Scavenger City

Christchurch, and the politics of subsistence

by Gordon Campbell

Photos by Rose O’Connor, click to expand them

After all the televised images of the destruction in Christchurch, even a cursory drive within the inner city cordon reveals large areas of bare, open space that seem almost as haunting. This is the core of a modern city? This void is the business heartland that allegedly used to host 15 percent of New Zealand’s workforce, and generate 20 percent of our GDP?

At last count, about 300 additional buildings are set for demolition within the inner city – which means the current wasteland will expand further, as the demolition paperwork gets signed off, and the best method for taking down the likes of the Hotel Grand Chancellor (blow it up from the bottom? slice it down from the top?) is finally determined.

The logistics of hauling away the old city have been impressive. Reportedly, 1800 truckloads of rubble have been going out each day on 300 trucks doing six trips apiece, headed for Burwood landfill and three other sites in the adjacent Bottle Lake Forest. All around the CBD, the debris that hasn’t yet been carted away has been stacked in piles pitched at a 45 degree angle, such that they will collapse in on themselves in the wake of further aftershocks. Out in the suburbs, 32,000 truckloads of silt were reportedly trucked away by Fulton Hogan in a single fortnight to the liquefaction graveyard. More of the same seems likely. The Council’s roadside silt pickups though, will cease at the end of April.

In most other circumstances, the precision of the figures for demolition and cartage would convey a comforting sense that things are somewhat under control. If only the details weren’t so alarming. If only the bronopol in the chemical toilets wasn’t supposedly at risk of interacting with other chemicals and forming a toxic residue of formaldehyde in the city’s wastewater treatment system, thus helping to kill off the good bugs in the oxidation ponds – when right now, those bugs could be the only thing preventing the one time Garden City from turning into one gigantic stinking cesspool by next week, next month, sometime soon. It also seems alarming that two thirds of the buildings in the inner city face the prospect of demolition. More space to fill, more fill to find space for.

Each new calamitous piece of earthquake porn is an invitation to despair. Christchurch is totally f***** d, people tell me with gloomy relish. The Modest Mouse album ‘Good News for People Who Like Bad News’ is never likely to find a more appreciative home. On the other hand, optimism can sound completely fatuous, given the conditions. What is the genuinely good news – if any – now that the heroism of day-to-day survival is wearing a bit thin? Ordinary things once taken for granted now seem remarkable.

The vistas opening up in and around the CBD for instance, convey just how much space was formerly occupied by the hundreds of small businesses that had grown up organically – street by street, café by clothes shop, apartment building by office – over the past 150 years. If all that open space is to be reserved in future for commercial use, then the CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce is right – it will take ten years for activity to return to normal. Or for business creepage to cover the acres of ground becoming available.

That, of course, is one of the decisions that Christchurch nw faces. The city we knew will not be rebuilt. According to Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, only a few icons will be restored as links to what has gone. Which means that as the new Christchurch emerges, many of its open spaces will become de facto parks, intentionally or otherwise – and over the next few years, the public will want a say in how much of this accidental green space should be retained, and set aside for general use.

Other people of course, will be trying to ensure that the resourceful citizens of Christchurch don’t take it upon themselves to stand in the way of what mayor Bob Parker has called the “glorious challenge” of getting the city moving again. On paper, the new earthquake legislation enables the authorities to over-ride any local opposition. However, if a series of neighbourhood battles come to be waged over the plans for land use, local body politicians are likely to become skittish about being seen to be complicit in sending in the bulldozers. Alert to the possibility that time may not be on his side, Parker has already talked about the need for speed; “ We need to be swift and sure in the actions we take in the coming months….Unnecessary delay would, in a cumulative way, impact on the ability of the city to get up and running.”

