The poster above my desk reads “There’s Nothing to See Here” in big, red helvetica over an old town planning map of Christchurch city. It clearly conveys the loss and frustration of life in a post-quake city, which, as an outsider, I am only aware of through news media reportage.
The impression is that Christchurch is besieged with bureaucratic, political and geographic forces that either hinder or dictate what the city’s future will be, irrespective of its residents’ hopes and wishes.
Marcus Winstanley, proprietor of music venue The Darkroom:
“I don’t think this place is going anyway in the next decade at least….What did they say for the rebuild, ten years? I’d say more like forty...The Government unveiled a huge plan of new precincts, I just knew that’s not how a city builds...you have to give the people in the city the power to do it themselves.”
I’m standing in Marcus’ bar, a cosy, dark venue repurposed from an unknown industrial or manufacturing past to survey how Christchurch’s arts and music communities are rebuilding. The Darkroom was one of the first venues to open after the 2011 earthquake.
“You used to be able to walk out of the doors here and walk straight into a fence which fenced off the inner city. Obviously there was nothing in Christchurch at that time”
But what isn’t unique to The Darkroom is the familiar and fond feeling that the smell of stale beer and past parties conjures up: an indie music venue that serves as a headquarters to a city’s misfit music community.
For my tour guide, Johnny Gibson of urban online taste-making guide Neat Places, The Darkroom serves as an important symbol to Cantabrians’ sense of recovery,
“We’re not going to sit around as locals and wait for things to happen, we’re just going to do it ourselves and invite our friends. These things just grow organically”
To prove his point, Johnny takes me across the road to meet Gareth Talbot and Richard Sewell of Kadett and Space Academy - a multi-purpose venue and cafe. Neither had experience in hospitality nor property management, though Gareth’s rudimentary carpentry skills were handy for building the venue’s furniture. Richard admits he foolishly took on the lease, after years of telling his friends that he wanted to run a warehouse venue as a community arts and cultural space.
“Ignorance led us to think it was easy,” he laughs, “but there’s something nice in the cross-pollination [between Gareth and him]”.
Christchurch’s lack of central city vibrancy pre-dates the earthquake. Less than a decade ago, inner-city retailers bemoaned the suburban megamalls of Riccarton, Linwood, and Papanui that wooed shoppers away from their precinct. Johnny says that issue hasn’t gone away, as we detour our way to Woolston, where the concept of a retail mall has been given a serious reboot.
On the site of the Woolston Tanneries site dating back to 1881 is The Tannery, a “Victorian retail arcade” boasting a “unique retail experience” including a cinema, brewery, and recent addition to the Christchurch live venue listings: Blue Smoke.
As seems to typify the current Christchurch mood of evolution and reinvention, Blue Smoke is the new incarnation of Gustav’s, a wine bar where you would have never seen the likes of indie darling Mac Demarco “hang off the rafters and yell out “I’m staying in Addington!” It’s a memory that Johnny credits Jess Shanks for. As Blue Smoke’s Event Coordinator and a member of Christchurch’s troubadouring The Eastern, Jess embraces her role as community facilitator.
“I want all kinds of people to use this place for whatever kinds of events or concerts..it’s really up to people, I’m up for it.”
She is positive about the future of live music in Christchurch. And she’s not the only one feeling optimistic about post-quake life. Marcia Butterfield, founder of Neat Places has felt a change.
“I’m really most excited about people walking around..there’s some life again. For so long the central city has been very dead.”
I look up to the poster above my desk, and I’m not so sure about that big, red text any more.
Artist: Lawrence Arabia
Song: Apple Pie Bed
Composer: Milne and Buda
Album: Chant Darling
Label: Honorary Bedouin
Artist: Yumi Zouma
Song: Haji Awali
Composer: Yumi Zouma
Artist: Mac Demarco
Song: Passing Out Pieces
Album: Salad Days
Song: Disco Baby
Label: Lil' Chief