Seeing the red zone

by Fiona Rae / 04 November, 2011
Rebecca Macfie takes a preview bus tour of Christchurch's CBD and finds that, even now, the devastation seems surreal.
The people are being allowed back into the city from this weekend. Not on foot, or in cars, or on bikes, but on buses. Having been forbidden from entering their own town centre for eight months, they are now permitted to visit it as tourists – for 30 minutes, they may take a seat on a bus that will cruise slowly through the ruins and the vast empty sites that once were places where people worked, lived, shopped and were entertained.

They will find the place unrecognisable, disorientating and ugly. For people like me, who either stole inside the cordon in the early days before the military took up guard, and who have subsequently been given the occasional opportunity as a member of the media to tour the red zone, the scale of destruction and pace of demolition has sunk in slowly and gradually. Yet even I, taking perhaps my fifth red zone media tour yesterday as a “guinea pig” for the Cera-run bus tours that begin on Saturday, still find myself in a state of numb grief. Looking through the window of the bus, and through the lens of the camera, I still have a strange sense of dissociation, as if I am an observer of someone else’s disaster movie.

The bus crawled slowly up Armagh St and north into Colombo, past the overgrown gardens of Victoria Square; along the Avon past the condemned PriceWaterhouse Building (the tallest building in town, and whose shareholders are rubbing their hands gleefully at the prospect of a “value-adding” insurance cheque); along Manchester St, where the art deco curves of the Bob Brown Hifi building still stand amid the graves of other buildings; and past the savagely damaged Octagon restaurant (once the Trinity Congregational Church, designed by Mountfort in 1875), whose dedicated owner is determined to restore the interior.

Up Hereford and into Madras St – travelling the wrong way up the one-way system – where flowers laid at the corner of the CTV site have withered and died; past the Horse Bazaar, a beneficiary of public restoration money in the past, but now being eaten from the inside by a yellow digger; down Tuam St and back into Manchester St past the bashed but surprisingly sturdy-looking brick lanes that once housed the best of the city’s eclectic shops and cafes. Back into Colombo St, where we caught a discombobulating glimpse of people shopping in the sun: amidst this disfigured landscape, the little pop-up container mall that opened last weekend is a bright, tiny island of our weird new normal.

And then to the Square, if it is still possible to call it that when so many of the buildings that gave it its geometry have gone – the Regent, the Press, Warners. The old chief Post Office stands gloriously intact, yet the rumour about town is that the owner wants it demolished. As for so many others, perhaps, it will be worth more to him as a cashed up pile of rubble than a functional building in a scarred and hollowed-out town.

Finally, the Cathedral, which is about to undergo “partial” demolition to make it safe. Exactly what that means, and how much will be left at the end, Bishop Victoria Matthews can’t or won’t say. The church has likewise failed to disclose the nature and extent of the structural damage, although you don’t have to be a chartered engineer to see that it’s in a bad way. In its place, says Bishop Matthews, will be a “combination of old and new”.

It’s a sign of how exhausted we all are, and how blunted our emotions, that the church’s fuzzy statements about the future of what many regard as the city’s most important building has aroused barely a whimper of response. Christchurch, a city that has been the site of vicious and passionate heritage wars in the past – over the museum and the Arts Centre especially – seems to be too tired to fight for ChristChurch Cathedral. Perhaps now that the people are finally to be allowed in to see their brutalised, diminished city, they will decide the time has come to fight for the little that remains.

[gallery link="file"]
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyranny of events
86009 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyra…

by Richard Prebble

I predicted Bill English would lose the election and the winner would be Winston Peters. But no forecaster, including the PM, predicted her pregnancy.

Read more
Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’
85966 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z World

Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’

by Justin Bennett

It's known as a 'suicide forest', but Justin Bennett found Aokigahara's quiet beauty outweighed its infamous reputation.

Read more
Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye
85816 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Arts

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance …

by Sally Blundell

New essays on New Zealand-born US artist Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist.

Read more
Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more
Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by photographer John Rykenberg
85964 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by pho…

by Frances Walsh

More than one million images from Rykenberg Photography, taken around Auckland, are now in the Auckland Libraries Collection. But who are the people?

Read more
'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke covered in insects
86027 2018-01-18 11:59:55Z Environment

'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke co…

by Hamish Cardwell

A Golden Bay man spending his first night in his new house says he woke to find his bed, walls and floor covered in hundreds of creepy crawlies.

Read more
Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans
86015 2018-01-18 11:18:49Z Environment

Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want t…

by Sharon George and Deirdre McKay

There's a growing movement to stop the amount of wasteful plastic that goes into our oceans, but what about the tiny bits we can hardly see?

Read more
It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking water
86001 2018-01-18 09:41:15Z Social issues

It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking wat…

by The Listener

The inconvenience to chlorine refuseniks is tiny compared with the risk of more suffering and tragedy from another Havelock North-style contamination.

Read more