Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.
I feel like the low ebb of our trip down south might have been somewhere on the road between Dunedin and Oamaru when Eleanor led Rosamund in an unstoppable chant of “butt hole” for about ten minutes. It took an enormous tantrum from mummy and daddy to stem this tide after tellings off, and sulking had failed. I’m a pretty awesome sulker – I can really clutch a steering wheel and fume with intensity – even a seven year old can sense that something bad is happening, but this time Eleanor was so bored by the long journey she didn’t care anymore, and Rosamund is at that
adorable irritating age where she wants to copy everything her big sister does.
But probably it was actually Christchurch.
The low ebb.
Growing up I would tell people that I didn’t like Christchurch. I think that the main reason was that I was from Wellington, and I found being in a place with no hills, laid out like a grid, very disorientating. I never knew where I was in Christchurch. I was always looking for elevation so that I could find out. It was in Japan that I learned not to say things like “I don’t like Christchurch” because I worked with a lot of Americans and got tired of hearing other people say “I hate Americans”. Hating 300 million people you haven’t met is stupid. About as stupid as disliking a place because it doesn’t have hills. After our visit over Easter I have a different feeling about Christchurch.
When I was a kid my mum and I often stopped by Christchurch to see my mother’s sister, and her sister’s family. They were six in that family: the Aunt and her husband and their four kids (my cousins). Six seemed like a very big family to me. My family was two. I don’t remember much about the visits, but I do remember that the cousins and I once went through their back fence into the fields behind their house and found a wounded mouse out in the ditches and the long grasses. We carried the mouse carefully to the cousins’ back garden and set about building it a little bed in a cardboard box lined with grass. The mouse, of course, died. Being “saved” by five children was never going to work. Too much attention. Too much prodding. In actual fact we probably terrorised the mouse to death.
It was about 25 years since I had last been at that house when we went there these holidays. Since then all of those cousins have grown up, and married and had children. Three of them have moved away, and their father has died. The house was as I remembered it although over the back fence now were office blocks instead of fields: the featureless concrete walls, smoked glass and heat pump fan units of modernity. “After the earthquake they ran out of land for offices,” my Aunt explained, “so a whole bunch moved out here.” She sounded a little displeased, but mostly philosophical. In the greater scheme of things scrappy fields have to go.
After lunch we planned our route to the centre of Christchurch so that we could look around. My Aunt’s house is out by the airport in an area the media describe as “unaffected” by the earthquake. There was still, however, significant damage to my Aunt’s house that had to be fixed, and – of course – the terrifying moments of being in Christchurch when the earthquakes shook. I’m not sure, anyway, how anyone living in a city that went through an earthquake that big can be “unaffected”.
With my Aunt’s map (Earthquake Edition), and her advice on the back roads to take, we headed to the Red Zone with rain coats and a camera. “I think there’s parking by the bus interchange,” my Aunt said as we left, “but a lot of the roads are closed so I’m not sure how you get to them.”
The car park was a large football-field-sized scrap of land pitted with puddles and lumps of debris half ground back into the muddy dirt by tyres. All around us were sullen looking buildings that reminded me of seeing a patient in a hospital shuffling past in a ward corridor: the rumpled worn front and the flapping open back of the hospital gown. Buildings with walls missing and the strangeness of just looking through them into sets of abandoned rooms. With the constant mechanical squeal of digger tracks, or the juddering scrape of the bulldozer blade under a drizzly sky it felt like I was standing at the scruffy edge of a rubbish dump, or the wasteland around a refugee camp. In the almost deserted car park it was good to see that the ticket machines were working.
We went to the pop up mall. It is usually shown in any clip to do with Christchurch and its recovery, but it appears to be for tourists. Aside from the odd cafe it mainly seems to be gift shops selling things that are pretty funky/cute/beautiful but serve no actual purpose being retro and therefore irrelevant (like large oversize analogue clocks, or beautifully twee moleskine journals you will never use). I found it hard to imagine coming here if I lived in Christchurch unless I wanted an overpriced novelty toy. Still, it had some good street art.
There is a lot of street art in Christchurch at the moment. Now that large blank canvases have been opened up on the sides of buildings thanks to the other buildings having been knocked down the mural industry has kicked off. It’s something that seems to invigorate young, educated, middle class white people if this clip is anything to go by. Some of what those people say I empathise with, but it was hugely jarring to hear one of them muse: “for me personally the city is better now and more engaging now than it was before the earthquakes”. It makes you realise how diverse the responses to the earthquake can be. Viewing the CBD as an evolving art project about urban decay seems unlikely to be the response of many, but I suppose if you are about 20 with no kids and no job and no commitments it could seem like that. There is no correct response after all.
