Gatsby’s City

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Katharina met up with me and Emily in Palmerston North Thursday night for a girl’s night out, and after Emily split for a trip back to Wellington, Kat and I set off for Napier in the heart of the East Coast of the North Island. For Easter Sunday, the weather was finally warm and sunny again. This was the first time in 13 solid days we haven’t gotten any rain!

This morning, Kat and I partook in a one hour walking tour of the city which I found thoroughly fascinating. In 1931, a catastrophic 7.9 earthquake violently shook Hawke’s Bay for two and a half minutes, completely devastating the cities of Napier and Hastings. The quake destroyed every last building, and what wasn’t damaged from the earthquake was ruined from a fire that started soon after. To put it into perspective of how utterly cataclysmic this disaster was, the land rose 2 meters as a result. In light of positive outcomes, this left Napier with 40 sq km more of land.

Since the 1930s were at the height of the Great Depression, the city was already struggling financially. The population at the time was only 16,000 residents, and the city council contemplated if it would even be worthwhile to spend so much time and money rebuilding. Only two small insurance companies paid out, all others claiming it was an “Act of God,” but the people borrowed money from the New Zealand government at low interest rates and eventually reconstructed the town in an astonishing 2 years.

Today in Napier, art deco is present around the city and characterizes a “snapshot in time,” but back then it was a cheap way to build and a dramatic change from the previous Victorian style architecture. When you walk around Napier, it makes you feel reminiscent of the “Great Gatsby,” but I think I secretly love it so much because it reminds me of the style often used around Disney’s MGM Studios.

Architecturally, art deco is based on symmetry, pastels, shallow building of only two or three stories, second story balconies and rounded building corners. Zig zag designs represent a bolt of power, and parallel lines symbolize fast and forward movements of progression, even though that wasn’t directly indicative of that present time. It was interesting to see how some small intricate building details around the city even included allusions of the indigenous Maori designs.

The city council nowadays still encourages the weaving of modern businesses with such a dated architectural style. They offer subsidizing for things like pastel paints and hold an annual contest for the best vintage signage. The local Subway got permission from their corporation, and the only art deco Subway sign in the world can be found in town here. This is a picture of the Criterion Art Deco Backpackers where we got to stay. What once was an old hotel has now been transformed into a funky hostel with an exciting atmosphere.

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