Lemonade out of a Lemon

If ever there was a town that made lemonade out of a lemon, it is Napier. Located in the heartland of New Zealand, Napier was completely destroyed in 1931 by an earthquake and subsequent fire. This is where the lemonade comes in. The earthquake left some 4500 hectares of brand new uplifted earth in its wake. Napier took advantage of the gift. The town rebuilt, making sure to replicate as faithfully as possible the art deco style of architecture that nature had gutted. The town is a virtual museum in itself.

The downtown streets are wide and treeless. A singular mark of the art deco style is the ubiquitous leaded glass windows in the shops and buildings of the main thoroughfare. The leaded glass is the work of one man, a glazer who reproduced the glass in his garage seventy years ago. Twisted barley cord columns called “Spanish Mission” are everywhere. The columns are topped with art deco designs and Maori tribal patterns. Spanish tiles decorate the roofs. Original storefronts that have kept Napier in the first third of the last century are preserved with tenderness.

It is Sunday afternoon when I walk through the town. All the shops are closed. A handful of townies are about. The wide streets are clean as a whistle. Down the center of one street is a double row of Phoenix palms, a gift to the town from well-to-do patrons. They accentuate the absence of greenery everywhere else in the town center. The salt laden wind from the bay is a plant killer. You need to be a mile away from the water before the tree line can start.

I ask Mike, my bus driver, what it is like living in Napier. He was born here. He has lived here all his life. He loves it. It is, he says, a nice town. I ask him if there is any crime. He says twenty years ago the freezing plant closed down. That left a couple of hundred Maoris out of work. The result was street gangs. He says that hasn't been bad recently. I ask him how he feels about the Maoris. He says he has a Maori son-in-law and a Maori daughter-in-law. “It’s not a racial thing,” he said. “It just isn’t smart to put 200 Maoris out of work.

Click here to listen to this entry in audio