What Happens Next: Napier

I’ve traveled to places, like Heimaey in Iceland. I’ve read of places, like Pompeii. In those places, you go to see what they looked like the moment disaster struck. A moment frozen in time under lava. There’s usually a loaf of bread in an oven somewhere to emphasize the moment-in-timeness.

When we traveled to Napier, we got to see that next moment. What happens after disaster. After leaving a town still deciding it’s post-quake identity, I wanted to see how one city answered that question. Napier answered it with a fondant exclamation point.


Napier is a town on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The reason I knew of it is because of a map in the bathroom of our house in Sumner. It described Napier as an Art Deco capital of the world. I’m sorry. What?

Napier was very much a colonial seaside town waking up to the 20th century. Trams and electricity and all that jazz.



Until February 3, 1931. That morning, a 7.8 quake hit and what it left standing a massive fire soon destroyed.

It was, and is, New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster. The quake was so significant that the capital, Wellington, removed the 50m clocktower and massive grand entrance portico to the town hall as a preventative measure and, further, building laws were changed in an attempt to limit damage like that from happening again.

But, what of Napier? It had already happened there.



Today, it stands as a testament to a city determined to rebuild, and with gusto.


When the town planned the rebuild, they embraced the au courant architecture, especially the Art Deco style. Like, bear hugged it. Within a decade the downtown commercial district, and the nearby town of Hastings, was splashed with Spanish Mission, Striped Classical and the geometric vividness of Art Deco.


As Oak Parkers, Brett noted that we often roll our eyes at the persnickety nature of our building codes and the efforts to preserve the abundance of Frank Lloyd Wright homes. After visiting, we realized just how important those cranky preservationists and passionate afficiandos can be.

There is an Art Deco Trust in Napier that has helped keep the building standing, I’m sure against many development efforts and I have no idea what kind of challenge that has been.


Still, for all the still-standing, B described Napier as a city you should squint at. If I kept my camera angled up or we looked at the block big-picture style it was incredible, a moment from the 30s right in front of our (squinted) eyes.


But if you looked even a tad closer, or panned down a bit, there were a surprising number of vacant buildings and second story lease signs. Why isn’t there a wait list to work in one of these gems? How is this place not booming?


But even more, why aren’t there ordinances about real estate signs? Or why aren’t there codes about tenants and owners not besmirching the facades with ugly storefront signs that detract the hell out of the experience? Less pretty towns have done it. Rich towns with no soul have done it. We spent the car ride to Rotorua with me declaring that we should buy a bunch of properties. We should write the town council! Didn’t they get that if people were going to drive and fly and travel there they wanted things to feel less Wet Seal and signage-y and more pristine?


Did something happen between the influx of articles in 2012 declaring it to be a top tourist destination and today? An economic downturn? An evil real estate baron elected mayor? It is most definitely a top destination but as someone who carries a camera, I’d think the city would push to have for lease and for sale signs a bit more modestly placed and the garish signage of store occupying historic buildings.

The weekend before was an Art Deco-y themed weekend, so clearly the city knows to capitalize on its legacy. And yet unless those signs Go-Go-Gadget disappear it seems like a whole lot of yuck in all those Instagrams. Can’t filter that out. I both get it and don’t. A city has to be allowed to evolve and be current. And what might allow that evolution is a certain fierce preservation.


And maybe that’s the point. While I sit here wondering about NIMBYism and bad choices and who I can blame, I’m INMBYing. It’s Not My Backyard. Maybe one of the worst things that can happen is for outsiders to come in, immediately after or decades later, and tell people what they should do to their town. The people I appreciate in Oak Park are the Oak Parkers who are dedicated to our community. There is clearly Napier pride and I benefitted from the great choices they are making—preserving the buildings and investing in an absolutely incredible beachfront playground that made my kid and local kids so happy and who knows what else.


Maybe my job is to go and look up.



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