If cities were singers

http://www.mahala.co.za – http://www.mahala.co.za/culture/if-cities-were-singers/

TELFORD VICE, Christchurch

IF cities were singers, Christchurch would be Leonard Cohen. Or Tom Waits. Or their progeny, a kid with a broken smile and a Gothic outlook. His name would be Holden Caulfield and would he ever have a story to tell.

You would go far to find people more friendly, helpful and just plain decent than those who call Christchurch home. Teresa, a volunteer at the cricket World Cup, apologises repeatedly for a problem not of her making – a break-in has disabled the systems needed to print our media accreditation – and interrupts her lunch to keep calling us a cab until it arrives. The man behind the counter at a cafe remembers us on our second visit, asks how we are, and waits for an answer. Kelly, a tourism official, talks with such deep and abiding love for her hometown you reckon she would do her job for free.

People like these make you wonder if you got it wrong; that maybe God does exist. Then you look up and all around and you know you were not wrong.

At 12.51pm on Tuesday, February 22, 2011, an irrisistable force rumbled upward for five kilometres through the ground beneath Christchurch. In the mayhem and destruction that followed, 185 people died. Almost 7 000 more out of a population of around 350 000 moved away rather than live frozen in the fear of another earthquake coming to kill them.

Many buildings were damaged beyond repair or demolished because fixing them would have been too expensive. All over the city, grand structures have become monuments to violence unimaginable to those it did not throw to the ground from whence it came.

The saddest of these crises-in-progress is Christchurch Cathedral, which looks as if some giant, stone-eating monster has chomped through its ancient walls. Whatever your thoughts on God, it is impossible not to feel sorry for what was once the pride of Christchurch. Whether the vast sum of money that will be needed to restore it should be spent, or whether it should be knocked down and replaced is the subject of an ongoing and tortured debate.

In the meantime, the “Cardboard Cathedral” has gone up on the site of the city’s first church, which had to be torn down after the quake. The modern A-frame building was designed by Shigeru Ban, the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect, who donated his time and expertise pro bono.

Across the road from the transitional cathedral, 185 chairs of various descriptions – all of them painted stark white – stand as silent sentinels to the dead. In one of them, a baby’s car seat, a stuffed toy sits dumb and unknowing. Nearby, a poignantly empty space marks the spot where the Canterbury Television building stood – and fell and caught fire, ending the lives of 115.

Portions of some buildings have been shrinkwrapped to stabilise them. Bits of others have been taken away for restoration, leaving behind expectant stumps of concrete.

You can’t walk down a street in central Christchurch without encountering evidence of the disaster, and some scenes are hollow with a depressing darkness. But many others are not. Instead, they are hives of bustling renewal – a container village filled with funky shops and cafes that is relocated as the rebuilding effort dictates, a new transport hub, dreary municipal headquarters reinvented as an impressively green building, a new focus on embracing and developing the Avon River that runs through the city. All that, and much more, will cost almost R42-billion.

“It’s tragic that so many people died, but now we are going to get a brand new city,” a 20-year-old said with a gleam of guilt in his eye. “Already, there are so many new bars and restaurants and places to go that were never there when I was growing up. Christchurch is going to be so much more exciting.”

One of those exciting places is C1 Espresso on the corner of High and Tuam streets. The earthquake led to the closure of the original premises, and in 2012 the owners, Sam and Fleur Crofskey, moved the cafe into in art deco building that used to be a post office.

From beehives and grapevines on the roof to a produce garden in the front to furniture made from timber reclaimed from the earthquake debris to burgers transported from the kitchen to customers by pneumatic tubes that traverse the ceiling and walls to an automatic, sliding bathroom door made from a bookcase crammed with vintage Penguin paperbacks to excellent coffee and wonderful cafe food, C1 is the cutting edge of comfortable cool.

On Monday, it was also the hangout of choice for New Zealand’s cricketers. First Kane Williamson was ensconced in a corner. Then Daniel Vettori arrived and headed up a table of players scoffing burgers while Nathan McCullum wandered about prattling into a cellphone.

Cricketers being McDonaldised creatures happier holed up in a hotel room playing video games than exploring even the most exotic locale, who knows whether they knew that where they sat and sipped and supped was the product of determination and hope.

On Tuesday, New Zealand played South Africa in a World Cup warm-up match at Hagley Oval, Christchurch’s new international cricket venue. On Saturday, the home side take on Sri Lanka at the ground in the opening match of the tournament proper. The previous day, this year’s Super Rugby competition will have started down the road at AMI Stadium with a game between the Crusaders and the Rebels.

Sport is not about life or death, and it never should be. But if you can lose yourself in a mere game for a few hours despite death having stalked you, you know you are alive.

The same goes for music, and anticipation is rising steeply among the grey brigade ahead of Kenny Rogers’ gig in Christchurch on Friday. The kids get to let their hair down next Wednesday, when the Foo Fighters are in town.

If singers were cities …

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