Almost three years ago, in the middle of the Rugby World Cup, I returned to my old home town, Christchurch. I was so shaken (probably the right word in the circumstances) by the sight of places familiar from my early life and now piles of stone rubble on the ground, that I immediately wrote a blog post, ‘Return to quake city‘.
Several weeks ago I returned to Christchurch. This time I had a mission. I set out to take photographs at the very same spots where I had taken shots in 2006 – pre-earthquake – for the Te Ara story on Canterbury, so that we can update that entry and perhaps show ‘before’ and ‘after’ images.
Once more I was walking in the footsteps of my childhood; once more I was contemplating the effect of the big quakes. It was a fascinating exercise. Compared with 2011, there were now hopeful, and in places intriguing, signs of recovery. Yet, comparing photos from 2006 and 2014 reveals that few places were left unaffected by those terrifying moments at 12.51 pm on 22 February 2011.
I started at Lake Victoria. In 2006 this had been a peaceful, bucolic scene of a garden city.
When I came back in 2011, the lake had disappeared. The scene was no more than mounds of reddish earth.
This time in 2014 the restoration was remarkable – apart from the lack of oldies sitting in the sun, it could have been 2006 again.
I moved on to my alma mater, Christ’s College, where in 2011 there was serious damage to the old Gothic revival buildings in the quad. This time the entrance had a proud notice fixed to the gate that read ‘Restoration wins two awards’, with photographs of before and after. The old order had returned.
Then it was time to visit the square. In 2011 I could only peer at the wreck of the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral through railings. Now I could wander and get close to the rubble. It was obviously still depressing for someone who had spent many hours singing psalms within its precincts. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos show not only the destruction but also the troubling lack of people in the square.
Yet, there were also hopeful signs. Everywhere there were plantings and colourful murals, and on one side a beautiful chorus of fluttering flags.
I came across an intriguing notice that read, ‘Audacious – explore the city by ear – resonifying the city’. It went on to explain that the project was designed to bring back sounds to spaces that had become quiet after the earthquake. There was also an advertisement for ‘Canterbury Tales’ – a carnival and procession of liberation through the former red zone.
Wherever I went, comparing before and after, I could not escape the quakes. I had wondered if it would be worth re-photographing the old Deans Cottage in Riccarton Bush, because it was a wooden structure and surely it had been untouched. Not so – here are the two photographs of 2006 and 2014. Scaffolding and barriers just cannot be avoided.
And when I visited the beautiful Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, the pain of loss resurfaced.
Yet even here the sight was still better than in 2011.
The containers were still holding up Francis Petre’s masterpiece, but the rubble had disappeared.
I ended my visit in east Christchurch, driving through the swampy ‘red’ area around the former Queen Elizabeth Park, where sizeable homes now sit vacant while sections around them are stripped bare, and I saw Steeple Rock at Sumner, now minus the steeple. But it was the collection of artworks along the main road at Sumner that attracted my interest. The huge murals sit beneath a cliff, at the top of which fragments of destroyed houses can be seen teetering on the edge. One of these murals shows a scantily clad woman with a worried, pensive look.
It reminded me of another artwork, on the wall of the Christchurch Art Gallery – which, despite having been a symbolic beacon of hope as the centre of operations after the earthquake, is now boarded up for $50 million worth of repairs. There too a lone woman looks down on the city.
These images of women – worried, serious, reflective, yet also strangely determined to weather it all – perhaps symbolise a city that slowly, slowly, slowly, is in recovery mode.