Another world over the hill

Let's Travel - - NEW ZEALAND - Words and im­ages by Paul Rush

Aflood tide of melan­choly washes over me as I look down Lon­don Street, pock-marked with de­mo­li­tion sites…a street that once pul­sated with the sounds of mu­si­cians, buskers and en­ter­tain­ers.

I can vividly re­call the town’s ex­cit­ing bo­hemian vibe; its jaunty hole-in-the-wall bars, funky nightspots, rus­tic the­atres of­fer­ing soul food and belly laughs, ritzy restau­rants and cosy cafés af­ford­ing strik­ing har­bour views.

At the cor­ner of Lon­don and Can­ter­bury streets is a va­cant lot that has seen sev­eral re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tions since seis­mic up­heaval re­duced many of its colo­nial build­ings to rub­ble. Within weeks of the Fe­bru­ary 2011 earth­quake the site was des­ig­nated as the im­pro­vised, un­of­fi­cial town square…a sym­bolic state­ment of Lyt­tel­ton’s re­cov­ery.

Even be­fore weeds sprouted through the rub­ble, en­tre­pre­neur­ial bright sparks and ‘glass-half-full’ res­i­dents had cre­ated a Pe­tanque Club, a Chil­dren’s Play Area, a Free Food Ex­change and good sorts were serv­ing snarlers and fried onions while out­lin­ing am­bi­tious plans for a new town.

The site has now mag­i­cally trans­muted into a thriv­ing tran­si­tional arts project. Sculpted forms, painted pil­lars and lamp­posts, strik­ing Gaudi and Hun­dert­wasser-style seats and stalls pro­vide an ex­hi­bi­tion show­case venue for lo­cal artists.

The Lyt­tel­ton Mas­ter Plan pro­vides for this strate­gic site to be­come the town’s puls­ing heart as the fu­ture per­ma­nent

civic square. The 3,000 in­no­va­tive res­i­dents are de­ter­mined to re­vi­talise the town. In the process they are redefin­ing the skill of pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion by in­volv­ing a large sec­tion of the com­mu­nity in their plan­ning.

Lyt­tel­ton is not a place that likes to stand still and pos­i­tive things are hap­pen­ing. Fish­er­man’s Wharf, Roots and Ever­est In­dian restau­rants are all thriv­ing. The Port Hole and Ir­ish pubs are great places to re­lax with drinks. Tommy Chang’s has be­come a great bar and small mu­sic venue. Wunderbar has re­turned and jazz fills the air at Free­mans Restau­rant. A new ta­pas bar, called Civil and Naval opened in Au­gust.

Project Lyt­tel­ton mem­ber, Wendy Ever­ing­ham, tells me her or­gan­i­sa­tion is com­mit­ted to recre­at­ing the soul of a sus­tain­able com­mu­nity in this im­por­tant port town. ‘A lot of spon­ta­neous things are hap­pen­ing,’ she says. ‘Now that the earth­quake re­cov­ery work is well un­der­way, we have the free­dom to dream and cre­ate some won­der­ful things. Gap-fillers and pop-up fa­cil­i­ties are gath­er­ing mo­men­tum. Yes­ter­day we had the I Spy Trea­sure Hunt and to­day the Fes­ti­val of Walk­ing be­gins with lead­ers who are ex­pert in ecol­ogy, flora, art, poetry and photography. There’s even a fam­ily pushchair walk.’

Whether you en­ter the town from the road over the Port Hills or through the Lyt­tel­ton Tun­nel, it feels like you’re ar­riv­ing at a dif­fer­ent world. The townscape is a blend of vol­canic slopes, colo­nial build­ing fa­cades, a work­ing port and pleas­ant beach set­tle­ments scat­tered around a tran­quil har­bour. When you gaze in won­der at the har­bour’s seren­ity, it beg­gars be­lief that you’re see­ing the caldera (col­lapsed crater) of an ex­tremely vi­o­lent vol­cano that last erupted ten mil­lion years ago.

This ap­peal­ing port town is the prod­uct of Ed­ward Gib­bon Wake­field’s dream of an idyl­lic aris­to­cratic and theo­cratic ideal­ism. He aimed to trans­port whole classes of English Angli­can so­ci­ety to Can­ter­bury and per­pet­u­ate their way of life. As with most hu­man en­deav­ours it proved less than ideal and within one year it was nec­es­sary to build a large jail in Ox­ford Street. The hard-labour gangs built most of the roads and stone walls around the town, as well as Fort Jer­vois on Ri­papa Is­land and a Quar­an­tine Sta­tion on Quail Is­land.

