Speaker by Various Artists

12

Stuck inside the Great Disruption

by Greg Jackson

Four years on from the worst Christchurch earthquake, we are still living inside the great disruption that Christchurch life is now.

I've done big thinkings about the big picture  before in other places, this time I just want to do small thinkings about the daily grind of life in our evolving city. Few of the constants you take for granted in First World life are consistent in a post-disaster city.

When we talked through where it's at now in our household, the one you know as Hebe on Public Address said it was the inconsistency and constant change that gets to her most. So many changes, in every area of this family's daily lives. All near unthinkable four years ago.

 Traffic routes change, roads are dug up, routes squeezed, easy road trips turn into traffic jams overnight. The pop-up shops of the post-apocalyptic landscape vanish to be replaced with steel and glass blandness. In “Town” you get lost because everything has been bulldozed and there are no landmarks to see. We get a beautiful new supermarket (I went every day for the first week) but the local library is now a weedy, windblown vacant lot.

We live close to the epicentre of the February 22, 2011, city-flattening earthquake – 3km away near the pond by Rapaki Track – and St Martins did get seismically kicked around for a couple of years. Near 15,000 quakes since September 4, 2010, with The Noisy Neighbour, the Port Hills Fault, ponying up a good number of them. 

Our neighbourhood is on the uptown side of south  Christchurch, with tree-lined well-gardened streets, sheltered by the Port Hills, and the meandering Heathcote River that has a flair for the occasional evil flood. Think Midsomer without the visible human carnage. 

We moved in from the beach six years ago, buying this well-loved little cottage  because it was within walking distance of the Steiner school that looked like it would see our teenage sons right through from the magical kindergarten up to high school graduation. After the February 22, 2011, earthquake the boys' best friends left town. Abruptly, last year, the boys left school too,  after 10 years in the previously-strong community of children and families.

Just one wee world among many blown apart.

They love their new school, but it is right across town by the University of Canterbury in Ilam. The school itself is readjusting to four years still out of its inner-city home and many changes in staff and students. Luckily their bus route survived the weird pogrom that the local government people did to the bus routes that has turned many commutes into much longer and drearier trips.

Quite early on Hebe and I became infuriated with the EQC fantasists that looked at our house and their reports, and we decided to await decisions about the status of the land. 

One son was badly traumatised by the February quake, my knee was shredded in escaping from my office in Manchester Street, and after a feverish bout of projects, we all got sick. More good reasons to wait.

Telescoping several years into a paragraph is not easy but from this vantage point we've watched the passing parade of repairs and renovations in this area: the exterior painting of a nearby house as the snow fell, the jacking and packing of piles, the glueing back together of ring foundations, and the endless painting.

Along with most of Christchuch the preening, keening, posturing and wrath of the inner city dramas is totally peripheral to our lives. Christchurch devolved to residents living in their villages post-quakes and in many ways it has stayed that way, even with a unifying City Council in place.

While the backdrop of daily life has been one of constant change, there has been an inherent assumption in the mix that somewhere, somehow a new normal is on the way. Except that it is not.

We had thought from our very good gossip and data networks as befits ex-journalists that things were slowly getting sorted on the home fronts. Not always the results people sought, but a gradual inching toward some sort of resolution.

Our own barometer of change, the dump next door, deserted since September 2010, is still there but now slated for demolition. We've grown used to the rats in the garden, and our cats' hard work to keep them down. I cut the overgrown lawns when the grass seed throws Hebe into a full-blown allergy attack and the fire risk soars.

We have all learned to be ready to duck when the roofing iron blows off in the howling Canterbury nor'wester. When the hazard team turned up to kill off the black mould infestation inside the dump, we even had the reason for our own dragging-down health explained.

This year we find another house nearby has gone from EQC repair to over-cap and possible demolition. Skip one house, and a large solid-looking beauty is said to be in the firing line.

A good half a dozen homes within five minutes' amble along the riverside dog walk route have abruptly gone “ping ping ping”. Some looked rough but one I can recall featuring in a kitchen style feature in the local paper just five years ago.

This very morning Miss Dog and I stopped in amazement as we watched an apparently intact 90s horror vanish under the teeth of the digger. This had been one I had glared at many times, thinking “why you” while the arts and crafts houses of my  fancy bit the dust. Now by evening it too has gone.

The peaceful neighbourhood has turned into a sort of “renovation Rapture” in reverse where the weak and the flawed are the ones wiped from the face of the Earth. Like many boomers, Hebe and I have made our real money buying and doing up homes. Now we find ourselves in a city-wide version of Changing Rooms, a do-up show featuring an entire city.

These are not caring and sharing demolitions. Because the money from recycling is less than the money for a quick bulldoze of everything, that's what they do; drop the lot.

We don't have a great roof because we don't know if it's worth replacing it yet. I've seen the roofing iron to replace it bulldozed into scrap countless times just on my own street.

What the accrued effect of all this change is you end up with a vague sense of exile in your own city. A city well served with the new wave of colonisers “here to help with the rebuild”. Intellectual hustlers so bereft of nous they fail to see the irony inherent in their generous offer.

What hurts is that the new vision and city taking shape risks becoming so much more timid and conformist than what fell. I'm talking paint colours for new builds like grey, sand, beige. I wish they'd drop the artifice  and put out one called “cringe”.

This week they put the uber-coloniser John Godley back on his plinth in Cathedral Square, where he can glare at the acrimonious pigeon roost formerly known as Christ Church Cathedral.

I liked him better when Hebe found him a couple of months after the February quake face-down in a council storage area, where in a brassy, pukka kind of way he had become just folks like the rest of us.

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