Necessary delay and undemocratic haste are, of course, the flipsides of that argument. ( Blitzkrieg politics became discredited well before Roger Douglas got his knighthood.) If ugly clashes are to be avoided in future, business cannot be treated from the outset as being the only important player in the city’s renaissance. By dint of living through the earthquakes and their aftermath, every resident has earned a stake in how the recovery should unfold. Block by block, neighbourhoods that the quake has brought together will have to act (just as swiftly as the mayor) to ensure that their new grassroots organisations are seated alongside the business lobbies, in the forums where the city’s future is already being decided.

This article considers some aspects of how the Christchurch recovery might unfold in coming months, with developers, banks, insurance companies, schools etc – even art dealers – being part of the process.

1.The Developers. Though the inner city cordon is shrinking by the week, the Army remains in place at the crucial checkpoints – and it still is an odd sight on the streets of a New Zealand city. On one St Asaph Street intersection the two soldiers on duty pass the time by reading. These days, one explains, people know the drill and there’s not the willingness evident during the early days, of people trying to break past the barricade. One trooper is reading a Rugby World Cup magazine, the other a book on ancient Greek civilisation. As is the case at almost every checkpoint around the city, the soldiers express their gratitude for the blue tents left behind by the Korean search and rescue contingent. A good place to stow your kit, and to shelter from the rain.

The red zone that they’re guarding remains far from normal. Within the inner city area traditionally bounded by the four main avenues, there were an estimated 6,100 businesses before the September 4 quake, nearly half of them service sector operations. Of the firms that survived the quake aftermath, some (eg BDO Spicer) have already re-located further out towards the city margins.

Perhaps misguidedly, the majority will be hoping to return to the inner city once the process of demolition and rebuilding makes possible. Dream on. On current signs, it will take years before foot traffic in the CBD again reaches the critical mass able to sustain retailers and café owners at the levels seen prior to the quake. In that respect, the decision to try and open Cashel Mall in late October in time for the Rugby World Cup will be watched with interest. If Ballantynes can rise again, so could we all – and certainly, the old Cashel Mall businesses wedded to this October timetable are hoping as much. Good luck. Equally, the October experiment may only prove that it is time to take the old CBD off its artificial life support, and plan for a different configuration of shops and space at the city core. In future, Christchurch may no longer consist of an inner city CBD with parallel subsidiaries located out in the suburbs. Instead, the post-earthquake process of de-centralisation may well accelerate – leaving an inner heart given over officially to tourists, cafes, parklands, and citizens getting around on foot, or on modern trams.

Obviously, that’s conjecture. What we do know is that the process of renewal will not unfold evenly across the inner city. Leading Christchurch developer John Pike of Winchester and Associates, is already placing his bets about the areas from which the city’s revival is likely to radiate. Much of the inner city does have to be rebuilt, Pike says, but arterial routes like Victoria St will become the “main areas” of focus for the rebuild during its initial stages.

Access and resources will set the pattern, and the routes peeling inwards off Bealey Avenue seem as good a starting point as any. To that end, and although the 5.3 aftershock on April 16 was the final factor jn the demolition of his Strategy building on the Salisbury St. corner, NBR had already reported weeks beforehand that Pike’s plans were well advanced for the building to come down, and for a $12 million replacement to be erected in its place. Is he still working on a 12- 15 months timeframe for that new building? “ Its looking more like 18 months to two years, largely because we’re still waiting for the detailed requirements under the building codes.” By building codes, does he mean what degree of strengthening will become mandatory for buildings in Christchurch? “ Exactly.” Such delays seem inevitable. To use the cliché, the earthquake was something of a geological perfect storm : as hitherto unknown fault lines unleashed accelerating forces that impacted horizontally and vertically on a city built largely on swamplands. Quite fitting then, that the bureaucracy of the rebuild should also feel at times like a perfect circle – where nothing can get done, until everything has been done.

2. The Schools. On April 19, a spokesperson from the office of Education Minister Anne Tolley told me that 9,000 pupils had relocated out of Christchurch after the February 22 quake – and about 3,000 have since returned. The government is expecting the returnee figure to rise once the second term starts in late April.