Talk­ing to lo­cal res­i­dents and busi­ness peo­ple, I get the feel­ing that the re­con­struc­tion of this town is go­ing to be a long haul, per­haps ten years or more. Fund­ing is a ma­jor is­sue, com­pli­cated by the re­luc­tance of insurance com­pa­nies to un­der­write risks in this earth­quake zone. But de­spite the huge chal­lenges ahead the sense of com­mu­nity is tan­gi­ble.

Sur­vey­ing the scene I shud­der to think that Lyt­tel­ton may con­tinue as the poor cousin to the re­vi­tal­is­ing city over the hill. One bright spot is the ac­cel­er­ated flow of gen­er­ous do­na­tions for the re­in­state­ment of the heroic Time­ball Sta­tion, in­clud­ing one donor will­ing to foot much of the bill. Noth­ing will boost the lo­cal com­mu­nity spirit more than the sight of the time­less Time­ball tower on the sky­line.

Wendy is pleased to be back in the old Vis­i­tor Cen­tre, which sur­vived the earth­quakes with only mod­er­ate dam­age. ‘Old wooden struc­tures seemed to stand up well in the quakes and our one sur­vived.’ She is de­lighted that the Farm­ers’ Mar­ket has moved to the main street each Satur­day. It acts as a fo­cal point for lo­cals and visi­tors.

The Farm­ers’ Mar­ket has been an es­sen­tial part of the lo­cal scene since 2005. Producers of qual­ity food and drink sell di­rect to the pub­lic. Stall­hold­ers with fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles, free range eggs, bread, meat, cheese and plants sell at the mar­ket ev­ery week. It’s a not-for-profit en­ter­prise by Project Lyt­tel­ton and lo­cal vol­un­teers.

Port ac­tiv­ity has in­creased in terms of cargo loads and Christchurch de­mo­li­tion rub­ble is be­ing ef­fec­tively used to form a 10ha recla­ma­tion area. How­ever, pas­sen­ger num­bers are well down. Over a 16 month pe­riod to April 2013 some 86 cruise ships vis­ited Banks Penin­sula but sadly only four came to Lyt­tel­ton. It seems that the cruise com­pa­nies are re­luc­tant to risk their pas­sen­gers in a cur­rent earth­quake zone and have adopted Akaroa as the first port of call.

‘Life seems to have sped up since the quakes,’ one res­i­dent tells me. ‘Look­ing back to that time it seems like an eter­nity now, so many things have hap­pened. At other times it seems like yes­ter­day.’ Peo­ple are be­ing kept in­formed of de­vel­op­ments with a weekly e-news­let­ter to res­i­dents around the har­bour and a pe­ri­od­i­cal com­mu­nity pa­per.

One thing that has held the com­mu­nity to­gether as a tight-knit en­tity is the Time Bank that has op­er­ated since 2005. Over 500 peo­ple are reg­is­tered and they all ben­e­fit by us­ing their cred­its to ob­tain other ser­vices, thus build­ing a com­mu­nity one trade at a time. The Time Bank data base has proved very use­ful for civil de­fence pur­poses, link­ing peo­ple to ac­com­mo­da­tion, help and re­pairs. The bank has a paid co­or­di­na­tor funded by do­na­tions, the Farm­ers’ Mar­ket, garage sales and the Can­ter­bury Com­mu­nity Trust.

Driv­ing back to Christchurch, I fol­low the coast via Cor­sair Bay and Ra­paki to Gover­nors Bay. At ev­ery turn there are star­tling views across the wa­ter to Di­a­mond Har­bour and Quail Is­land. A thou­sand di­a­monds sparkle on the sun­lit sur­face of the wa­ter.

The won­der­ful port com­mu­nity will once again rise to pros­per­ity and abun­dance. Project Lyt­tel­ton, the Time Bank and the dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion and re­silience of its peo­ple will see to that. They have come through the most chal­leng­ing time in their 170 year his­tory and are com­mit­ted to restor­ing the town. The Bo­hemian vibe, fes­ti­val at­mos­phere, quirky shop­ping and high qual­ity eater­ies are re­turn­ing with a flour­ish.

Lyt­tel­ton Har­bour at its placid, ivory-smooth best

The spic and span work­ing port is marred only by the ab­sence of cruise ships

Fish­er­man’s Wharf longs for the crowds of cus­tomers to re­turn for their ‘Fush & Chups’

The Li­ons pounce when visi­tors come for a sausage siz­zle in the Town Square

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