Christchurch, seen from the slopes of Victoria Park, circa 1996
For more years than I care to remember this is how Christchurch and I have related to one another: at a studied distance. Coming from a small town a little under the halfway mark of the mainland the city was unavoidable as I grew up. It was the other big smoke after the nearer and more accessible Dunedin, and it differs from its more southern sibling by being almost the opposite of my overcast, damp, hilly once second home - flat, wide, with dazzling blue skies. In winter it broods with seemingly perpetual rising damp from the swamp land it was built over. In summer it bakes, its centre streets too far from the sea to cool themselves, all the better to maintain its main river Avon snaking its way under willows through suburb and CBD. As a child I holidayed there with my family, staying in the Meadow Park caravan site with visits to the Orana wildlife park, the shops of Cashell and Colombo Streets, or Ferrymead. Usually there'd be a visit to an elderly relative. As a teen I saw it less; Dunedin was where my brother flatted, the bands I liked came from, and was just more interesting, I thought. By my university years, now ensconced in the Edinburgh of the South, Christchurch was even farther away, but reasserted itself as the location of some more testing life experiences: I got hellishly sunburned there one summer with friends, my band toured there several times on equal occasions successful and frustratingly under par, and after hope against hope I got my heart broken there. So for years Christchurch and I weren't friends.
The thing I've realised after all those years is that nearly every time I stayed in the Cathedral City, it was on someone else's terms, or on someone else's time. I've slept there in caravans and motel rooms, on the floors of lounges and church halls, on the sofas of friends' flats and in the spare bedroom of a great aunt. I've never lived there, never explored and got to know the city's inner streets and outer suburbs at my own pace. I've been in the Cathedral but never up its spire, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to do that now. That same spire is rubble and twisted copper sheeting now, and too many of the city's grand and historic buildings have been destroyed, or are awaiting destruction in the name of public safety. The Avon is grey from liquefaction, the city's heart momentarily stilled. A big part of me wants to visit Christchurch's CBD, perhaps to try and grasp fleetingly what remains of the city centre that will surely be erased by time and recovery. Certainly I want to go there to put the pictures present and past into some context, the scale of the city's destruction being too large for the TV or computer screen, and too vast for my mind's eye to capture it. Only now, for the best and saddest of reasons, Christchurch's inner environs are as closed to me as they are to anyone else whose business isn't to aid in the awful task of recovering its missing citizens and begin the slow and painful process that will be the city's own recovery.
The Christchurch I knew and regarded with mixed sentiment is all but gone, and its future will be built upon the distressing moments of last week and their aftermath. It's also the current home of a good number of good friends and family members. When that future begins to be realised in whatever form, and when the time is right, I feel I owe it to Christchurch to go there, stop and have a closer look, to remember and reflect how it was and be a part of what it might yet be.