July 1st. though, is the crucial deadline. That’s when the schools operations grants (which mainly consist of funds for the general running of schools) for the rest of the year will be allocated on a per-pupil basis, as measured by the school rolls. In schools located in damaged suburbs from which there has been large scale pupil flight, the funds for the schooling of the remainder are likely to be cut substantially.

If so, further hardship will be visited on the children most affected by the quake. Core teaching numbers are not in any immediate danger of being reduced – they are safe for 2011, at least. What does risk being cut from July 1st are the school programmes, class resources, teacher aides, support staff, librarians…the usual stuff that operations grants, school fairs and cakestalls struggle to provide.

While there is no good time to re-calibrate this process, a July 1st date in the heart of midwinter seems a particularly poor time to do so – since, given the state of public services, those parents that can afford to send their children out of Christchurch may well be considering bringing them back once the winter is over. If so, it would be to schools that will have just been forced to cut their programmes.

Meaning : strictly applying the usual pupil/funding ratios on July 1st could actively deter some families from returning to Christchurch this year, or at all. There is also something perverse about the schools’ operational funds following those families wealthy enough to relocate their children in other schools outside Christchurch, while the same process cuts the resources and the programmes in those schools that contain the children left behind in the broken city.

The government is not deaf to such concerns. According to Tolley’s spokesperson, it is monitoring the situation and will be looking with interest at the second term figures. Asked whether the options being considered post July 1st might include a case-by-case response, the spokesperson indicated that such decisions had yet to be made. For now, he pointed out, the government was “double funding” the current situation to the extent of some $20 million.

“Double funding “ seems a misleading term to describe what is happening. Certainly, no schools are seeing a doubling in their operations grants. At best, Christchurch schools that have lost pupils have not had their operations grants cut immediately – how could that ever be a sane response ? – and schools that have been taking in the pupils fleeing from Christchurch are receiving some additional funds to cope with the influx. All as one would expect. To Sydenham MP Jim Anderton, there is now an argument for maintaining that position, at least until the end of the year.

“ In reality,” Anderton says. “even if you have got 30% fewer kids – to take the maximum case – there’s extra effort involved in nurturing those kids, given the trauma they have been through and the problems that they face….with parents on edge due to financial worries. You think you’d need a higher ratio for them of trained teachers and support staff than probably for anywhere else in New Zealand right now, and for the foreseeable future. Maybe the government should just say: this is a crisis zone. We cannot remove resources from this zone willy nilly, just on the basis of pupil numbers. Because that’s only one measure. The government needs to be asking : what has this population gone though, and don’t these children need a bit of extra help? “

3.The Banks. To date, much of the media focus of the recovery has been on the Earthquake Commission and the insurance companies, and on the families and firms hanging on their calculations. In coming weeks, that spotlight will be shifting to the role of the banks. By the end of May, the wage subsidies to employees and sole traders ( either phased out for workers or cut off more abruptly for sole traders ) will have ended. Further afield, the accommodation supplements will hit their expiry deadlines not so long afterwards – some in September, and some by February next year. Even optimists would concede that the currently available forms of assistance will be running out well before anything like normal business activity returns to Christchurch.

Unless pre-emptive action is taken, many families and firms in Christchurch can therefore expect to come under severe pressure from the banks. Home mortgages and business loans still pitched at pre-earthquake rates will have to be met from post-earthquake incomes, especially if people are going to be to hold onto their homes – the asset into which many have poured their life savings. Since the earthquakes, the value of that asset will have drastically reduced in value but the mortgage payments essentially haven’t – and soon, the same people will be facing the full cost of rent for living somewhere else, while their homes are unlivable.

Clearly, this situation is intolerable, socially and economically. It is such a large problem for the banking system’s customers that it will quickly become a problem for the banks as well – one of such magnitude that it cannot be resolved competitively, by the banks vying with each other for business. If Christchurch families and firms are to make it through 2011 and the first half of 2012, it will require a collective response from the banks working together, in tandem with the government. Tricky thing is, the main banks are foreign owned – and they will be feeling gunshy about offering any relief to the residents of Christchurch that they’re not offering to the flood victims in Queensland.

