Tag Archives: Christchurch Earthquake

Christchurch Resurgent [10]

31st December 2011.

It is almost finished. I am writing this at 2:25 p.m. so we have only another nine hours and thirty-five minutes to go and 2011 will be over forever. What with earthquakes, snow and a heart valve replacement operation, this has been one of the most unpleasant years in my lifetime and, I daresay, in that of many others. The City of Christchurch as we knew it has gone, never to return. What will come to replace it no-body knows. We will cross that bridge as we come to it. Here in Canterbury we are getting very good at waiting, largely because there is nothing else we can do in the face of the glacial speed of the progress that we are making.

That progress, so painfully and slowly achieved, can be demolished in an instant. At the back of everyone’s mind is the niggling awareness that another Big One could strike at any moment. This is not a matter of paranoia. This is fact, but we tend to forget it. We all know intellectually that another major quake can hit at any time, but it is only human nature to become complacent. We had a seriously big one in June, then nothing for six months except for minor tremors. We began to suspect that it was all over and we could look forward to a bright new year. Then the day before Christmas Eve we were hit again with a quake that registered 7 on the Mercalli scale. And they have come thick and fast ever since. Less than an hour ago, at 1.44 p.m. we had a number 5. Less than a 7, perhaps, but significant, enough to set the kitchen floor to rocking, the pots and pans to clattering and to force me to grab the table for support. It was the 7,932nd quake to hit us since September last year. There had been three more previously today, and fourteen yesterday, of various strengths.

So the reminders that all is not over continue, and I no longer wish people a Happy New Year. On the face of it, that sounds a little too unlikely. Instead, I have taken to wishing people a boring New Year, an uneventful New Year in which nothing remarkable happens – no emergencies, no crises, no surprises – a year that is mundane from beginning to end, in which each day is calm, and serene and the same, a year in which people run out of things to say because nothing remarkable has happened.

And a very Boring New Year to you all!

Christchurch Resurgent [9]

24 December 2011.

So what lies ahead for the City of Christchurch? Buildings are going down all over the place at an ever-increasing rate. We are fast approaching a point in the road at which a decision on the shape of things to come must be made. We are now at a stage where an overall plan must be presented, but despite the Herculean efforts of many, all we have are vague pronouncements and piecemeal draughts of assorted visions that look very pretty on paper but that is as far as they go. None, so far, have the stamp of consensus. All are shallow, the work of technicians, not visionaries.

Christchurch’s beginnings lie clearly and firmly within a fully enunciated and finely detailed ideology. The Victorians were dedicated to imposing imperial order on the benighted chaos of Terra Nullia. Within that order, everything had to have meaning, and a meaning that was blindingly apparent to all [of that era] who saw it. That meaning was the divinely mandated mission of the Empire to bring the glory of Christian enlightenment and English law to the very ends of the earth. The builders of Christchurch were doing God’s Work, building a British Utopia in this, the farthest reach of Empire.

Were they right or wrong? I have absolutely no idea. To judge the purposes of imperial ideology in the light of post-modern political correctness is both vain and meaningless – not to mention quite beside the point here. I do know that the Victorians had a unified vision of what their bright new City should look like, how it would operate, and what symbols it would present to an admiring world. They argued fiercely amongst themselves about ways and means, but they were totally unified in their understanding of the underlying ideology, and in the ultimate source and inspiration of that ideology, lending a fine sense of eurhythmy to the emergent City.

We have two huge barriers to a repeat performance of such unanimity, the first being that the City is now wholly owned by a very large and disparate number of title-holders, many of them not Christchurch or even New Zealand residents, and all of whom have their own ideas about what should be built on their land, and how to go about building it. They will get about their rebuilding in their own good time, in their own individual ways, according to their own visions, needs and finances, and bugger eurhythmy.

Secondly, this firmly secular and staunchly individualistic society no longer has such a universally recognised ideology. In its place we have a hodgepodge of visions, mostly conflicting, the result of that religion of individualism that has undermined any earlier sense of cohesion. Pervading this is the barely bridled capitalism that is the outgrowth of unadulterated materialism, a capitalist ethic that demands that maximum profits be extracted from the minimum outlay in the shortest possible time. Much as I would love to see a new City of high quality and coherent planning, a City that will be a foundation for the next five hundred years, grow out of the rubble, I fear that weak and divided leadership and ad hoc, unco-ordinated decision-making shall leave us with a shambles and dreams of what might have been.

I believe that the new City of Christchurch shall in time emerge as a tourist precinct, not as a commercial centre.

The solicitors, the chartered accountants, the architects, the stockbrokers and the rest shall stay in their suburban communities. The City – what is left of it – shall draw in around Cathedral Square. It is noteworthy that of all the high-rise inner City buildings that are likely to remain are hotels: Ridges, the Millennium, the Heritage, Novotel, the Quest and the Marque. Close to four thousand beds lie within a couple of hundred metres of the Christ Church Cathedral.

