Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bexley - A Christchurch Suburb Without a Future

When I revisited the Christchurch suburb of Bexley about three weeks ago, it was like a ghost town. I think you get a sense of that in the image above - barren streets, sagging, disconnected powerlines, overgrown gardens and berms. Like a number of Christchurch suburbs, it has been declared part of the Red Zone and the soul has been sucked out of it.
We all knew the demolition was going to happen once homeowners accepted the Government offers of a buy-out, but yesterday, when it was announced that work had started on demolishing the first eleven homes in the area, the reactions were swift. Everything about the earthquake damage - both commercial and residential - is fraught and highly-charged and when reality bites, it's just too much for some. Seeing their homes smashed to pieces by giant machinery must be heartbreaking. And as you can see, many of the homes are almost brand new.
When I visited in early January, liquefaction had once again taken over the streets and gardens in the aftermath of the December 23 earthquakes. The place was a shambles.
Some of the remaining residents had piled it high in the street so they could access their properties; others had left it to dry into giant, cracked slabs of 'crazy paving.'
For many of us in Christchurch, the zoning of our land has brought with it, uncertainty and frustration. We wonder on a daily basis, when our turn will come, when EQC, Fletchers and/or CERA will deign us with their presence and make concrete decisions about our properties so we can begin repairs and move on, mentally and emotionally - or even physically. A horrible sense of uncertainty pervades everything we do. But when I walk around places like Bexley, I wonder what I am complaining about.
There's just something so incredibly forlorn about peoples' belongings being consigned to the sidewalks and left to languish in the long grass of their once manicured gardens. It doesn't matter that they're not the latest, stylish sofas - they were once central to a family's daily life, they were party to quiet, intimate, restful times, to the making of family histories.
And while my own house is cracked and misshapen, with sloping floors, torn paintwork, broken windows and sagging ceilings, it is at least secure, dry and liveable. In this place, at this time, that's a lot to be thankful for.
I joke about how I wish it would fall down, about how I'd like to leave my own gardens to grow long and dishevelled but if it really happened, I'm not sure how I would feel. Probably just as devastated and dislocated as the people of Bexley I expect.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

All that Remains

Back in the early days of this blog, I used to feature a church every Sunday - in the interests of church architecture rather than religion. I thought of that this morning and it occurred to me that many of the churches I've photographed in Christchurch over the last few years, no longer exist thanks to the insistent and never-ending earthquakes.
As I look through my files of earthquake images, now numbering in the thousands - I'm so grateful that I have a good record of many of the churches that have been wiped off the face of the earth in subsequent demolitions. I've decided to show a few of the earthquake-damaged churches here - just as a reminder of the cultural heritage we've lost. I haven't labelled the individual churches and it's important to note that some of those featured here have gone in their entirety, while others have been structurally strengthened with a view to restoration and rebuilding once the shaking has stopped. These images go as far back as September 2010 and in some cases, things have changed considerably since then - to the point where all bricks and mortar have vanished.
And this of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many more of the city's churches were demolished before I had the chance to photograph them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Broken Histories - Christchurch Earthquake

Much has been written about the Christchurch earthquakes - about the deaths, the losses, the ruin of heritage buildings and the long-lasting effects on the city and its residents' welfare. Not a lot has been written about the city's historic cemeteries.
I've always had a soft spot for cemeteries. They have featured in my creative works - paintings, photography, short fiction - over many years and I never tire of wandering the quiet rows of headstones, wondering about the lives of those gone by and those they have left behind. For me, it's a time to think about life and death and purpose, a time to think about the intricate layers of lives that all meant something to someone, somewhere.

So coming face-to-face with the cemetery destruction wrought by the thousands of earthquakes that have toppled much of our city over the last 16 months, was a shock.  I have visited four cemeteries over the last two days - Kaiapoi, Selwyn Street, Bromley and Barbadoes Street. It's hard to comprehend the damage that all four have suffered and it's sad to realise that much of the damage will never be repaired. The costs, afterall, of all that smashed marble, of all that carved stone, must be formidable.

It didn't matter how long I stood among all those broken histories, I couldn't quite grasp the force of the phenomenon responsible. I've lived through most of the earthquakes that have struck Christchurch. I've felt their power. Yet standing beside a huge, snapped off obelisk, now speared directly into the ground; or the hefty slabs of marble thrown to the ground like small toys, gave me a whole new appreciation for their strength. Irrational perhaps, given that the earthquakes have crashed whole buildings to the ground; but in my head, cemeteries and their solid memorials are supposed to be permanent. They're suppose to carry the weight of generations and stand tall to remind us of our personal histories in small, intimate, meaningful and momentous ways.
I'm not a religious person but I do have great respect for many of the physical 'trappings' of religion - the church architecture, the serenity of space, a sense of the spiritual, the icons, the art. So to see cemetery angels snapped off their bases and thrown to the ground with broken arms was disconcerting. It made me think especially, of children, gone and their mothers, bereft. It lent a quiet disharmony to the hot midday air and I wondered if the wounds in the memorials have re-opened the wounds for relatives living on. It all seemed such a sad and unnecessary assault on everything that makes us human.
There is subsidance - some graves collapsing in, some rising out of the ground. There are tombs cracked and broken. There are holes in the ground, and graves covered in sand and clinging liquefaction. Headstones stand in rows, out of kilter, leaning toward each other, as if for comfort and support. Others have crashed off their bases, piercing the concrete tombs they were set to mark. Obelisks big and small have slammed to the ground, breaking trees as they go and falling, nose-first, into gardens of roses and lavender.
Shards of broken headstones, shattered flowers and urns and broken tiles are spread across the ground. Some have been gathered up by passers-by or family perhaps, and have been laid in orderly little rows around the rim of the graves. Hazard tape still marks standing stones considered a danger in future quakes. And through it all, the bees still busy themselves on the lavender, their little pollen sacs filled to bursting, as they flit among the ruins.
It's easy to brush off all this in the pressure of living through the ongoing mayhem of the Christchurch earthquakes. But sometimes it's important to stop and look and listen. We're constantly exposed to noise in this post-earthquake environment - to the clambering political voices, to hammering out of ideas and opinions -  but are we taking the time to listen to history?
"In time, I hope and believe the anguish with you will be covered over. That is the only way to express it. It is like new skin covering a wound. That doesn't mean that one forgets the people who have gone away."
Edith Sitwell. From Selected Letters 1916-1964.


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