New Zealand Postcards: Begin, Again

DSC00984As a short-term visitor in Christchurch, New Zealand (2 weeks) focusing on community health, some of the biggest bright spots in the midst of the devastation come from the art world. Creativity is an important component of resiliency, whether for an individual, a group, an organization, or for an entire community. I’m convinced that creativity is an important component of overall health and well-being.

Stumbling around amidst the rubble of Christchurch’s central business district–now called the Red Zone– I thought I was seeing a mirage when I looked up and saw this face smiling at me from an intact building. It is part of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waimhetu At Artbox, built out of temporary modular boxes resembling short shipping crates. DSC00983They are bright and shiny and oh so inviting. Inside, they have a way cool sound/visual installation: Bodytok Quintet. It consists of four large flatscreens scattered around the room. They each show different loops of a variety of New Zealanders all ‘talking’ with their bodies–making noises with various body parts. The displays are interactive in that they only start when you approach them, and the closer you get the faster they go. It is simultaneously engaging and thought-provoking. Definitely a bright spot in Christchurch’s recovery process. For me, the Artbox was a much more inviting place than the much talked about Re:Start shopping mall nearby. Retail, commerce and all of that are important for the overall health of a community, but I think art trumps shopping malls.

We had a chance to meet with folks from the ‘public good research program’ Resilient Organizations based at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch. Their group is doing some interesting applied research about what contributes to organizational resiliency through crises such as the local earthquakes. Their two (free/online) resources, Shut Happens: A Resilience Guide for Small Businesses and Resilience Within: A Short Guide to Resilience for NGOs are worth a look. They have found that the main components of organizational resiliency include: 1) good leadership, 2) social capital/networks, 3) situational awareness, and 4) capacity for experiential learning (including a culture of creativity and controlled risk taking). Good guidance for U.S. health care organizations–including smaller community-based programs–having to adapt to rapid changes in the health care environment.

New Zealand Postcards: Disaster Tourism; All Right?

DSC00965DSC01014DSC00994DSC00949Clearly 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?