I can see a much smaller City Centre evolving into a tourist hub, with bars and cafés, souvenir shops and ‘craft’ markets springing up to service a core made up of the main hotels. There shall be banks and Bureaux de Change, but these shall be branches rather than primary sites, and there shall be little commercial activity beyond that required to cater to the day to day needs of the tourist industry. The primary banks shall establish themselves outside the City proper, alongside the other financial houses. The once-burgeoning English-language trade will resurface in time, but it will probably be centred on Riccarton with its large shopping mall, and Ilam, where it can bask in the reflected academic glow of the University. Most of the land in the central City, particularly in the south-east quadrant, the area between Manchester Street and Fitzgerald Avenue, and north of Peterborough Street, will be given over to warehousing or bulk barns like Briscoe’s and Bunnings’.

What was the City could well become a back-water for tourists, with its restaurant-lined river, its botanic gardens, Museum and Art Gallery. Small shops in low-rise buildings would gradually open, with most development taking place along the route of a restored tramline. Gardens, lawns and flower-beds would be planted to cover a much wider riverine reserve extending from the heart of the City right along to New Brighton.

As visions go, maybe that is not such a bad one after all.

Christchurch Resurgent [8].

Thursday 22 December 2011.

Activity continues relentlessly inside the Red Zone cordon, some of it constructive but most of it destructive, to judge from what can be seen from the barriers at the end of Cashel Street. A pile of rubble is building up across from Colombo Street, where Kivers Lane used to be. The grand old DIC building is rapidly being reduced to a series of truck-loads of rubbish. I can only hope that the fine stained glass windows that used to adorn the stairwells have been saved. Looted or salvaged, it hardly matters so long as they have been removed unharmed and are in a safe place. I imagine that they might appear soon on E-bay; a very large quantity of ‘salvaged’ items has been put up for sale on the internet. In this way items do not have to be put on public display and no-one but the ‘salvors’ need see the piles of loot, which are kept from the prying eyes of the rightful owners.

At ninety degrees to that said sad site, on the south-west corner of the Colombo Street – Hereford Street intersection, there is further destruction. There was a camera shop on that corner, with Dimitri’s Souvlaki shop on the Colombo Street side and the optician’s on the Hereford Street side. Upstairs there was a jeweller’s shop where Ruth got bits and pieces repaired from time to time. No more.

Diametrically opposite that corner lies the monolithic bulk of the Bank of New Zealand, whose demolition began a few days ago. Cera [the Christchurch Earthquake Remediation Authority] had permitted people to enter the Square for the past few weekends to allow them to view the ruination, but, ominously, signs at the entry point advise that this is not public space but ‘Cera Space’, a firm reminder that Cera is not answerable to anyone, and all things now are done only by grace of the Authority. Nowhere does the word ‘please’ appear on the notices; autocracy does not request, it requires. The signs warn those who would enter that it is Very Dangerous, and in the event of an earthquake they might be Seriously Injured, or even that they Might Not Survive. Wear stout shoes, and carry identification, presumably to save Cera the trouble and expense of having to carry out tedious and time-consuming identification from dental records. The wording has that slightly hysterical undertone that is so common in official pronouncements these days. People are terrified that if something goes wrong they Might Get the Blame, so instead of trying to manage risk they attempt the impossible task of eliminating it entirely.

The culture of risk aversion runs deep and strong, and it is strangling recovery. The Cordon, that most visible manifestation of the risk aversion syndrome, is the garrotte that is strangling the life out of the City. “Ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant”, said Tacitus. He was writing about the destruction wrought on native societies by Roman imperialism, but the words might well sit under Cera’s escutcheon; “Where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

By denying access to the central City, Cera is destroying the heart of the community. The longer it maintains that exclusion, the more certain the destruction, but Cera seems to be unaware that a City is more than a collection of buildings, more than the sum of its parts, and it needs to have people in it. But no-one permitted inside the City and Cera will not admit anyone except the demolition crews. Ergo, all the businesses that employed tens of thousands, that were the City’s lifeblood, have gone; bankrupted, working from garages at home, relocated to the malls and the suburbs.

All these people have set themselves up at Riccarton or Hornby or Northlands. The airport end of Waimairi Road, around the intersection of Roydvale Avenue, is humming with activity. In this process business houses and professional people have set up shop, signing five and ten year leases, and spending a lot of money getting the new premises up to scratch. As time goes on they will become more and more entrenched. Their clients will become accustomed to the new positions, all of which will be thankfully low-rise and have ample free parking. Service providers, retailers, cafés and bars will spring up around them, new communities will coalesce. In five or ten years time, when the leases are up for renewal and expensive premises again become available in the City, will they pull up stakes and head back to Cathedral square?

I don’t think so.


Christchurch Resurgent [6]

Wednesday 7th December 2011.

The journey into the City is still fraught with difficulty, even in light traffic. The roads are wavy in some places, bumpy in others and holes have a way of suddenly appearing in previously smooth surfaces. Open lanes become closed, signs re-direct you this way or that, and every now and again a broad stretch of road becomes constricted as cones are set out in the middle of it, forming an area where bronzed young men in hard hats and reflective jackets stand around staring down into something below ground level. Every trip out is different, every day a new and uncertain adventure, but I am starting to get the hang of things and something like a routine is forming.

