the rubble of the earthquake, and prosper. The coffee scene, as in Wellington, continues to boom, with countless places - C1 Espresso and Black Betty are my picks - to sip on something frothy and watch the world go by. The bars of Victoria Street offer the equivalent, of an evening.
Which brings us to Re:Start, an inspired piece of thinking at the heart of various highly creative solutions to the city's myriad problems. Re:Start is a pop-up mall built from colourful shipping containers. It's got banks, pizza joints, bookshops, coffee houses, and clothes shops -high- and low-end. Full of personality, life and right in the heart of the city, it's ingenious.
Such post-quake resourcefulness isn't limited to the practical side of a recovering city, though. It's seen in the touching commemorative aspects too: the Cardboard Cathedral, a giant plastic and cardboard structure that is perfect for a moment of reflection and a quiet think about the horrors this city has seen, lies in a particularly barren part of the CBD and serves as a wonderful ersatz chapel. If you've spent ANZAC Day in Australia or New Zealand, you'll know how spectacularly they remember lost ones. Christchurch 2011 is no different: 185 white chairs commemorate those who lost their lives. The chairs come in all shapes and sizes, styles and designs, united solely by their colour, which makes for a breathtaking display. It's clear the people of Christchurch are a tough, wise, stoic and inventive bunch. Such a calamity would have defeated many less resolute folk.
I should have known they'd be belligerent buggers. All the sportsmen I followed growing up who hail from this city were cut from the same cloth: Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan, Shane Bond, Chris Martin, and from slightly before my time, Richard Hadlee - all of them as tough as a woodpecker's beak on the cricket field. Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw, also from the city, are two of the, if not the two, finest rugby players to play the game, and certainly two of the most durable and diligent.
If you're new to the city, like I was just a few months ago, I've no doubt you'll be filled with that sense of saudade. If it's this pleasant and the locals are this strong in the aftermath of such a disaster, then how glorious must it have been before? Christchurch may have lost its landmarks and lost its looks, but thankfully it sure as hell ain't lost itself. The city has changed but whether, as I outlined at the top of the piece, you're a newbie or a long-lost returner, you'll find a city of heart and of soul.
Will Macpherson writes on cricket for the Guardian, ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket. @willis_macpFeeds: Will Macpherson
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