Inside the Square

I went into the Square on Sunday. That might not seem like a huge achievement, but to the people of Christchurch, it’s enormous. Cathedral Square (or just “the Square” to most Cantabrians) is the centre, and very much the heart, of Christchurch. It’s the site of our iconic cathedral, it’s where tourists and locals congregate to listen to bands or buskers, argue with the Wizard, browse the crafts markets, buy lunch from a food cart, or just sit in the sun and watch the bustle of the city. Or at least it was – for the last nearly 10 months it’s been silent, deep in the cordoned-off red zone, out of bounds to all but demolition workers.

But CERA, in a rare burst of compassion, decided to take advantage of a lull in demolitions in the surrounding area and opened up a public walkway through to the Square for a few weekends, to let Cantabrians see the damage for ourselves and have a chance to grieve what we’ve lost. So on Sunday I decided to go and see the Square. I’d of course seen it a millions times in photos and video, and from a distance from the edge of the cordon, but sometimes you just need to see something in person to really get your head round it.

The walkway runs from the container mall in Cashel Street along Colombo Street to the Square. There’s only a smallish section of the Square accessible, with barriers keeping you away from the buildings (though there’s still a sign at the entrance warning you that you’re entering at your own risk and if there’s a major aftershock you could die, and someone counting everyone in and out so they know how many bodies to retrieve from under the rubble), but there’s still enough space for everyone (they only let 300 people in at a time) to have their first real look at the Square, and the Cathedral.

I didn’t expect to be particularly affected – after all, I’ve seen all the pictures, and I wasn’t actually in town on the day, so I don’t have traumatic memories. But my first view of the Cathedral was surprisingly heart-wrenching. It’s so broken, and looks so wrong. Weirdly, what was most poignant for me was seeing pigeons flying in and out of the gap where the rose window was – it made it seem so neglected.

A tiny scrap of stained glass still hanging on in a window

Everyone was pretty somber, and a few visibly upset. I ended up talking to a woman who was standing next to me, sharing memories of all the things we’d seen and done there. She’d moved away from Christchurch 20 years ago, but she was still on the verge of tears seeing what her home town had become.

As well as the shock of seeing the buildings that have already been demolished (the aquarium is gone, the duty free place on the corner is gone, the Press building is gone, that old picture theatre they turned into an internet cafe is gone….), there’s evidence everywhere that nobody’s been there for months. It’s kind of like in post-apocalyptic films where they show how nature has taken over from the humans – there’s weeds growing through the paving, the lawn around the cathedral has turned into a meadow, and of course those pigeons roosting in the cathedral’s beams to complete the picture. Walking down Colombo Street was the same, with those weird touches of a life abandoned – in McDonalds there was someone’s lunch still sitting on the table in the window, and a bicycle left behind in a bike stand.

That’s the partially-demolished Grand Chancellor in the background – the lean’s not quite so obvious now that its roof is gone.

Liquefaction silt still covering the paving stones

One bit of potentially good news: peering through the fence, I could see down High Street, and it looks like the Coffee Club is ok. So maybe our books are still safely in the OBCZ 🙂

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