The Christchurch Red Zone will always be known as that, despite the fact that is it now largely green - and currently flecked with the flashy colors of a southern autumn.
I went exploring some of these areas last weekend. After three years away, I was keen to see how things might have changed since I last documented the decline of whole suburbs, demolished and abandoned, after the Christchurch earthquakes that began in September 2010. I wanted to sit in my car and think and note what I felt, as I imagined the busy lives that unfurled here every day just a decade ago.
Today, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, New Zealand is on the edge of a Level 4 Covid-19 lock down as the country attempts to ease itself through this hideous disease as best it can, reducing the number of casualties as much as possible. We are all asked to self-isolate, to stay home unless it is absolutely essential. I find parallels in this, to that mind-bending time of the Christchurch earthquakes, when our daily lives were in complete upheaval and our nerves were shattered by the thousands of after-shocks we endured over an intense period of almost five years. I thought then, that nothing would ever be the same again. And now, as if to reiterate the point, we have a worldwide pandemic claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.
That makes the Christchurch Red Zone seem like a small thing. But it isn’t. It wasn’t. For the 7,500-plus families who had to leave their homes, their gardens, their neighbourhoods, life was irrevocably changed forever. The suburbs they lived in covered around 600 hectares of land. Their demolition has left a massive hole in the Christchurch landscape – a green ‘hole’ that for the most part, has been fenced off and restricted to cyclists and walkers. The Red Zone is not a small park, it is said to be nearly twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. Whole suburbs have been wiped off the map. And what remains is one giant, disjointed ‘garden’ marked by a cobweb of disintegrating roads, cracked, potholed, and in many parts, reverting to the natural swamps that marked the land before man intervened.
After just three years away, I have come home to the home I left here – repaired after the earthquakes (twice) and never a palace but it feels like one to me. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I have a home, a garden and a neighbourhood to come home to. Nothing is perfect here but it is home. I still have that.
As I sat in the Red Zone, I wondered what might have become of the thousands of people who used to live there. I wondered if they ever go back to their lonely, empty streets to sit, like me, and think about their ‘former lives,’ their old neighbours, their gardens and the memories they carved out there as growing families. Where are they now? What are they doing? How do they remember their old neighbourhoods? How have their lives changed?
We will be able to ask the same questions at the end of the current pandemic because nothing is surer than the fact that it will change people’s lives – in many cases, forever. Change of course is not always a bad thing. Many positive things have come out of the Christchurch earthquakes. A good many lives have been changed for the better and if we’re taking a glass-half-full approach, we could even say that the city now has an additional 600 hectares or so of ever-changing parkland to wander in. And we can go there to see the wildlife returning – the geese, the ducks, the plovers, the pukeko, happy to forage in ‘new pastures.’
The corona virus pandemic will be the same. It will hollow-out families and whole communities; there will be grief and hardship; but for many, it may act as a serious wake-up call, a reminder that there is much about modern life that is toxic and unnecessary, and that now is a good time to take a serious look at our lives and the way we live them. Sitting in the Christchurch Red Zone is as good time as any to truly appreciate that, to truly appreciate that there is much to be said for simplicity, consideration, contemplation and a more minimal way of being.
To see much more of the after effects of the Christchurch earthquakes see my earlier blog: