This time last year was a sunny Saturday morning much like today. It had been a rainy winter, I was newly single, and still dealing with the death of my father. We had been awakened in the night by a shocking and violent earthquake. We had no power, and we were trying to figure out how to get some news without power. I have a wind-up radio now, but that was then.
No one could have believed that in the early hours of 4 September 2010 it was all just beginning. In twelve months we have endured three major earthquakes and 8000 significant aftershocks. We have lost power, sewage, and the city centre. Many of us have lost jobs, many of us lost friends. Entire suburbs have been condemned. Many of the landscapes of our memories are gone: the beautiful stone buildings, the ugly brutalist buildings with the boutique shops, the churches. Even natural landscapes have been destroyed: 6000 year-old sea cliffs have collapsed around Sumner. Shag Rock and Castle Rock have crumbled.
Feeling despondent, I was listening to Bruce Springsteen singing “My city of ruins” earlier.
“The church doors thrown open. I can hear the organ song, but the congregation’s gone. My city of ruins….”
Only, we have lost our churches too. Living here is a struggle. We hear the trite remarks of journalists: Christchurch people are tough, stoic, resilient. We are just people, grieving, heart broken. We are tough because we have to be. Or we leave. We are positive because we have to be, but we are also negative. We love the city, and we hate it. Cheryl Bernstein talked about this: “The question of people’s toughness in the face of these repeated blows to their financial and social security is glib, irrelevant and insulting.”
Many people have left the city, taken their families, taken themselves, found somewhere better to live. Most of us remain though and the question needs to be asked: why? Particularly for those of us in the east, where conditions are still difficult, and where the aftershocks hit harder. Some of us don’t have the money, freedom, or options to move. Some of us do. I could move and start again elsewhere. But I don’t want to. This is my home. This is a city I love, and I would not walk away from a crisis. But not only that. This difficult, tedious, frustrating place is also the most interesting place in the country. I want to see it rebuilt. I want to see a new, smart, post-petroleum city. We are starting over. We can choose to lead the way, if we have the vision, or not. “Tell me how do I begin again?”
I am starting something new. I met a girl, and she is beautiful and smart and full of love, and we will be married in the summer. The party we will throw is our response to the times we are living in. We are making it bright and bold, we are making it fun, we are making it big (with 130 guests), and we are making it cheap. Because these are hard times. I can no longer afford to buy books or music or even orange juice. We will sell a car and a kayak, and we will make do.
“Your smile girl brings the morning light to my eyes, lifts away the blues when I rise. I hope that you’re coming to stay.”
Last weekend, Sarah and I crossed into the central city and wandered along one of the dark but accessible streets. We were impressed by the new series of Yann Athus-Bertrand posters outside the museum. It is nice to look out upon the rest of the world. And we explored the geodesic dome tents and fairy lights of the temporary cultural centre in the park there. And it got me thinking, we need the arts now more than ever. We need more than demolition crews. We need more than planning and rebuilding. We have so much to talk about, and so much to say.
If you would like to see what has happened to the city so far, then try these videos from inside the red zone. To me the empty voids are shocking, but so is the desolation. I do not know the city like this, muddy, vacant, and silent. Lifeless save for the demolition workers and the winter trees. And the demolitions are far from over. The difficult, large buildings are yet to come down. Something else that strikes me is the art. Most of our statues came down and snapped at the neck, but the city’s scattering of large sculptural work remains. I think of “Reasons for voyaging” surely stopped in its gentle mobility, and I am amused.
Alternatively, leave all that behind and watch the Mean Kitty Song. “Cos I got my safety gear on and I’m not scared.”
So much has changed, and we can never go back.