Christchurch, remixed

Christchurch, remixed
 I don’t need statistics to tell me Christchurch is not monocultural. I see evidence to the contrary every day, and it fills me with hope for the future.

When a city is rebuilt, the wanderer’s eye is particularly drawn to artists’ renderings of what will stand where now, there is bare land or rising steel. Onsite billboards present an idealised vision of what to expect; a permanently cloudless summer sky, gleaming glass, pristine walls untouched by tags or lichen. Little clusters of people hang around these perfect buildings, often a little translucent, like future ghosts.  As we walk through patches of wilderness to reach these little islands of growth, we search, sometimes hopelessly, for the familiar, and examine the new.

I started paying particular attention to who populated artists’ renderings – spoiler: white folks – not long after an outcry over a campaign designed to promote living in the CBD, which featured almost exclusively white or white-appearing professional people.  Some time before that, my then-employers had released a series of posters that sought to depict the exciting variety of typical local newspaper readers: several white people and a dog.  Between the two of these events – which I found people generally responded to with some variation on “but Christchurch really is super white and monocultural, it’s just reality”-  I began counting obviously non-white faces as I went about my day in the CBD.  I’d usually hit between nine and 15 in a 10-minute walk, before I got bored with counting and started thinking about something else.

When I say “CBD”, mind you, I’m not talking about a bustling metropolis, or even the moderately active small city that Christchurch used to be before the 2011 earthquake. I’m talking about a still fairly sparsely populated part of town. It’s a place tourists visit, and it’s a place where international students and new migrants gather to study English. Many of them, it’s true, may not live within the Four Avenues.  But they work or study here. And many would live here, given the option.

I am a white person from a largely white family. Growing up, I really did live in a largely white town. It’s not any more. It hasn’t been particularly homogenous for at least 20 years. Not if you look around. Christchurch may statistically remain overwhelmingly “European” – 83.9 percent of Christchurch city residents surveyed in the 2013 census identified as such, though some of them probably also identified as something else – but it is changing. More of us are Maori. More of us are Chinese, or Indian, or come from the Philippines. More of us are a mixture of all kinds of things. There have always been Kiwis whose ancestry traced to neither the British Isles nor Hawaiki. They’re just more noticeable now.

I don’t need statistics to tell me Christchurch is not monocultural. I see evidence to the contrary every day. Hazara women in sludgy greens and browns examine bargains at the Warehouse. Sweet-faced young Sikh men sporting winter-weight turbans step back to let me on the bus ahead of them. Taxi drivers come from Africa or Afghanistan. People whose origins I can’t readily identify are everywhere, speaking languages I don’t know, and some that I do. The homeless guys who line the streets behind cardboard signs – most of them aren’t white.  While it makes me sad and frustrated to see the latter, and while I fear the rebuilt city will exclude the non-monied majority, I love the rising diversity of my town.

The streets, the map, even the land beneath them have changed. When the ghostly figures who stride around the fantasy version of our future take flesh, they’ll be Kiwis with many lines of ancestry. And that’s a good thing.

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In the doughnut city: night

In the doughnut city: night

“It’s like a cross between parkour and tag,” the young man explained. “Mostly tag.”

Like when you’re five, his friend had told me earlier. They were a friendly bunch – early 20s, mostly white, seemingly sober, and unfazed at being approached by a proper grownup while they ran, jumped, swung and clambered up workmen’s ladders in an activity that probably wasn’t strictly legal.

This game of tag was taking place in the dark on a weeknight,  on a bunch of scaffolding and platforms that hovered above the river in the space between two sides of the Victoria Square bridge. Officially known now as Hamish Hay Bridge, after the former Christchurch city mayor,  it has a hole in the middle, to reveal the tram railings that once carried traffic across it.  It’s notable, apparently, for being the oldest iron and stone bridge in the country, all curlicued railings and sturdy sides. Normally you can look straight through to the water, not far below. Punts, kayaks and ducks are all that can pass under it. But, as my new friend points out, falling from the top piece of scaffolding onto the metal platform now sitting above the water could definitely do you some damage.

Young men are notoriously fearless creatures, thrilling at their own still-new strength, or so it’s always seemed to me. These ones move fast, bashing themselves heedlessly against iron, shouting to each other, landing with heavy clangs. It’s a refreshing change from what I know of boy racer culture – no cars, for one thing, obviously. No music, no booze, no drugs that I can see. Just adrenaline and laughter in the dark.

Nearby, in Victoria Square itself, another, larger bunch of people – also early 20s, mostly white, seemingly sober – practiced playing with fire. Kerosene made the night air tangy. Six, maybe seven young men and women took centre stage on the circular, paved section of the square,  staffs and poi aflame.  Ringed around them, friends and supporters watched and chatted. There’s invariably at least one person with a doumbek or a cajon at these things, playing vague undefined rhythms, so there was probably one there. They meet regularly and I see them often. Sometimes I watch. Mostly I just pass through. They seem like harmless kids.

Not so many years ago, before the quakes, when the Crowne Plaza hotel building still occupied what’s now called the Commons, skateboarders discovered that the circular, brick-paved section in front of it was an excellent place to ride and play. This spot was just across the bridge, within spitting distance of where these young men and women are playing now.  Naturally the management of said hotel, which was a little bit flash, did not approve and there was a great deal of pearl-clutching about how the skateboarders’ wheel noises might disturb the sleep of international travellers 10 or 12 storeys above. Christchurch likes to think of itself as a tourist-first sort of place, which is why we run a dinky tram service  for them even though the last real tram quit our roads in 1954, and once moved a quaintly hidden fountain to the edge of the street and painted it in brighter colours so they couldn’t miss it. Of course, all the best cities in the world pretend not to care about tourists at all, because they are largely focused on the needs of the people who live and work there, and the resulting textured human stew is what makes tourists want to visit in the first place. Imagine New York City if everyone had to go to bed at 10pm. Imagine London with nothing to do but look at Beefeaters all day. For that matter, imagine Queenstown with nothing BUT snow sports.

Late at night, on the Commons, there is sometimes music; the sound of someone flexing their fingers on the covered piano, retracing old exam pieces, perhaps, with no pressure to do it well. It’s haunting; magical.

People who don’t spend much time in here call this the dead centre of a doughnut city. But death is the fertiliser of life, after all, and here in our mucky dustbowl all manner of rare and lovely things grow, unconstrained as yet by the need for tidiness and cultivation. I fear we’ll lose them, when the rest of the grownups return and start laying down the law.