Being brave, and books in a fridge
It’s been a while since I posted, I know (in fact, it’s been a while since I was present on-line in any meaningful way, so I haven’t been keeping up with DD and LJ as well as I should have, so my apologies to anyone whose major life events I’ve missed). As in September and February, the June 13 aftershocks hit me harder emotionally than I expected, and combined with the chaos they created at work (where we were just about to start exams, so had to very quickly put a whole load of alternative assessments in place, and then deal with a flood of aegrotat (consideration for impaired performance) applications) I just haven’t had any mental energy left for the last month or so.
However, I’m slowly coming right again, and I have actually got some pictures to post, so thought it was about time to dive back in to blogging.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve actually ventured in to town a couple of times. Not right into the CBD of course, which is still behind the cordons, but when Dad came up a few weeks ago and suggested a drive around the edge of the red zone I realised I hadn’t really been any further than Riccarton since February (partly because of a reluctance to go further from home than I could walk back from, in case there’s another big shake and I get stuck somewhere without transport, and partly just because with the CBD closed there’s really nothing to go anywhere for).
That first look at the red zone from the car was a shock – I actually felt quite ill when I saw the damage. Yes, I’d seen it all on TV over and over again, but to actually see it in person made much more of an impact. It was so depressing to hardly recognise the streets we were looking down, and to see how many building had been pulled down already, and how many more were obviously damaged beyond repair.
Then a few days later Jenny invited me out to her place in Sumner for dinner. I was a bit reluctant at first, as the buses are still impossible if you want to get from one side of town to the other, but she suggested that she or her husband could come and pick me up, and then take me home again afterwards. So I went out there and had a great evening with them and a few other friends, and made it back safely without the cliffs falling on me.
On the way out, Jenny took me via Lyttelton, and that was possibly more shocking than the red zone, because there haven’t been as many pictures in the paper and on TV as of Christchurch. There hasn’t been as much damage to houses out there (because they’re mostly single-story and wooden, and there hasn’t been the liquefaction that’s plagued the eastern suburbs), but the town centre is pretty much gone. We turned into London Street (the main street), and for a moment I thought Jenny must have taken a wrong turning, because I didn’t recognise the street at all, so many buildings are gone. Eventually I spotted the supermarket at one end and the library at the other, but in between there’s more gaps than buildings. (Sorry, lytteltonwitch, I didn’t think to take my camera, so no pictures to show you).
Sumner itself didn’t look too bad, although there were a lot of obviously damaged buildings, and a few gaps where demolitions have already been finished, but the cliffs are completely different. We walked along the beach and looking back at the cliffs you could see they were quite noticeably further back from the beach than they used to be (the several houses teetering on the edge were a good clue, too). There’s still raw sewerage flowing into the sea in several places, so the beach was lined with signs warning people not to go in the water and avoid touching the sand.
But weirdly, it was good for me going out there. It was so good to see normal life carrying on among the damage, despite the fact the roads are still cracked and buckled (and this is after they’ve already had a lot of repair work done to them – as Jenny’s husband pointed out, you can tell by the size of the potholes that they haven’t bothered to repair how bad the ones they did repair were), and there’s still no sewerage (streets are lined with portaloos), and every house has some sort of damage (Jenny mentioned how lucky they were because they’d found a builder to take the brick cladding off their house and temporarily replace it with plywood sheeting, so their only damage in June was a few broken windows). Having a dinner party felt like such a wonderfully normal thing to be doing.
So last weekend I decided to be brave and go to the launch of the Gapfiller book exchange, even though getting there would mean I’d have to walk around the edge of the red zone cordon. And this time I took my camera.
The Arts Centre doesn’t look too badly damaged, although they’ve removed a couple of the towers as a safety measure, and there’s a lot of bracing around the buildings.
Looking down Worcester Boulevard towards the Cathedral – it’s so weird seeing what’s such an iconic view of Christchurch without the bell tower, and with a gap where the rose window should be.
