City Minus Center

Over the holidays we went on a trip south to the city of Dunedin. There, in the middle of the city, we found a very cute and lively city center! Not so surprising, right? Every city has a city center, a downtown where there is the architecture and definition of the city, where the people go when they go “to the city”. After all, what is a city without one? The answer to that is Christchurch, New Zealand 2012, where we’ve been living for the past few months.

In February, 2011 a major earthquake struck here and since then it’s entire downtown has been fenced off, and one by one nearly all of its buildings are being demolished. There aren’t that mant remaining at this point. I was never here when the city center existed, so I cannot really compare before and after, only comment on how strange it is to live in a city that in this one sense does not even exist.

There are still many, many wonderful parts of Christchurch. The rivers still flow and the parks are beautiful and many. There are beaches and wildlife reserves right in the city itself, and many neighborhoods surrounding the center which are still full of people and shops – though many homes and businesses were damaged and many remain in limbo due to insurance bureaucracy and government incompetence. Thousands of homeowners here are still in a terrible position.

But the city has no center. From the chain link fences holding it in you can watch the cranes and the claws ripping apart what little is left of it. You can compare old photos with the ruin and devastation that defines it even now, after two years.

Imagine New York City without Manhattan. San Francisco without Market Street from Civic Center to the Embarcadero. Imagine your own city with its downtown utterly destroyed and out of bounds. This is a real dystopia, and the funny thing is that life goes on. Buses are re-routed. Shops are re-located. Offices are moved. And you get quite accustomed to the absence in the heart of the place.

Naturally there are big plans, great plans, fantastic ideas for re-building the center of this city and it’s really a once in more-than-a-lifetime opportunity. Yes, many lovely old buildings had to be demolished, but many more hideous newer ones have also been removed. The waxy buildup of a hundred and fifty years of random haphazard development is gone and in its place a more considered, more ecologically friendly, more sensible, more modern downtown will come into existence. No, it will never be the same, but there will be a heart of this city once again, in a few more years. In the meantime, temporary measures. There are any number of “Gap Fillers“, artful projects that are occupying empty lots, such as the Palette Pavilion around the corner from our apartment, where live music concerts are being held, free to the public. There are also Art Beat projects going on at the Shipping Container Mall, and other random art projects such as the Firewall, and the Cardboard Cathedral, and the giant Container Advent Calendar,

It’s no wonder that Lonely Planet recommends Christchurch as one of the Top Ten cities to visit in 2013 – not despite the fact that the city has no center, but because of it, because of all the innovation and experimentation and liveliness and change that’s going on around here. Unfortunately, I am going to miss it. We fly home to California in a couple of days, so we won’t be here for 2013 and beyond. I hope to return in the future, and maybe by then the city will have a center once again.  But I can’t complain. I’m going home to San Francisco, which Lonely Planet is recommending as the number one city to visit in 2013!

This experience has meant a great deal of input flowing directly into my mind and my heart and I expect the influences to last a good long time and emerge in unexpected ways.



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