I meant to post this a few weeks ago, but other things kept getting in the way. On the last weekend of October, we, like 99% of the rest of the population of Canterbury, made our first trip in to the centre of Christchurch since February.
I was apprehensive. Partly because I was worried about how seeing it all would hit me. The bits of driving around the outskirts that I’ve done, and the regular trips to peer through the cordon fences over the last few months had certainly been troubling. Heaven knows I’ve posted about it often enough. And I was worried about the pop-up (although for legal reasons we’re not supposed to call it that) shipping-container mall in Cashel Street, intended to “restart the heart of the city”, as the publicity would have it. Would it be cheesy? Would it feel tacky? People died in the shops that used to stand here. There are so many buildings and businesses that have perished along with them – it could never be the same. So how on earth would this work?
But somehow it does. The containers are really inviting, with more window and glass than you’d expect. And they picked a very clever mix of shops – some Christchurch institutions like Scorpio, some new funky places that I hadn’t seen before, and plenty of food and coffee shops. It was … inviting. Actually more than that. It felt like someone coming up and giving you a big, almost brisk hug – not the kind that lingers and make you melt and break down again. The kind of hug that you get from that friend who just knows exactly what you need, and when. The hug that makes your smile go from wobbly, to relieved and real and secure. Reassuring, bracing even. The kind of hug we all need. (Incidentally – the Hummingbird Coffee guys have a nifty slideshow of the mall building in progress – check it out here.)
And in the middle of it all, the grand old lady of the city, Ballantynes. Like the primary school teacher you always adored, who manages to combine discipline with gentleness and reassurance and an understanding that, in the words of Susan Sto Helit, “there’s always got to be someone to tip the wee out of the shoe”. Stepping through those doors you could almost believe you were back in the world we lived in before February 22nd. Except … there were some empty spaces, bits of unoccupied space, that sort of thing. (So post boxing-day sales perhaps? Hang on, they were stuffed by a quake too. Thinking back, weren’t the re-run Boxing Day Sales only a week or so before the big one? Eek, yes, 12th and 13th February … so very appropriate). I didn’t do a huge amount of shopping there in the past, but I missed Ballys so much! Just being able to wander through there on a frazzled day, maybe have a coffee, look at the cookware and plan gifts for birthdays … I used to live over the fence from the old Ballantyne family mansion in Upper Riccarton, so it’s always felt connected to me somehow. And I had no idea how much that one department store had come to symbolise the centre of the city to me. So walking through those doors again felt pretty special. Walking around the mall, and then through Bally’s, I began for the first time to feel that we really would be able to make it through all this. That the city would recover. It gave me back some hope that I hadn’t realised had seeped away.
But then you step out again, onto Colombo Street, and face the devastation all over again. The remains of the bus exchange. The lovely old buildings around it. The pile of rubble with a digger perched like a carrion eater on top of the bricks and glass. Move along a bit and you could see the drunken lean of the Grand Chancellor. And more rubble. And more empty spaces. And more.
They’ve put up wooden slatted fences to block off the remaining red zone, so you can still see through but are left in no doubt as to which side of the fence you are meant to stay on. It’s quite odd. On one hand, they’re more attractive than the temporary metal cordon fences, and more in keeping with the new landscaping (which seems a horribly inappropriately ironic phrase here) of Cashel Mall. But … the thing about temporary fences is just that: they’re temporary. They are intended to come down again, and usually soon (although that’s another word which has a different meaning in Canterbury than the rest of the English-speaking world). The message from these fences is a bit less comforting than the bright painted shipping containers. But not hopeless. It’s “yep, this is going to take a long time. But it will happen, and we can and will live with it. And it doesn’t have to be relentlessly ugly”. Again, and against all odds, I think the council got this exactly right. We aren’t babies. We aren’t idiots. We’re battered and bleeding and grieving and desperately tired, but we’re survivors. And we will get through this. We all need a little hope, every now and then. Just not false hope.
It suddenly hit me where I’d seen this before. In Berlin.
There are sections of the old Berlin Wall still standing, particularly out towards Checkpoint Charlie. Some have murals or slogans painted on them, some have plaques. They almost seem jaunty out along Potsdamer Platz, which is right – for my generation, this (and Tiananmen Square) was one of the world events of our growing up. And the fall of the Berlin Wall was such a joyous, stirring thing. I know it wasn’t that simple, but to a schoolgirl on the other side of the planet it seemed as intoxicating and life-affirming as anything I’d ever witnessed. I watched the news coverage and cheered. We all did.
But when I visited the wall in 2006, what brought me to tears were the people. Everywhere you went were people, mostly Germans I think, who just came to stand and see. I don’t know their stories. I don’t know which side of the wall they were born on, or lived on. Who they’d loved, what they’d lost. I didn’t need to. It was written in their faces, in their posture. Some would just stand there, maybe touch a name on a plaque. Some were weeping, some just … standing. Witnessing. That’s what they were doing – bearing witness. And without anything being said you could see the change in the tourists too – voices would quieten, and people would step back a little. It was like a sudden cold wind, blowing past and leaving us all feeling the chill a little. It was the history of the place, and the shared grief, the shared, acknowledged sadness.
And that’s how it felt on Colombo Street the other day. All of us brought to silence, lacing our fingers through the palings, through each other’s hands. The weight of it. The emptiness. The lack. But also the acceptance. No point beating your fists against the bars, trying to scramble over the fences. That’s the response for hot blood, for the moment after. We’ll still have those moments, and there will still be grief and rage and disappointment (and frustration, and …). But something fundamental has shifted. (Again.) What I felt in Germany was the collective sense of an entire people who have suffered, and caused enormous suffering. Berlin is a city of scars, public and private, but there is a quiet courage in the way that they don’t try to hide them or deny them or tidy them away into corners. But they don’t brandish them or shake them in your face either. They’re just … there. Acknowledged. Accepted.
At the session in Auckland, Sarah Quigley commented that she thought Christchurch could look to the experience of Berlin in how to rebuild a city.
After the other weekend, I finally get it.