Napier is a small town on the east coast of New Zealand, it is famous for its abundance of wineries and for its ‘Art Deco’ architecture. It actually has the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings on earth, which wasn’t entirely planned, but now is a huge draw for tourism to the area. This is especially true in February when an Arc Deco week-long event is held. This all came about because in 1931 the town was completely flattened by an earthquake. It was and still remains the most deadly earthquake in New Zealand’s history, killing 256 people and injuring thousands. All but a few buildings were demolished. The earthquake struck during the great depression and a majority of residents didn’t have insurance on their houses. This resulted in many people being forced to take out second mortgages to rebuild their homes. During this time, many residents ended up living in canvas tents on their properties or in “tent towns” in the local parks.
The town decided to rebuild in the Art Deco style, which was the current architectural trend and fairly inexpensive. The style consists of linear structures and intricate designs of geometric motifs, for instance, chevrons and zig-zags. With the help of the government and military services (with huge influences from the navy) one hundred and eleven new buildings were constructed in the downtown area. At the time, the residents were just wanting to get on with their lives, what they didn’t realise was that they were creating what is now known as the Art Deco capital of the world.
Once a year the town commemorates this period of time, by hosting an ‘Art Deco festival’. It’s one week long and has around 125 events, from soap box derby, to a depression dinner, antique train rides and of course, the navy marching band. Tens of thousands of people come from all over just to experience this festival. What makes it special and unique is that the entire city gets involved. Plus, it’s not just about the events that are put on; In fact, while those are all to cool to check out, the best part is just walking around the town. The festival makes you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Basically, during that week, all the streets to the downtown area are blocked off to traffic and the only cars allowed to be parked down those streets have to be from the 1930s era.
Downtown is right next to the beach, the ‘main drag’ (called Marine Parade) runs parallel to the seafront, with a park, gardens, an open air pavilion on the beach side, and a shopping area on the other. The land in this area is completely flat and there are 2 or 3 main streets which run perpendicular to the main boulevard. Most of the cars park along Marine Parade and a steam engine takes people for rides around the circuit. Everyone who lives there, works there or goes shopping there is dressed in clothes from that era, and I mean everyone, from young to old and even the high school kids. If you need to head in to get some milk, you better put on your 1930’s frock because you would be given strange looks if you don’t! Actually, if you don’t feel like dressing up you typically stay home that week.
My Aunty lives in Napier, on the outer edge of the downtown area. Most years we all load up the car with our dress up trunks and make the 5-6 hour drive from Auckland to Napier, just so we can spend a few days there, dressing up, walking around, and people watching. The fun part is getting all dolled up before you head out. Back then, people took pride in what they looked like in public – they wore nice dresses on a summer day, with pearls, and pretty gloves and petite hats. On the contrary, these days I roll out of bed and put on whatever shorts and t-shirt are lying around my room and I proceed to wander out the door. In the evening, heading into town is about looking marvelous, not scandalous (although, some of the dresses in those days were probably seen as a little on the scandalous side). I know its old fashion to say this, but girls looked like girls! Ultimately, we dressed to impress, and for once in my life I actually preferred going out in a dress and heels as opposed to trousers.
Night time at Art Deco week is probably my favourite. Most nights there is a swing band in the open air pavilion, people dance the night away, either in the pavilion or on the streets… The town is literally buzzing! People are out on their balconies chatting and waving, the street-side tables outside local bars and restaurants are full of people sipping wine or martinis. Kids are running around playing, young teens gather in groups, dancing and laughing. The war spotlight shines high in the sky and every now and then the siren goes off, but no one seems to care because the music is blasting away playing those toe tapping beats you can’t help but swing a partner around to.
Then, at the end of the week, on Sunday, after you’ve spent Saturday night drinking wine while watching the sunset on the beach, dancing the night away to jazz music and ruining your dress by splashing around in the fountain, you wander back into town for high tea on the beach. Now, you have two choices, you can either get in early, find a spot and set up your high tea tent, and then sit there all morning sipping tea from fancy china and eating tiny sandwiches. Or, if you’re not that organised (and like I said, were up all night dancing) you head in around mid-morning and just walk around checking out everyone’s set up. There are high tea tents set up all the way along the beach, as well as in the gardens and parks. The tents have different themes with everything from wicker picnic baskets, gramophones, to school house style tents, there’s even the odd ‘ship wrecked high tea’ (even though they’re lost on an island, they still have class). The week concludes with a parade from the navy marching band and a moments silence to remember all those that were lost, as well as all of those who helped rebuild the town to what it is today.
I think the thing I like most about this event is that it’s still very humble. Even though this event brings so many people to the town, it’s not touristy and it doesn’t place with the intention of making a profit. It’s just about living your life, and remembering where you came from. Yes, the past hasn’t always been fair, or easy, or perfect, but the past is what brings you to today. While you can’t change it, you can allow it to determine how you move forward.
This festival is a joyous occasion of a tragic time; when a town was in dire need of assistance and the country came together to help out. We celebrate how the people of this town persevered in memory of their loved ones. It is about the rebuilding, not just of a city but of a nation. No matter how bad it gets, if people stick together, work together and lend help, not pass blame, then from the rubble, something beautiful can be born. The strength of a community is in its ability to rise up after tragedy, and that is what Napier have done. Art Deco week; the music, the laughter, the atmosphere, the people, are all proof of this.