Almost five years ago, the heart of Christchurch, New Zealand was smashed to rubble. The February 2011 earthquake didn't just take lives and destroy property; it wrecked almost everything that defined the city's character and formed its face to the world.
(Should I speak only of the face, then, rather than the heart? Are travelers in any position to know the hearts of cities, however often they return to them?)
I look now at the photos from my joyous 2009 visit to the city, which I posted after the quake but before I returned there. Almost everything I had photographed is damaged and closed (the Art Centre) or ruined beyond repair (the Cathedral) or simply gone (the intimate mainstreets, and the historic buildings of nearby Lyttleton). Gone too are many things I wouldn't have photographed: an entire skyline of concrete modernist buildings has vanished. Just a few still stand, plywooded and tagged. This one has a new banner promising it will be a hotel next year.
Here is the former visitor's centre, the clock an absent face:
One concrete building, once part of a long row of brick or wood storefronts, is now the sole fossil of a vanished row of shops.
And it is hard not to look at the cathedral, still easily mistaken for a ruin of war:
Of course the work and talk is of recovery. What else would humans talk of? Urbanists heap praise on the downtown shopping area made of shipping containers, an early attempt to create some life in the ruins. One fine new building, a public transport interchange, is already up and running, and within a few years there will be a 5-10 story brand-new city in the blocks around it, just south of the cathedral square. A department store has reopened downtown, which is more than many cities this size can boast.
But forgive me if that's not all I notice on cold overcast Sunday evening in the nearly deserted city. Like anyone who knew Christchurch as it was, I walk through a city of absences, the lost city always flickering in peripheral vision. If I turned quickly enough, and with a certain intent, I might be back in the mainstreet of local shops, ordinary or eccentric, each with an office or residence above. A shopkeeper chatting with friends might look up at me casually, willing but not desperate to sell me a thirdhand book, or a piercing, or a faded Victorian pillow. Nobody was rich or striving on that street, but visitors like me loved the dusty oddity and gentleness -- qualities that no amount of money can restore.
A few of those people died in their shops, and all were scattered, lives and livelihoods smashed. So there's been loving and grieving to do, and art does most of that work. New Zealanders have long done quirky and cheerful public art. (The traffic sheep, which are both bollards and benches, are a fine example.) Kiwis are also among the world's great gardeners, especially with their brown-and-teal native flora. Here all that comes together around the Cathedral's ruins.
Over and over, I saw art and plants patching things together: Here, a fine mural on a damaged building, a row of planters hanging from a fence, and, in the lower right, a shiny designer bench.
Art is the key, so let me end, as I did in my last Christchurch post, at the Art Centre. A re-use of an old college, it was a huge warren of little artists' studios, the sort of place that made a life in the arts possible for many talented people. Mercifully, it did not quite fall down.
New Zealand rarely experiences huge floods of investment -- what Jane Jacobs called "catastrophic money" -- and on balance this is one of its virtues. The money hesitates and dribbles. There are plenty of questions. What is Christchurch about now? Is it just a regional service center for the South Island, a place to go for surgery or furniture? Will it find a new purpose?
Or will the arts and plants be its salvation? Both remain the essence of what Christchurch will still have when all this is over. The great parks are still here, and the Botanic Gardens still have their astonishing trees -- including Californian giants that can't be 200 years old, but look much vaster and older. The Art Centre will be put back together, and manages to look like art now and then in the process:
Across the street, the Art Gallery tells us, in neon, from behind its cyclone fence, that "everything is going to be alright." Only the doubt-admitting voice of art can say this with any credibility.
Art and plants. There is no other way, I think, to market and mourn a city, at the same time.