Some people in Christchurch may well feel tempted to walk away from their homes – with say, $200,000 of a $350,000 mortgage still owing. Multiply that across the 11,000 to 15,000 homes in dire condition in Christchurch – and keep in mind that the BNZ claims to do 15% of its entire business in Christchurch – and it is clear that the banks have a problem, too. Obviously, they would prefer to avoid writing off bad debts on that scale – much less the horrendous p.r. exercise of foreclosing and evicting families and businesses from their homes and premises. Time is tight. If they don’t act pre-emptively, the foreign banks that did so much to pump up the housing boom of the mid 2000s will quickly become a target for the recovery angst hitherto directed at the Earthquake Commission and the insurance companies.

This time around, the fall in income by the banks’ customers is likely to be enduring. Thanks to the two earthquakes, this isn’t merely the kind of income dip commonly seen during the down curve of the business cycle. For thousands of people, their incomes are likely to be reduced to little more than subsistence level for a year or more. That’s why a response akin to the Leaky Homes package is called for – especially since the banks have offered little (as yet) in the way of substantive assistance to those affected by the two quakes. ASB excepted, what the banks have offered has been in the form of repayment holidays, fee waivers on term deposit withdrawals, emergency loans, temporary freezes on mortgage repayments, and extensions to overdrafts. Some banks have also made their facilities available for a limited period as business hubs and advice centres.

All well and good. Yet, in essence, it has been deferred profit taking and nothing more. Such measures merely postpone the pain, by back-ending the repayments. So far, the banks have taken the Harvey Norman path of offering “repayment holidays” to retain their customers through the bad times. It won’t be enough to do the trick this time. Substantive measures are needed that will alleviate the pain, and not merely postpone it.

Ideally, if Kiwibank was bigger it could be used as a lever against the foreign banks, assuming the government would be willing to support such action, on a loss leader basis. In reality though, Kiwibank is far too small to play that sort of role. This year, its profit contribution to NZ Post is likely to be in the $50-60 million range, at a time when the four main banks are extracting billions in profits from New Zealand However, Kiwibank would doubtless want to be part of any collective banking response that the government is contemplating.

To repeat : the ingredients of a substantive package would be based on an acknowledgement that families and firms will NOT be regaining their prior income flows any time in the near future That being so, genuine ‘interest free’loans would be a good first step. To all intents, they would be grants, and/or offers of venture capital, but waiving the usual collateral – and they would bear some similarities to the interest free loans available to tertiary students.

Such measures would need to be ring-fenced geographically, and restricted to current bank customers with homes and/or premises in Christchurch. The failures to ring-fence the assistance offered to South Canterbury Finance – where latecomer investors were all but invited to pile onto the rescue package and pocket the payout – cannot be repeated. Past that point, the stepped levels of support to be made available could make use of the stickering already conducted. Thus, red-stickered premises and homes might qualify for certain levels of financial assistance, yellow-stickered ones for others. In the real world, the quid pro quo for the banks to participate in a collective response – despite their own pressing self interest – will probably require a willingness by government to under-write the bad debts that will be an outcome of any meaningful rescue package. At best, what we’re talking is a programme to minimize the potential mountain of bad debt incurred by the banking system’s Christchurch customers – while perhaps, shifting the final responsibility for the bulk of it from the banks, onto the taxpayer.

4. The BYO Pub. Leadership is an intangible quality, but you know it when you don’t see it. It took for instance, until 31 March for the Christchurch City Council to hold its first meeting since the February 22 quake. In a pattern that was evident even before the first earthquake, mayor Bob Parker tends to make his decisions and communicate via a group that is close to him, rather than through the medium of the elected Council. Kaiapoi, which suffered substantially during the first quake, has adopted a more open and inclusive style of local governance, and the town has fared all the better for it.

Luckily for Christchurch, the relative vacuum at the top has been countered by any number of community organisations that have sprung up across the city in response to the crisis. A few older organizations – such as the church – have found a fresh relevance. Mary Giles for instance, is the vicar of the Heathcote Mt Pleasant parish of the Anglican Church. The church hall that houses the BYO Pub is situated just beyond the railway underpass on Martindales Rd. Built in 1865 and badly hammered during both quakes, this little bridge is said to be the oldest railway bridge still in use in the entire country.

Giles is of more recent vintage. Raised in Michigan, she worked as a biology teacher and long haul trucker before being ordained, and she emigrated here some ten years ago. The notion of hosting a BYO Pub in the Heathcote Parish Hall was her idea, and – while serving hoki fillets with one hand and waving to new arrivals with the other – she explained how the destruction of other local meeting points had led to its creation : “The September quake took away the Valley Inn which was a wonderful gathering spot for the community. This last quake took away the Cricket Club, the Bowling Club, the café, the Coffee Roasters – all the community places have gone. And people were wanting to come together. We have a hall that’s useable. Damaged, but useable. So why not?”

The community in Heathcote have voted with their feet. On the prior Thursday night, 65 people turned up. That Friday, 100 people packed the hall. “We never know how many we are going to have and we’ve got donations of sausages, donations of fish, various things to help along by people from outside the area. People bring food, people share. ” Patrons have included Alan Simpson and Peter Murray, pictured left.

Even more impressively, long time residents are meeting other locals they’ve never had occasion to meet before. “ Last night I was talking with a woman who said ‘I’ve lived here 43 years and I’ve just met someone who’s lived therefore 42 years, and we didn’t know each other.’ It has really been a gathering point for the community.” She expects the BYO Pub to endure – over time, perhaps only as a Friday night event – for a year or so. The pub has borne fruit in other ways, too. “ Out of this of has come a community group that is now very active and – the first time we came together – we identified the needs that we still have, the things that need to happen and who is going to do them. There’s a newsletter coming out regularly. That all really came out of the BYO Pub.” Local politicians now drop in – Labour MP Ruth Dyson was present the night I went – and use it as a communication centre, a conduit for information to and from the community.

Does the BYO pub have a spiritual dimension? “ Only that I’m here and that they know that it is a church hall. We do have a number of people who have been coming to the pub who are now also coming to Sunday services, but…that’s not the point. The point is : lets be church in the community, and that means bringing the community together.”

Wasn’t that also the original intention of liberation theology? “Yes,” Giles says, “This is what I think the church ought to be.” And she laughs, and serves up another fillet of fresh fish, seasoned with tomato sauce and wrapped in white bread.

5. Insurance : no fault, your fault. The September 4 and February 22 earthquakes have propelled thousands of Christchurch residents into an intimate relationship with the wording of their insurance policies. Firms have for instance, discovered the key difference between “loss of custom” insurance arising from structural faults – say, when a water cylinder leaks on your stock – and the loss of custom caused by natural disasters. One suburban pharmacist interviewed for this article found out the hard way that he had the lesser type of cover for one of his premises, and the earthquake/natural disaster type for his other pharmacy.

Since he was still in dialogue with his insurers, he didn’t want to be named. Yet’ loss of custom.’ he explained, was proving a far more difficult concept to prove than he’d expected. Even though – as we quickly calculated – it cost him one third of his entire insurance premium. Access for customers was proving to be a determinant, he had found in talking to some colleagues in Christchurch. Some had found that eligibility for ‘loss of custom’ compensation could depend on there being unimpeded access to the front doorway, and whether that could be opened – regardless of the damage done to premises nearby, or the general impact on the foot traffic on which the business depends.

Opening the door for business too soon, he had discovered, could also be treated as relevant by some insurers. Opening up within 24 hours of an event, he had learned, could in some cases void your ‘loss of custom’ insurance. A dairy – or in his case, a pharmacy – might well want to re-assure its regular customers as soon as possible that all was well. “ We’d want to re-assure our customers that for instance, they would still be able to get their medicines. But by doing so, you could shoot yourself in the foot.” As things currently stand, he has been asked by his insurers to supply full details of his turnover for every month since April 2007, and his daily turnover figures for every day between January 1st 2011 and February 22 – and remains hopeful of ‘loss of custom” compensation based on a ratio of those amounts. Luckily for him, he has access to such figures – or at least for the period that he has owned the pharmacy.

For home owners, many still find themselves caught in the grey zone between the damage estimates that have been calculated by their insurers, and the separate estimates done by the Earthquake Commission. As is now well known, EQC pay the first $100,000 of repair costs, and the insurers meet the rest up to, and including, the cost of a total rebuild.

For this article, I attended one such evaluation of a small suburban house in Heathcote, situated close to the epicentre of the February 22 quake. One fascinating sign of the force generated was that an inner wall had been briefly lifted upwards by the vertical thrust, and a metal ruler had been fired across the room and under the wall by the horizontal force – such that the ruler remained trapped when the wall came back down again. Yes, the insurer’s inspector told me, he’d heard of a case where the same sideways and upwards force had jammed a framed wedding photo under an inner wall in another house, in exactly the same fashion.

After an extensive inspection, the insurer’s ballpark estimate was that the damage – while moderate to heavy – was under the $100,000 cap. Probably around $70,000, he supposed, mainly because the house was relatively small. The next day, the EQC inspectors concluded the damage would be well over $100,000, and a complete rebuild was in order. Which, at time of writing, is where the matter rests, pending a response from the insurance company.

All across Christchurch, thousands of similar estimates and negotiations are under way. EQC has been on a steep learning curve – it expanded from having only 22 employees at September 4 last year to where it employed 1,200 people by Christmas. As the business blogger Bernard Hickey has pointed out, EQC was the subject of a damning report in 2009, one that warned of the likely bottlenecks and communication failures that have become all too familiar to Christchurch residents. The full report is here:

Plainly, at the time of the first quake, EQC had still not acted on the report’s findings which, as Hickey says, included these creepily prophetic observations :

Home owners with damages over the EQC caps depend on settlements from both EQC and
their private sector insurer to finance replacement or reconstruction.
• Private sector insurers who receive claims for damages over the EQC caps must wait on
EQC to make decisions about settling claims before they can settle.
• In the event of a moderate or major disaster generating tens of thousands of claims,
capacity to process claims will be scarce and EQC will compete against private sector
insurers for it.
A number of issues in the current relationship could cause delays and inefficiencies in settling claims,
both by EQC and private sector insurers, and could delay the release of funds for reconstruction
following a disaster.
These issues include the following.
• EQC does not have direct access to information on the details of the people and residences
it covers. Instead, EQC must iteratively and manually verify with private sector insurers,
claim by claim, that a claimant has a valid insurance policy. This adds cost and time to
EQC’s claims processing. In a large scale event it could cause a bottleneck.

With hindsight, one can blame EQC for its failure to act on the report’s recommendations. In mitigation, one also has to acknowledge that this sort of bureaucratic re-organisation was the sort of public service review of procedures being targeted by the incoming government, allegedly to release funds to ‘front line” services. Clearly, administrative reviews are sometimes worth the time and money.

Other pressures are being felt by EQC and the private insurance companies from offshore as well. Both EQC and the insurers are being expected to treat people in Christchurch in ways that satisfy their re-insurers offshore and thus justify the payouts being proposed. In an April 6 TV3 interview with John Campbell, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee certainly hinted to that effect:

The thing is, the $100,000 [EQC payment cap] is re-insured by a range of contracts. You can’t simply go along to your re-insurer and say ‘Bad luck, this is it.’ You have to have an understanding that the material and information you supply to that re-insurer backs the claim that is being made.”

Those re-insurers have no emotional stake in Christchurch. They live in Zurich, London and elsewhere. In an interview at his Christchurch home, Jim Anderton told me of attending a meeting at the Ministry of Economic Development before Christmas, with representatives of the insurance industry. “They told me that their underwriters were saying to them – and these are the words – we are not welfare institutions. WE ARE NOT WELFARE INSTITUTIONS, end quote. So, you sharpen your pencil down there, and don’t just give away our money.” If Christchurch residents feel like prisoner of the quake, liberation from its effects is being measured out by the re-insurers in Switzerland.

6. Public Services What finally gets rebuilt and where will depend in large part on the assessment of the land on which Christchurch now somewhat uneasily rests. Before the September 4th quake, the faultline responsible was not previously known to geologists. Three months after the February 22 shock, the mapping of the interplay between the faultlines involved the main engineers for the EQC.

This data will not be available until May/June at the earliest. Until then, any rebuilding work in Christchurch can be no more than a patch-up job, based on little more than faith. As Kate Williams, senior engineering geologist for Tonkin and Taylor told John McCrone of the Press :

We’re not going to go to 100 per cent by [May] – though you know, as scientists, we’d love to be before we give any recommendations. But there has to be a point in time where we say we have enough information that is robust. So by around mid-May, we may be able to inform people, not on individual properties, but probably on a suburb or street-by- street basis, about what may happen in their neighbourhoods.”

While the extent of the land re-mediation deemed necessary in suburbs such as Bexley, Avondale, Dallington and Sumner will not be known until Tonkin and Taylor report back, a shortfall is looming in the money available to the Christchurch City Council in order to restore and strengthen public utilities. Rating revenue is a reflection of property values, which have plunged in the aftermath of the quakes. At the post-quake first Council meeting on March 31, some estimates of the local government revenue picture were released, none of them good.

Based on government and City Council figures, the quakes could reportedly reduce Christchurch’ capital value by as much as $5 billion – which, in turn, is likely to cost the regional council about $3 million in lost rates from householders, though this is hard to square with the estimated $6 million hit in lost revenues after the September quake alone. According to Environment Canterbury calculations, about 10,000 houses, worth an average of $380,000 will be demolished, along with 635 commercial buildings with a cumulative total value of $1.2 billion. The additional loss in commercial property rates will not be known definitively for some time, but the damage to commercial buildings in February was far more extensive than in the earlier quake. In late April, the Council released much the same figures:

The Christchurch City Council says it is budgeting on a reduced rates take, based on 7000 – 10,000 potential residential demolitions and 650 potential commercial demolitions. Mayor Bob Parker says the council will have to absorb about $3 million in lost revenue.

Adding to the Council’s income woes will be a steep downturn in revenue from parking fees, which contributed $6 million to the city’s coffers last year. On the other side of the ledger, where can Christchurch save money? At the March 31 council meeting, some options – such as deferring the city’s new bus terminal – were raised, but other alternatives, like reconsidering the $45 million Council bailout of the owner of AMI Stadium were left untouched in the draft annual plan.

Wage Earners and Sole Traders. The damage done by the quake to humans and their homes, offices, roads, places of worship etc, is one thing. The changes done to the terrain evokes a quite different kind of dismay. Landmarks like Castle Rock on the Port Hills and Shag Rock at Sumner are supposed to be enduring, eternal features of the landscape – but after 15,000 years or so, they have been altered in seconds, and changed forever.

As yet, the government is being coy – or genuinely hasn’t a clue – about how many workers in Christchurch it expects to be on the dole in a couple of months. It seems to be hoping for the best while accepting the likelihood of bad news. In the House on April 5th, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett reported that half of the people who had taken up the government’s job loss support initially had now come off it, and only one third of the eligible sole traders had actually sought the assistance at all. Beyond that point, judging by this exchange with Labour’s Clayton Cosgrove Bennett seemed to be feeling that ignorance was political bliss:

Hon Clayton Cosgrove…. Has any Government agency provided her with advice as to how many Cantabrians will end up on the unemployment benefit once the current support package ends; if so, what is that advice and what are the numbers?