As we got past the pop-up mall and walked towards Cathedral Square the enormity of it all sank in. It was like waking up in your very own bed in a completely different house: the familiarity and alienation. Only propped up bits and pieces of buildings and a bridge and a tram line helped me to understand where I was, and even understanding and remembering still couldn’t settle what I was not seeing against what I had seen in the past. I wouldn’t want to be old in Christchurch. It must feel like you have been forced to move to a new town. Reading Greg Jackson’s piece about Christchurch made me realise I probably wouldn’t want to be me in Christchurch either: middle-aged, middle class, two kids and a mortgage. I’m a teacher too so who knows what disruption that would be bringing.
What we older ones realise is that a functioning metropolitan city will arise again too late for us.We and what was are over.
Standing in front of the cathedral put things in perspective. I can’t see it being rebuilt. Perhaps not ever, certainly not for a long, long time. I understand the symbolism and history, but it feels like people want their houses back. Like they want to have some local shops, and a road, and a school, and a job. Like they want normal to be easy. Street art, and pop-ups, and cathedrals are nice – a fillip to morale and something for politicians and visitors to be photographed in front of – but fixing a broken infrastructure is much more important.
My own school in Wellington closed its main block in 2011 after it was found to be 17% of code. That was our miniature version of an earthquake – the Christchurch earthquake’s phantom aftershocks in Wellington have been significant – and it affected people differently. My department, the Social Studies department, lost it’s resource room and teacher work spaces. Since then we have been moved three times, and well and truly scattered. Seven of us worked for a year and a half in a glorified walk in wardrobe that also served as a corridor. It was crap. Not at first. At first it was an adventure, and then it was “the new normal”, and then – one day, for no real reason – it was shit. It’s hard to say what the tipping point was, but it hit us all at about the same time. Suddenly we had just all had enough of working in a corridor, miles from our classrooms, between the noise of one of the main rehearsal spaces in the school, and sing-song fun of the Special Needs’ Unit (if you want to know who works hard in a school go and visit their Special Needs’ Unit). Other departments in the school were totally unaffected. That’s just how it was, and how it was sucked quite a bit. It is now 2014 and the plans for the new block are still on the drawing board. The plans look good but they reflect, if the truth be told, someone else’s vision of what a new school should look like.
When I try to understand what it is like to live in Christchurch I think that it must be like how it was for us in our little cramped office just off the Special Needs’ Unit, but for longer, without any possibility of escape, and affecting everything in their lives not just their working environment. For our Social Studies department, by chance, shortly after we all hit the wall we got moved to a better office (for a while), but what if that hadn’t happened? You remember the adventure, you remember the new normal, and you then you live with the shitiness. You just carry on. What the hell else are you going to do?
After the old Cathedral we went to see the new one. And then the site of the CTV building. We got lost on the way back. Many roads were closed, and one scruffy lot looks a lot like another. It began to rain. Always the sound of diggers clanking about in the background, and temporary barricades, traffic cones and road closed signs. We found the bus interchange again. A small crowd had gathered to watch some workmen watching a digger smashing down a building: the bricks and plaster tumbling into the vacant lot next door. I was beginning to feel depressed, and Cathy and I were beginning to argue. I was beginning to dislike things again. Not Christchurch, but what had been done to it. Not by the earthquake – what’s the point in that – but by the people who said they were fixing it, and the people who reported on it in the national media (most things I have read by people actually in Christchurch have had a markedly different tone – tired and hard – a tone I have realised is right).
I see a long, long grind still ahead and the only way to make it in any way more palatable would be turn it over entirely to the people of that community. All the resources of government and CERA and Environment Canterbury at the disposal of the people of Christchurch. Not their MPs, but them. Not in a few years, but now. The current council might be good. I hope so. At least the people of Christchurch can vote for them. I feel, as usual, misinformed. I went to Christchurch expecting to feel buoyed. I was not.
That night we had dinner at my Aunt’s house. Corn beef and veges. It was very nice. The kind of meal my Gran used to cook. My cousin and her daughter were there. Conversation kept cycling back into the long shadows of the quake. How my cousin’s job changed, how the QV valuations swung wildly this time around depending on what kind of land your house was built on, how some people are trapped by their mortgages, the insurance industry, anxiety, school. A shifting, complex web of interrelated problems and challenges. Even out there, in the “unaffected” suburbs, the earthquake rumbles on.