How will the greater Christchurch earthquake experience influence kids in 50 years time?


How will our stories, images, achitecture and recovery vision influence future generations? I was raised in Napier fifty years after the 1931 earthquake ‘that wiped Napier town off the map’ and have looked back at my own formative years to try and gain insights into this question.

I remember being on school camp, sitting with my friends outside our tents high on sugar and chatting away. It was in the days when school camps where held in your own city….or worse in the school grounds if times were tight. So, our camp was in Napier (Westshore Camping Ground) about 5 km from home – I guess we were about eleven or twelve.

It was a still, warm and a quiet day which we mutually agreed was “earthquake weather”. I figure “earthquake weather” is a myth coming from the conditions on that fateful day on the 3rd of February 1931 that destroyed Napier. It remains New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster. We had all heard stories of ‘the quake’ and people about town would often draw their eyebrows together and nod slowly….mmm yes, earthquake weather.

As we went about our camp business we had a real ‘rock and roller’ of an earthquake followed by a tremendous thunderstorm. Well, we had said it was earthquake weather – it blew our wee minds. I still think back with pride that my tent was one of the only ones left standing – beaut construction mum! The teachers were over it and the parents secretly pleased they had ‘done their duty’ but got to go home – we evacuated.

My childhood home was built on land reclaimed after ‘the quake’ (40 km² of sea-bed became dry land). I convinced Lena, my bestie, that we could undercut Palmers Garden World with a seedling business. I said things like, “have you seen what they charge for a Geranium?” We had all our price points figured out (she is an accountant today) and what our market stall would look like. Unfortunately, no amount of growth hormone could overcome our reclaimed soil – even for a Geranium!

You could find lots of shells in the soil around Park Island. I was always on the lookout for a great fossil. While riding there on my bike I used to imagine sailing there for a picnic like they used to before the quake, with a parasol perhaps? Oh well, I flew like the wind on my new pink and white Avanti – they didn’t have 21 gears back then – it was choice!

At the local aged-care facility school kids came to talk to residents for their ‘quake projects’. There was definitely a subtle divide between those had experienced ‘the quake’ and those that hadn’t!

As a teenager I did the exchange thing, 1997 hello Deutschland. I was forever answering, “so vere are you frrom?” “Well, I am from Napier the Art Deco Capital of the world….it was like we had this earthquake and then they like built all these new buildings Art Deco so there are like heaps….you should come and do a tour –you have to walk and it’s a bit boring.”

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I have a new appreciation for the aesthetic, the Art Deco festivals and concerts, you can go to an Art Deco costume shop and do the Art Deco weekend in style. Unfortunately the antique dresses don’t work well when you are heading for 6” – not my era.

I remember in the sixth form a Swiss student coming to stay with us for the weekend. It fell to me to show him around. My friends and I had grand imaginings of this hot older Swiss guy that we could hang with all about town – were they not all tall, blond and gorgeous? This became quite an anticipated visit in my neighbourhood. My heart sank, this chap was 18 going on 100, had bad skin, smelt bad and under no circumstances would he take his off his daggy red back pack…ever! My friends were deflated and then ‘busy’ a few BFFs stood by me. So, what to do? He didn’t want to party, no interest in the beach; he didn’t want to shop or do anything!

I had a breakthrough, the Napier Museum with its earthquake exhibit was dark and we were unlikely to meet people we knew….perfect! On reflection I am glad the daggy Swiss guy got me there as I liked listening to the audio stories, the photos, the sorrow, and the triumphs. I returned many times. It was the first of many disaster exhibits, memorials and art that I have sought out.

The 1931 quake experience has reverberated down generations in many positive ways. On the tenth anniversary of the earthquake, the New Zealand Listener reported that Napier had risen from the ashes like a phoenix. “Napier today is a far lovelier city than it was before”, it quoted the 1931 principal of Napier Girls’ High School as saying. What an accomplishment of vision, it was the depression, money was tight and yet what they created brings us so many things today: economic wealth through tourism, cultural events, identity and a beautiful and different kind of city – we are the ‘Art Deco Capital’ of the world.

Moana Jackson, a constitutional lawyer, spoke recently on the Treaty of Waitangi and he said some things that resonated with me saying, “I want my mokupuna to grow up in a differently imagined place”, that “reality is always a human construct” and that the “process of imagining, of dreaming something different takes time to come to fruition”. He also quoted our famous New Zealand philosopher, Ms Rachel Hunter, who said “It won’t happen overnight but it will happen….” Although a different context from his lecture, I think you could apply these thoughts to recovery efforts.

A city is a home for its people and there is great value in recovery leaders encouraging this type of visioning process, allowing the space for imagining the kind of city and society that people want for their grandchildren, of pushing the boundaries of what is possible and taking a long-term view. Our stories, our collective experiences, our visual interpretations and the strength of our vision for Christchurch will be the things that influence our kids in fifty years to come – and they will be the ones to measure our success.


One thought on “How will the greater Christchurch earthquake experience influence kids in 50 years time?

  1. How did I not know you are from Hawke’s Bay too, Elizabeth? I remember very similar things – it seemed even in the 1980s that the earthquake and its devastating consequences were still very fresh in the minds of those who’d gone through it. And, so progressive of you to call Rachel Hunter a philopsoher. Let’s catch up soon!

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