Sunday, August 11, 2013

A City's Scars

There's a haunted, almost ghostly feeling to parts of east Christchurch now.
Almost three years on from the first  7.1 magnitude earthquake of September 4, 2010, huge swathes of some eastern residential suburbs lie abandoned and desolate. Thousands of red-zoned homes sit in a state of abandoned squalor or, increasingly, they have vanished off the face of the earth, as demolition kicks into high gear.
I've walked these red-zoned suburbs constantly over the last three years, watching the downward progression of once-vibrant neighbourhoods. Yesterday, on a cold, grey, mid-winter day, it was an even more sobering experience than usual. The level of decay and ruin seemed heightened and my imagination found it more difficult to conjure up the memories of how things used to be. 
As hideous as the Christchurch earthquakes have been over the last three years, I've always had a willingness to capture the aftermath on film. I've felt a palpable sense of excitement at the strange and compelling sights in our broken city. The city's scars have stimulated my imagination and made me think in depth about memory, identity, loss and fear.
Yesterday, I just thought about loss and I wondered how some people will ever recover.
Our city is scarred.
Our people are scarred.
The residential earth is very definitely scarred - scraped clean, torn asunder, flooded, over-grown, unkempt.
In parts, there is little trace left of human habitation - a lone flowering camellia warming up to the idea of spring; a tenacious clump of snowdrops defying winter.
A lone specimen tree, the only survivor of demolition.
Christchurch has been in the news constantly for the last three years.
The rest of New Zealand has been bombarded with images and tales of destruction.
The inner city has been highlighted - the commercial  impacts emphasised.
But out in the ruined, red-zoned eastern suburbs, whole communities have battled with much more than broken architecture and invasive liquefaction. They've had to leave their homes - homes they've often lived in for decades. They've had to farewell their gardens, with whole chapters of their past relegated to memory. Then, as well as battling for compensation and negotiating the rebuilding of their lives, they have had to watch all physical evidence of those years be wiped off the face of the earth.
As much as we all hate the word resilience in Christchurch, it does capture something of the strength and determination needed to come back from all that.
Call me sentimental if you will but there's something heart-wrenching about wandering streets filled with scraped-bare sections, a solo tree trying to survive the rigours of demolition.
We all knew it was coming - that stripping of the residential land; but up until recently it was a house here, a house there - shocking but manageable. You could get your head around those small ruptures in the residential landscape. A few months on, it's a different story. Now there are huge tracts of land sitting vacant. Sometimes as many as eight or nine properties in a row, gone.
To say it is sobering is an under-statement.
I wonder what the previous owners think now when they drive by their empty sections - if, in fact they have the will to even do that. How do you look upon that land and not re-live the horrors of the actual earthquakes, hotly followed up by the horrors of disaster and recovery bureaucracy?
I am sure there are many who never go back.
I am sure there are many who are just pleased to have the whole business settled, regardless of the fact that they've lost so much.
When I see stubborn snowdrops and daffodils pushing through these scraped-bare gardens I am both dismayed and heartened at the same time. I feel an intense melancholy, a nostalgia for the recent past, for sunnier more stable times; but at the same time I feel a rush of pleasure that so many Cantabrians have, like the snowdrops and daffodils, pushed through the (bureaucratic) crap and come out the other side. It's depressing that many (including myself) have yet to even begin that battle with authorities and insurance companies; that three years on, some will probably *still* be waiting two years from now.
That should be a wake-up call for all of New Zealand because, as Marlborough and Wellington earthquakes have recently demonstrated, none of us can afford to ignore the ramifications of disaster.

Abandonment, ruin, decay and emptiness can all stimulate our imaginations and fire us up at a creative level but there is no escaping the fact that these residential voids - laden with loss - come at a huge human cost. That cost may not have been in lives lost - I don't think anyone died in the suburbs, in a residential setting during any of the Christchurch earthquakes - but who is to say the loss of a home is not just as traumatic?
To me these empty spaces represent a sad pause, a silent hiatus in the evolution of Christchurch social history - a hyphen if you will, that bridges the gap between before and after (the earthquakes).

My natural inclination is to fill the voids with memories.
I layer them with meaning and in the deep, all pervasive silence, I stand there and imagine I can hear laughter.
Sometimes, that feels like the only thing you can do.


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