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.

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