You know you’re from Christchurch when…
your mother uses the word “munted” in casual conversation.
The first thing that strikes you is the eerie silence. There are no cars. There are no people. No children playing, no traffic, no lawnmowers or other household noises. The streets are deserted; there are weeds growing through cracks in the paving, over driveways, and covering piles of rubble. Houses have been abandoned; properties are in ruin. Windows have been blown out, walls are missing, and personal possessions lie on the ground. This is how you imagine a war zone after months of attack. But it’s less than a kilometre from my parent’s house.
As you grow accustomed to the silence, you begin to hear another noise. Large machinery noise. Belonging to the cranes, bulldozers, and trucks which are busily constructing and deconstructing parts of the city. The skyline is filled with cranes, and the rumble of trucks begins to fill the silence. There are patches of activity; a new building is being constructed just around the corner from one that is being ripped apart from the inside out. Commercial buildings are being patched up, reglazed and repainted. While all around them is empty ground, waiting for someone to step in and fill the void.
Many parts of the city are still unsafe. Shipping containers line the edges of the road, sheltering drivers and pedestrians from falling rocks and falling buildings. The Red Zone is cordoned off with miles of security fencing, and the zone changes constantly as roads are made safe, or are closed off for repairs or demolitions. Navigating the edges of the CBD is tricky in an ever-changing maze.
I watched a commercial building being torn apart. Starting at the top corner, a large crane with big teeth nibbled its way down the walls and pounded into the floors below. By the end of the day it was gone. Another one bites the dust. Boom. Boom. A few days later, the rubble was being separated and sorted by an army of cranes crawling in a choreographed dance over the pile. One with brontosaurus teeth would pick up a mouthful of rubble, and chew and chomp and shake until the concrete had fallen to the ground, and only the twisted steel reinforcing was left in its jaws. This was then rolled up and dropped in another pile ready for recycling. Big dump trucks come and go. Nothing is being wasted here.
The CBD that I knew is gone. It really strikes home when you spot an abandoned building that you used to go to. And then realise that the pile of rubble next door was another building which you used to shop at. That realisation shocks everything into perspective. It’s one thing seeing the Cathedral in ruins, you’re kind of prepared for that; there are plenty of photos. And it’s still there. Mostly. But it’s the rest of it that made up daily life in Christchurch that has just vanished. The shops, the eateries, the building where my Dad used to work; all gone.
I met my sister for lunch at the spot on Cashel Mall where she ran for her life nearly 2 years ago. She doesn’t go into the CBD much any more. The falling buildings that she ran to escape are gone; in their place is a container mall, brightly coloured and doing its best to bring life and tourists back into the city. There are plenty of tourists around, both foreign and domestic, everyone rather solemnly looking around and taking photos of things that used to be. You can spot those that knew the city – like me, they are looking for a frame of reference to make sense of it all. Trying to remember what was there. Trying not to forget.
They’re a stoic lot, these Cantabrians. They’ll stick it out. Rebuild and restart. It’ll take a generation to recover, but never to forget.
185 empty chairs