Inner-city Christchurch feels like the set of a 1980s apocalyptic action film. Walking down Barbadoes Street, there was so much rubble and so few people, it felt like the only person I’d be likely to encounter was a Bruno Lawrence type, who’d show up in a ute, holler “Get in”, and we’d drive off into the hills to have last-people-on-earth erotic adventures.
Instead my lone encounter was with an old man who yelled at me not to graffiti a colourful wall that I was only photographing. There were no erotic adventures; just the realisation that the Christchurch I had known was gone. Post-earthquake Christchurch is a different city.
After the destructive quake in February, I’d vowed to return to the shaky town. I expected things would be different, but wasn’t sure how different they would be.
My worst fears were realised when I arrived at my motel in early December and discovered a construction site, swarming with diggers and trucks. I panicked – what if after I booked the room, the motel had been condemned? Where would I sleep? Maybe I could squat in the plywood-boarded house next door, or join the Occupy Christchurch camp in Hagley Park. But it turned out that the motel car park was just being resealed. “You get used to things looking like this,” said my taxi driver.
If Christchurch isn’t looking like a construction site or a futuristic action film, it’s looking like a 1980s music video, complete with mangled cars, giant fields of rubble, and frayed curtains miserably flapping out of broken windows. And like a music video shoot, there’s always a food truck around the corner, catering to the masses amongst the broken bricks.
I was surprised at how quickly I got used to it all. Walking down the road, I became adept at avoiding potholes, cracks and giant gaps. Everything felt a little bit broken, but yet somehow normal.
But there were signs of civilisation returning to the CBD. Cashel Mall had finally reopened. Most of the shops have been demolished, replaced by clever configurations of fancied-up shipping containers. It’s all high-end retail to draw in the tourists, but if you need some “Keep Calm and Carry On” merchandise, there is plenty.
At the end of Cashel Mall is the Red Zone walkway, a fenced off area taking visitors along Colombo Street to Cathedral Square. Many of the buildings on Colombo Street have been or will be demolished, but a sign informed visitors that the very ordinary McDonald’s building is ok. This makes me wonder if, in years to come, the McDonald’s will get a historic listing and people will take their grandchildren along to see a beautifully restored antique McNugget fryer.
Cathedral Square is a bit freaky. It seems that every building around the square has something wrong with it. But no one’s looking at the cracked pavers outside the Starbucks. They’re looking at the cathedral.
Perhaps World War II photography has prepared me for the sight of a smashed, collapsed broken cathedral. But while it’s awful, there is also something strangely poetic about the cathedral. Even though ChristChurch Cathedral has been deconsecrated, the building is still doing its job as a icon of the city.
I also took the Red Zone bus tour, the only way for civilians to experience most of the out-of-bounds areas. Passengers were warned that due to the instability of the buildings along the tour route, in the event of another major earthquake “you might not survive”. This sounded alarming, but then I realised that this caveat can pretty much apply to life in general. Onwards!
I was expecting the Red Zone bus tour to be a sombre, emotional journey but it was much more ordinary than that. As the bus passed the military cordon and toodled along Oxford Terrace, I saw a battered mannequin lying by the side of the road. It had a target painted on its bottom. Moments later the bus stopped across the river from the site of the PGC building collapse. It was a scheduled moment of reflection, but all I could think about was the mannequin. How did it get there? Who painted the target on its bottom? Oh, what does it all mean?
And that’s what the bus tour was like. One moment it’s the site of the tragic CTV building collapse, the next moment I’m feeling sad that the Japanese/Korean restaurant where I twice had disappointing vegetable tempura was being demolished.
I realised that most of my previous Christchurch experiences involve places that don’t exist any more. My favourite hotel sits dormant and doomed, cursed by its neighbour the Grand Chancellor. The cafe that did the really amazing scrambled eggs is now rubble. I even found myself missing the incredibly annoying bad classical music played to stop youth loitering at the High Street pedestrian mall.
But beyond the rubble, there were new things to do, new places to explore. A random tweet threw me in the direction of Black Betty cafe, a new tenant of a strong old building. They do good eggs, and I even saw a staffer take a photo of some eggs he was particularly proud of.
I found the new home of C4 Coffee, nestled in the corner of their coffee warehouse, across the road from a giant field of rubble. And across that rubble – past felled power poles, a spectacularly smashed car and a sleepy guard dog – was The National, a gallery forced to turn its back door into a front door. Its exhibition of the grungy, grotesque rings by jeweller Karl Fritsch seemed a perfect match for their new surroundings. It left me wondering if I could make my own jewellery using Red Zone rubble.
Being in an earthquake town colours every experience in some way. I stopped by the Book Fridge and picked up a Mills and Boon. I figured it would be a light and amusing read. Except the heroine – on an archeological dig with her estranged husband who she still secretly loved – encountered an earthquake, which came complete with one (1) aftershock. It all seemed a little loathsome after that. I didn’t have time to return the book before I left, but I figured it might be better to take it out of circulation, or at least put a warning on the cover: “CONTAINS BADLY WRITTEN EARTHQUAKE SCENARIOS”.
There were no aftershocks during my three days in Christchurch. I was a little twitchy having just experienced an unusually strong quake in Wellington that had sent books flying off my shelves. But by the time I left Christchurch, it seemed quite reasonable to think that the worst of the aftershocks were history. Except that wasn’t the case, and a couple of weeks later, things have again been undone and shaken up a bit.
I’ve realised that the Christchurch I had known no longer exists. There’s a totally new city there, slowly figuring out its new identity. Part of Christchurch seems determined to to cling on to its England-of-the-South-Seas past, but there’s a new Christchurch coming through. This is a shaky, swampy city now.