Christchurch from an outsider's eyes

18:32, Jan 03 2013
Punting: Care to go glide on the River Avon with me?

Blenheim writer Toni Gillan visited Christchurch to see how the city rebuild is faring for tourists.    

It must be difficult to keep calm and carry on as 80 per cent of the old central business district in the ruined garden city of Christchurch is demolished and laid bare. 

The city has lost its cathedrals and almost all of its heritage buildings. It's the largest deconstruction of a modern city anywhere in the world. 

Christchurch revisited
Christchurch revisited

With 12,000 aftershocks, a generation of people will not live in high-rise buildings. It's almost too much to think about.

But now the Government's ambitious think-big blueprint for the urban village rebuild of inner Christchurch is finally on the table, with expressions of interest sought worldwide.

The challenge is to rebuild a new inner city so remarkable it can't fail.  All the while, creative forces have worked tirelessly to re-engage and boost exhausted morale, bringing life and energy to this transitioning city. 


Christchurch revisited
183 white chairs symbolise the lives lost in the Canterbury earthquakes

I was in Christchurch as a tourist to check out businesses that have risen from the ashes, regrouped tourism ventures and evolving angles of interest in what is perceived as a challenging visitor destination. 

My first port of call is the relocated Christchurch i-Site, now found beside the entrance to the Canterbury Museum. 

I browse the brochures of familiar choices. The museum, the Botanic Gardens, bike tours, inner-city walks or punting on the Avon.

Christchurch revisited

Further out there are shopping malls to consider, the Riccarton Market, the Christchurch Farmers Market, the Air Force Museum, the Antarctic Centre, Willowbank Kiwi and Maori experiences, lion parks, hot-air ballooning and such. 

But first off for old times' sake I walk into the museum to find the museum runs Beyond the Cordon, a guided bus tour into the red zone. I book on what turns out to be a humbling and insightful trip with a guide who freely shares her earthquake experience with us.

Also leaving from outside the museum, a personal volunteer guiding service will walk you around the red-zone perimeter, although they confess their city is changing so fast they have difficulty remembering what there was, but it sounds close and personal. 

Christchurch revisited
Christchurch revisited

Nearby, Christ's College old boys will take you around the historic private school and tell stories of teachers and boys.

On my way back to the newly opened Ibis Hotel, I pass a Gap Filler letterbox library.

Punting the River Avon is still a special experience. With punter, by canoe or kayak, gliding along the river into the red zone, under cracked bridges and compromised riverbanks, they show a new perspective, with birds juxtaposed against a backdrop of sky-high cranes noisily bringing down quake-ruined buildings.  

gap-filler letterbox library
Gap-filler letterbox library

The famed Re:Start mall alongside Ballantynes in Cashel St is a containerised retail shopping experience like no other. Set up with faith and an unsecured $3 million loan, it now has 27 retail outlets, boutiques, food caravans and coffee shops.

It is encouraging residents and tourists to stay focused on the CBD, keeping it alive and funky while the what's-going-to-happen-next debates are sorted.

I'm keen to know more about Tanks for Everything. Apparently anyone with a driver's licence can drive a decommissioned army tank or an armoured personnel carrier with the tank man. But in reality it's too macho for me. 

I want to have a go on a Segway Urban Wheels guided tour where, standing upright, you whiz through parks and byways. That sounds like me. 

C1 Espresso is a Christchurch institution. Owner Sam Crofskey has taken over an old Georgian bank building. Complete with strongroom and book shelves that conceal the toilets, he has installed a counter made from 14,000 Lego bricks and an amazing old-fashioned vacuum-tube system for sending orders from front of house to the kitchen. There are a beehive and a vineyard on the roof. 

Next door, the interconnecting Alice in Videoland has reopened, with a 38-seat cinema showing new releases.

Smash Palace, selling boutique beers, is a mobile pub made from two buses, scaffolding and a shipping container. 

Like many other businesses that have set up in shipping containers, the ventures are great examples of rebirth and transitional change. 

Projects such as Greening the Rubble and the Gap Fillers art project are about creatively regenerating spaces left vacant by demolished buildings that in themselves are becoming tourist attractions. Painted wall murals, the dance-o-mat (a pop-up outdoor dance floor), a cycle cinema and a giant Monopoly board are some of the emerging ideas.

The most important aspect of Gap Fillers is allowing everyone to have input, adding colour and life back to Christchurch. 

The latest concept to emerge is Life in Vacant Spaces (Lives). This matches arts, cultural or community activities in the central city with empty land and buildings.

Galleries, pop-up tearooms, art installations, peace gardens, sculpture displays and workshops are suggested to help Christchurch's vibrancy and thereby boost business and tourism.

Christchurch has lost its high-end tourism market and is working at changing perceptions abroad. The Tourism Board is urging tourists to photograph Christchurch reimagined and to share photographs to show the evolving city.

Tourists want to support the city. So can we.  

People from 20 counties lost their lives in the Christchurch earthquake nearly two years ago. 

Our bus stops at a street corner memorial where 185* white chairs symbolise those lives lost. I photograph that image, too.

* There are 185 white chairs, not 183 as was incorrectly stated before.

The Marlborough Express