I like routines. I need routines. Routines are my way of coming to terms with a chaotic world that will not stop jumping about in unexpected directions. Most days, I manage to bag the same parking spot under the wattle tree at the back of the car park on the corner of Oxford Terrace and Cashel Mall. I have even managed to establish a working relationship with the parking meter, an eccentric and temperamental device that requires patience and diplomacy to operate. A small victory, you may think, but a significant one. In this way I am regaining some small measure of control over my days.

Wednesday was cold and wet and thoroughly miserable, and I was most interested to find out what, if anything, was happening in Cashel Village, and how its denizens might be coping with such changes as the weather might bring.

Cashel Village, or, to give it its official and very uninspired name, the Restart Retail Centre, is evolving and changing. A pop-up Westpac Bank has appeared on the wide tar-sealed space by the stage. Opposite that, Samsung appliances have set up shop in container premises, and the food caravans are operating a little further back. Barbecue tables have been provided – by whom, I have no idea – and they are much appreciated, although there was no-one sitting there on Wednesday. No-one was there – period, sitting or otherwise. Or so it seemed at first, but further investigation gave that impression the lie.

There were people around, although perhaps not as visible as they might have been. The problem with the Cashel Village [I much prefer that name to Retail Restart et cetera] is that it is set up as a fine weather venue. In the City as it was there was a lot of shelter on wet, dreary days. There were lots of verandahs, and places like the Shades Arcade and the Guthrey Centre to which to retreat. And, of course, the Cathedral, Our City, and the Provincial Council Chambers all provided ample and sociable space. We have none of that in the Cashel Village, so where do people go when the weather bares its teeth?

Answer: Ballantyne’s, where it is warm and busy and a café is operating.

They have verandahs on the Cashel Mall and Colombo Street frontages, and, God bless them, they have the Christmas Windows up and running in all their splendour. Pinocchio, Gepetto and the Blue Fairy have a window to themselves, while Peter Pan, Wendy, Captain Hook, Smee, the Alligator and all the rest of the Neverland team soar, sneer, and snarl in their own. Elsewhere the Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood, and other story book characters have their own widows while a nativity scene has pride of place on the corner. The windows are smudged from the pressing of little noses and hands, and there is much jumping up and down, squealing and pointing from the target audience. And Santa Claus is in attendance inside. Had it not been for Ballantyne’s, I doubt that Cashel Village would have happened.

Outside, lined up along the fence that keeps us out of the rest of the City, many people gather to look into the devastation. They come from all over the place, locals and visitors, people from the North Island or from Britain, from Australia and Singapore, from France and from India. They look out through the plastic screens in the fences, talking in the hushed tones of people attending a funeral. And they all want to talk. And they all want to hear about how it happened.

There is very little for a Town Crier to shout about, but there is a lot to talk about, and no shortage of people to listen, whatever the weather.

Christchurch Resurgent [1].

Saturday 29th October 2011.

The City Mall re-opens today.

Or, perhaps more accurately, the stretch of road from the Bridge of Remembrance to Colombo Street that once we knew as City Mall is now accessible by the citizenry of Christchurch, having been off-limits since the February earthquake. It has been tidied up, almost all the buildings along its extent razed, and a whole series of especially modified containers and temporary structures thrown up to house shops and cafés. This is the first part of what was the Central Business District, and the Bailiwick of the Town Crier, that has become available to foot traffic once more.

Accordingly, the City of Christchurch Town Crier has been recalled from limbo to resume duty.

Tomorrow morning, therefore, I shall don my red jacket and tricorne hat and sally forth to – what? I have no idea really. From what I have been able to glimpse through the fences and barricades there is precious little that remains of the City that I walked this time last year, and we still cannot get to Cathedral Square. Access can be had from Montreal Street along the river, down Hereford Street and along Worcester Boulevard. The Hereford Street Bridge is open and from there we can get to Oxford Terrace and Cashel Mall and Litchfield Street, but where else we can go I have yet to discover.

I have considerable misgivings about returning to what, for want of a better word, I shall call the City. It is not what I understand the City to be, and certainly not what I remember it to be, but that aside I am deeply concerned about what I am going to see. Everything that I identified with in the City of Christchurch – the Cathedral, the Provincial Council Chambers, Our City, the Arts Centre, Warners Hotel – are open spaces, piles of rubble, or are still fenced off. If these are not part of my experience any more, am I still experiencing the City of Christchurch?

Further, I am now in a different reality to the one that I occupied on the morning of 22nd February last. The whole world changed then. All the infrastructures, routines and realities disappeared. Over the last eight months I have spent most of my time at home here in our little cottage in the Avon Loop, and I have just begun to adjust to this strange new reality that has been imposed upon us. I have been able to do that because the centre of this new reality has been, for me, our little oasis of familiarity. Our cottage emerged almost unscathed from the shaking that has brought devastation all about us, and having this core of normality, with Ruth beside me and our friend Bentley somewhere underfoot, has enabled me to reach outwards to accept and accommodate this new existence. And now I must cast that aside for yet another new reality, a reality that is different again and which may be subject to change at a second’s notice. I find this deeply disturbing, but I shall venture forth tomorrow and see what is out there. Only then will I discover if I am able to live there.

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