Hon Paula Bennett : No, I have not had advice on how many will end up on the unemployment benefit. We have certainly had advice on how many employers may not be able to relocate, and we are certainly seeking advice on where we are moving skills training. But it is not a matter of concentrating on how many are going on the unemployment benefit; it is about supporting those businesses and those employees—those people who most need it.

Right, right. Who wants to think about bad news ? By late April, the government response to the quake seemed to be the sound of one shoe falling, as the wage subsidies to employees and sole traders started to be phased out. The other shoe – assuming the government does have a plan to prevent a tsunami of Christchurch people going on the dole, and staying there until summer – had yet to fall at the time of writing this article.

Its a communication dead zone. Across the city, thousands of people in Christchurch are heading into winter and facing a bleak and uncertain employment situation. All kinds of workers are being affected. As at mid April, the Jonathan Smart Gallery located in suburban Linwood was the only independent art gallery still operating in Christchurch. Smart has been providing exhibition space for artists in Christchurch for 23 years now, almost all of it on High Street, in an area ravaged by the quakes. In mid 2010 however, Smart had just relocated to new premises on Salisbury Street which, sadly, were lost in the first quake last September.

In the period between the quakes, Smart felt “too stunned” to search for new premises, again. “But by way of conversation and friendship [the sculptor] Neil Dawson offered me a little self-contained, north-facing space in his studio and I took up that offer in mid to late October, built an extra wall, re-opened in mid November and did two quickfire shows before Christmas.” Thanks to Dawson’s wooden, light timbered studio being situated on the east side in Linwood, it escaped much of the serious damage done to the central city. Others were not so fortunate. “The other galleries at my end of the art sector are all located in the central city, and I’m lucky enough to be the only one able to show work.”

Lucky as well, that some 40 % of Smart’s art business is done with customers based outside of Christchurch. For obvious reasons, local sales have been tight to non-existent. He qualified for the transitional income relief offered by the government. “ I have been collecting the $500 a week National government subsidy for employers and/or sole traders. That will be scaled back quite quickly in my case. So that will be a touch nerve-wracking.”

Like many workers and small firms, Smart will be going cold turkey well before normal economic life revives. As yet he has certainly seen no incremental creep back to normality in his part of the market. ‘In my trade, the appetite for purchase right now is nil, locally.” In today’s Christchurch, his gallery is functioning right now more as a centre for social therapy than as a business venue. “In terms of an interest in an event around an opening, its high. People like an excuse to gather, right now. But in terms of local purchase there is no interest, because we’re concerned with other things and I have to try and work the best I can outside of the city. Which I’ve always managed to do, with some success.” He feels luckier than most in that regard.

The peppercorn rental that Dawson’s generosity makes possible will help to sustain him once the government subsidy runs out. Even so, some would probably see his survival as being the least of the city’s problems. Art, schmart – surely this is no time for looking at stuff painted on walls? “It may be easily disposed of in terms of the fiscal desire for purchase,” Smart readily concedes. “But I’ve always believed in the redemptive qualities of good practice. Always enjoyed the journey of the imaginary. It’s as good a time as any – if not better if not better – to enjoy the journey. To enjoy the escape, if you like, that art offers.”

Rebuilding Christchurch may come to depend on it. Purely by chance, the city finds itself at one of those rare moments in any city’s history, when the practical needs of survival and the opportunity to imagine a new future are at an intersection. For much of his life, Smart has eked out a living on the same hand-to-mouth-to imagination continuum, by working only with the kind of art (and artists) that he respects. Much of it has involved foraging for subsistence, rather than splashing around at the big gallery, big commission end of the pool.

For the next few months at least, Smart conjectures, maybe a lot of people in Christchurch are going to be forced into a similar sort of foraging mode, at least until the city begins to recover. Already, people are being forced into inventing ways to cope, to eke out a living for themselves and their families. Creativity comes along with that territory, in a very personal way. “It is the nature of the scavenger, finding ways to survive,” Smart says. “Everyone is in the same boat, for now. “And will be, for a long time to come.

ENDS