Award-winning minstrel and singer of perceptive original compositions Lawrence Arabia (aka James Milne) found himself at the centre of a Category 4 shit-storm after mildly negative tweet earlier this week.
Milne’s sentiment - that the CBD lacks interesting businesses and a bit of soul - shouldn’t really be controversial. The new builds in the city are flash and shiny and expensive, and require tenants that meet that bill. This is hardly a revelation. A number of people have commented about this, or even gone further, as I did in this piece for Overland Magazine last year:
The brash new complexes in the retail core scream ‘progress’, with multiple outlets competing for the high-end clothing dollar, while craft beer bars and gastropubs overlook the Avon River as it meanders through the city. This is Christchurchland, a city that hums with dystopian unease, with new developments that erase not just the history but also the very purpose of the city. Its modern buildings coexist with demolition sites that have sat broken behind fences since the quakes, an inconvenient reminder that progress is not linear, nor is it equally distributed.
What made this comment newsworthy (it only attracted 4 retweets and a handful of comments, so was hardly a viral moment) was when ChristchurchNZ, the official cheerleaders of the rebuild, got involved. Now, it is their mandate to promote the city, and to be relentlessly positive about things. But there was something a bit tone-deaf about having an arm of the bureaucracy swing in to counter any negative sentiments about Christchurch. If someone like Milne, who grew up in the city, and frequently visits to play shows and see family, thinks that maybe it isn’t what it used to be, then surely there is some validity in that? I know many, many people who share similar sentiments about the character of the new CBD - a great number of whom would have been far more scathing than Milne was. A city is a complex cohabitation, and of course there will be a plurality of views within it. The new part of the CBD is great if you have $18.50 to spend on lunch and think 3 business shirts for $200 is a good deal; if that’s not your bag, then you’re far better off in the more interesting inner suburbs that haven’t been planned to death.
The eagerness of those in charge to stifle dissent (the CEO of the Crusaders also waded into the debate, suggesting Lawrence Arabia should just wait until the new stadium is open if he wanted to see life in the city) speaks to a deeper insecurity. They must know, deep down, that despite - or perhaps, because of - the billions spent on the rebuild, it isn’t attracting the sort of life and vitality that was promised. This fear is now manifesting in a misguided belief that the next big project - the convention centre, the stadium, the metro sports centre - will be the one that finally makes everything click.
On the same day that Milne made his comments, the Press had a front-page story about the continuing failure to build residential accommodation in the CBD. The target of 20,000 people living in the CBD - one that I have argued is incredibly unambitious - seems like it will never be reached. Getting people back living in the city centre - especially younger people who will work and play and shop in the area - is absolutely critical to becoming the vibrant and vital city that ChristchurchNZ wants to tell the world we already are. It shouldn’t be too hard to see that if no one wants to live in the CBD, then bringing life back is going to be a very difficult proposition.