Clearly I was an Ugly American Tourist/Professor stumbling (unprepared) into the Red Zone of Christchurch yesterday. After all, the New York Times lists Christchurch as #2 in its “52 Places to Go in 2014.” The article talks about things like seeing the “re-birth of a quake-ravaged city,” and shows a photograph of the inside of a transitional church made of cardboard tubes. What a good place to go on a Sunday afternoon stroll with a bunch of students, right?
I thought I had done my homework. I knew we would likely encounter some signs of the destructive earthquakes that hit Christchurch and surrounding areas in September 2010 and again in February 2011 (killing 185 people, including many international students.) But I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the still-raw destruction in the downtown core. It’s been almost three years and entire blocks of quaked-out buildings are propped up with shipping containers or just left in charred ruins.
Near the core of the central business district is this temporary memorial of ‘ghost chairs’ sitting out in a now-open field. The chairs are individualized to the people who died, so there are wheelchairs, armchairs, deck chairs, student desk chairs, toddler chairs, and infant seats. The plaque that describes the memorial encourages people to sit in a chair that speaks to them in some way and just spend a quite moment in reflection. This memorial reminded me of the shoe display room at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It is truly haunting.
The second to the top photo I’ve included here is of a former Starbucks store near the downtown ReStart shipping container mall that has sprouted up since the quake. If you look at the window of Starbucks it has “OK, TFI Clear 26/2,” meaning it was checked and marked as not having bodies to remove four days after the earthquake. How long does it take to clean up a city after a major disaster? More than three years? That is what I thought–and still think–although I recognize I really know very little about the politics and psyche of this country I am visiting.
There are ‘Up With People/We Will Overcome’ signs posted everywhere amidst all the rubble. My favorites were on the outside of a temporary Christchurch Art Gallery space (in modular shipping container-like structures), and the mental health/PTSD prevention banners tied to chain-link fences, like the one in the first photo here. The banners are part of the All Right Wellbeing Campaign, Healthy Christchurch, a social media campaign supporting community mental health and wellbeing.
But I keep asking myself, “Why are we here?” Are we inadvertently participating in trauma tourism–also called disaster tourism, dark tourism, thanatourism? In downtown Christchurch they even have those very British double-Decker sightseeing buses for “Red Zone Tours.” At least we didn’t pay to ride on one of those, but is it even worse to have walked around taking photos of destruction, peering into windows of what people left behind when they fled?