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Empty chairs and broken hearts in Christchurch March 8, 2012

Posted by paulstella in Uncategorized.

Lives lost in Christchurch during last year’s devastating earthquake are honored with the ‘185 Empty Chairs’ exhibition.

I notice armchairs, folding chairs, office chairs, patio chairs, even a wheel chair. In total, 185 white chairs sit there—empty—as a stark reminder of the human toll inflicted upon Christchurch.

Access to the city center is restricted due to the amount of damage that remains

Signs outside the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church accompany the chairs and describe “a temporary art installation reflecting on the loss of lives, livelihood and living in our community following the earthquake on 22 February 2011.” Each chair represents the absence of one who has perished. Similar tributes have marked other tragedies such as the 9/11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing.

I recall that day last year—hearing about the devastation and turning to the Internet for some orientation on a city of nearly 350,000 residents in New Zealand I had not heard of prior. Suddenly, now, I am enveloped by the aftermath that still clearly scars the community both physically and emotionally.

Work crews have started demolition of the entrance to the former Crowne Plaza Hotel

Entering the city limits, there are no obvious remnants of the earthquake and it appears that most residents of Christchurch continue on with their lives. But approaching the city center, the landscape modifies dramatically. Barriers deny access to areas still overwhelmed by damage, which extend for multiple blocks in every direction.

Of particular note is the fate of the Christchurch Cathedral. A great deal has been reported here in New Zealand about plans to dismantle the remains of the historic landmark, citing significant costs and the overwhelming difficulty of the repairs. That decision is a source of angst for some residents. I had hoped to get a sense of the damage myself, but the cathedral is embedded too far within the barriers.

One life remembered

Instead, I am struck by the widespread destruction that remains more than a year after the quake. Many buildings face demolition, including the Crowne Plaza Hotel. While watching some of the work taking place at that location, I gentleman on his mountain bike pauses alongside me. As a Christchurch resident, he can’t help but lament over what he sees.

“It’s such a nice city,” he tells me. “We’ll just have to rebuild.”

But for many who remain in this city, no effort can rebuild the lives that were lost that day—the loved ones who remain only in memory.

The sight of 185 empty chairs highlights the significance of their loss, even to a visitor who more than a year ago didn’t even know their community existed. I suspect I will always carry a piece of Christchurch with me from this day forward.



1. Frank Battaglia - March 8, 2012

It’s amazing how quickly an event like the earthquake at Christchurch fades from consciousness. Life goes on for the rest of us but, for these residents, things will never be the same. A very poignant piece, Paul.

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