Anyone who was at the 2009 Bookcrossing Convention will recognise this spot, and what’s missing – Cathedral Grammar’s hall is gone, replaced by prefabs.
You can’t see it very clearly in this photo, but the Park Royal (or whatever it was calling itself) has visibly split in two, with quite a large gap running down the centre.
Colombo Street North, looking towards the Square. This area started off in the red zone, but they’ve completed most of the demolition, so they’ve shifted the cordons in quite a bit now. It’s not exactly open for business, though – the few buildings left that haven’t been demolished are still red or orange stickered, so will need a lot of work before they can reopen.
Looking north from the same spot. It’s hard to believe this was once one of the busiest streets in the country.
At the cordon. I walked right up to the cordon in a few different places, and everywhere was the same – a small group of people peering through the fence, and an almost reverential hush. Even though technically we were all sightseers, the atmosphere wasn’t like sight-seeing so much as paying homage to the broken city – everyone was talking in whispers and obviously trying to be discrete about taking photos.
One of the few entrances to the red zone, with a soldier on guard (though he was pretty relaxed about it, and seemed happy to chat to passers-by). You can really see in this photo how much of a lean the Grand Chancellor is on compared to the buildings around it.
One of the weird things was looking into the windows businesses that had just been abandoned on February 22, and other than having broken windows boarded up, were pretty much exactly as they’d been left that day. Toppled over display stands, now covered with a thick layer of dust from the silt that’s still covering so much of the city. That really added to the feeling of wa
lking through a ghost town.
Another strange thing was the lack of graffiti. You’d think with all those blank walls where buildings had been demolished, and with so few people around, the taggers would have been out in force. But there was hardly any. This was about the only piece I saw, more of an artistic comment than anything else.
On the same site, someone had tried to brighten the rubble in other ways.
This one’s official graffiti, sanctioned by the Council, and a tribute to the work of rescue workers.
Residential streets are lined with portaloos, one every two or three houses. Apparently there’s a world-wide shortage of portaloos at the moment, Christchurch is using so many of them. You can see the amount of silt that’s still lying around, too.
Looking at the upper story of this house you’d think it was undamaged… until you notice the angle of the ground floor windows.
What the photos don’t show is how quiet it all is. There’s almost no traffic, and what cars there are are going slowly, because the roads are so bad, and because so much of the footpaths are blocked off that pedestrians are forced to walk on the road. And somehow quiet in a place you’d expect to be noisy and bustling like a city centre is so much more quiet than ordinary quiet – it was quite eerie.
The other really noticeable thing was the smell. The first odour you notice is the dust, which is everywhere. But underneath that there’s a hint of decay, of restaurants that still have food rotting in their kitchens, of rubbish uncollected for months. It’s not strong, but it’s definitely there, like being downwind from a rubbish dump.
But despite that, walking around the cordon actually made me feel better about Christchurch. Maybe it was just because it was a nice day, with the sun shining and a hint of spring in the air, but it was also because although the damage is horrendous, and so many buildings have been demolished, there’s still a lot more standing than you’d think from what you see on the news. And with so much of the demolition completed there’s a feeling that something new and exciting could spring up out of all those empty spaces.
Gapfiller are helping with that feeling, too. Their launch was great – I arrived a bit early, so helped them set up, filling the fridge with books. Sarah, the organiser, had a laptop set up so she could register the books coming in, and by the time I left a couple of hours later there was quite a crowd around her waiting to donate books, while others were selecting books from the fridge, sitting in the sun reading, talking books, and generally enjoying the day. It felt like being in an open-air library, and a great sense of community.
Starting to fill the fridge. (If you’re wondering why they chose a fridge to hold the book exchange, it’s because there used to be a cafe on the site. Plus of course it’s usefully weatherproof.)
A fridge full of books.
The first few passers-by stop to browse the shelves.
And more, and more, and more… Sarah said she thought there’d been about a hundred people turn up over the course of the afternoon.
I’ve even already had a catch from the books I left there: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy