Alone in the Christchurch red zone: One man's final stand
It was a tight, flourishing community before the disaster. Now it is wasteland, where one man made his last stand, writes CHARLIE MITCHELL.
It's like a lost fragment of civilisation, the lonely and weathered house in Avonside. It's minutes from central Christchurch but alone in the wilderness, a ragged neighbourhood of one.
John Taylor christened it "Otaparakororo", a word he made up, but says as though it has a deep history. The house presides over the Avon River, at a point where it swoops like a shoelace on its path to sea.
There used to be 1300 people living in this part of Avonside, a thriving community packed within the loop, river on every side but the way out.
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From ground level, you wouldn't know Otaparakororo – with its pleasantly yellow weatherboards, ivy-green splashed window frames, a gnarled willow twisting impressively over a side path – was all that was left.
But look at it from the sky, like the birds see it: the closest neighbour is 500 metres away, stretched far on the edge of the city centre.
"I always call it my country in the city," Taylor said. "The house is still together. The road is still accessible, just.
"It's quite surprising, the number of people who come along here with their dogs. I like space, and there's lots of space. I like historical values. It's ideal."
Road barriers block access to the small network of remaining roads, leaving a sliver of access to the last house, where the mail is still delivered and the services keep running.
A broken and flooded stretch of Avonside Dr now ends at Taylor's front door: the city's longest, most extravagant driveway.
It took six years for one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods to disappear. Now there is Taylor, and his only neighbour, the Queen of England: She is the registered owner of property titles bought under national earthquake legislation.
It's still remarkably empty, nearly seven years after the damage was done. If it wasn't so alive with trees and wildlife, the red zone might feel more like a ghost town near Chernobyl than a suburb of Christchurch: stripped bare by disaster, leaving only a husk.
A battered playground fights to stay upright. The roads disappear under water every time it rains. Otherwise, nothing but the clamour of birds.
Then there is Otaparakororo. It wouldn't look out of place in any other leafy, historic neighbourhood – except for the signs in front, which assure thieves they will be shot, possibly in the buttocks.
It's the sort of place one suspects never looked any different, like it became inseparable from the land the moment it was built, as crucial as the trees and the river. Many houses were like that in this neighbourhood.
"I love this area," Taylor says. "I'm a gardener and I love trees. This little property has some magnificent trees."
IN A FORMER LIFE
Forget the sorry sight that is Avonside for just a moment. Imagine how it used to look: The river uncoiling like a ribbon through the trees, daffodils blooming in the cracks of concrete driveways, gardens so magnificent they won awards.
It was the middle of the night at the beginning of spring when Avonside Dr wobbled like a limp noodle and the river swallowed so much mud it ran brown for days.
Children played in the deep cracks that fractured the roads. Houses trembled beneath footsteps and in aftershocks.
Over time, Avonside Dr became synonymous with the cruelty of the earthquake. It was an old swamp shaken into life, gobbling up the community above.
It looked like Avonside might rebuild, until the second quake finished it off. The houses were shunted closer to the river, some off their foundations. A pedestrian bridge twisted impossibly, stretching like an accordion.
The neighbourhood was declared a red zone – the bureaucratic equivalent of scrubbing it from the map – and everyone started to leave.
Bulldozers lined up the houses methodically, from sunrise to sunset, keeping to a tight schedule to get through the thousands throughout the city. Some families watched and cried while their homes were torn down; others had already moved on.
The gardens continued to grow, without anyone watching. They were no longer carefully manicured, but wild and unkempt, befitting the new setting. They didn't win awards, but the judges kept visiting, just in case.
The shadow of the neighbourhood remained for a while, in the trees marking the boundaries and the derelict concrete driveways leading to empty spaces.
By the 2013 census, about 130 people lived in the community, likely negotiating with their insurers or EQC. A couple of years later, it dropped to a few dozen.
One of the last houses was demolished late last year.
Left was one man: the man who decided to stay and tend to his garden.
LAST MAN STANDING
"The first thing he said to me was, 'oh you've got kids. That will be annoying'."
Mary James-Mann lived next door to Taylor for a few years from the late '90s, and developed a fondness for the lone spirit.
Despite the brusque introduction, Taylor later told James-Mann her kids weren't so bad. You could tell he was witty with a dry sense of humour, she said, even if she felt he was something of a mystery.
"He was quite reclusive . . . we didn't see much of him, he was not that forthcoming."
When they threw a birthday party, he would listen to the music from his garden – a keen observer of the community, if not a participant.
She moved long before the earthquakes, but always missed Avonside and her neighbour. "It was lovely. My children were devastated when we left."
There are few pictures of Taylor, or any meaningful public record of his existence.
Many people know of him, though: he's the guy lurking in that gloomy Avonside house, the ghost solemnly haunting the red-zone, long after it was condemned.
His paraplegia and wheelchair added to the difficulties of red-zone life. He liked the term Otaparakororo because of the middle bit – "para".
Even before the earthquakes, John spent most of his time alone, gardening. His prized plant, a daphne, blooms magnificently in the spring, wafting a perfume scent through the garden.
That's part of what he loved about Avonside: a garden suburb in the garden city.
"The number of bloody houses that were still perfectly livable was absolutely amazing," he said. "You know, a large part of the heritage is gone. It's very sad."
Taylor was always bothered by the exodus from his neighbourhood, which he watched from his bedroom window. Yet he started to like what the community had become: his own personal slice of country life in the city.
Six months before the first earthquake in 2010, Taylor cancelled his home insurance. He didn't need to: he had enough money to pay for it.
His family told him it was a bad idea. They said they were Taylors; the worst always happens. And so it did.
For uninsured homeowners in the red zone, the Crown offered to pay half the 2007 rateable value of the land.
It was a controversial decision, made to protect the value of insurance, though some argued the situation was so extraordinary it shouldn't matter.
The High Court later ruled the offer unlawful, which was upheld on appeal. A second offer was made, which last week was also ruled to be unlawful.
For someone like Taylor – whose house was largely intact, even after thousands of aftershocks – a meagre payout to leave wasn't appealing.
While more than 7000 people accepted red-zone buy-out offers, about 150 did not, choosing to stay on. That number has since dwindled to a few dozen.
The council is legally required to provide services to the red zone, which it does at great cost – collecting sewage from the red zone costs $500,000 a year..
Taylor was initially involved in these machinations, the twists and turns of buy-outs and Crown offers, but soon grew tired. He explored other pathways out of the red-zone: He looked at townhouses in Avonhead, which he despised, and gritted his teeth and talked to the bureaucrats.
"There are two things I abhor," he says. "One is paperwork, the other is slowness of the system to come to the party." He does not like bureaucrats.
It never amounted to anything, so he resigned himself to living out his days in the red zone, disengaging from the process entirely. Of his 1300 neighbours, he was the only one who didn't make it out.
The question is put to him: Why stay, when the mud and the water churn in your wheelchair, when delinquents roam the wasteland at night with their spray paint and their lighters, when authorities tame the jungle that had felt like an extension of your garden?
"Aha. That is the question, isn't it. I would be very surprised if I hadn't covered every possible avenue. I'm very timid, and I love this area.
"If push comes to shove, I'll protest, I think. I'll protest. I'd like to stay here. And between you and me, I think I'd get a lot of support."
And so he stayed.
Because he had limited use of his upper body, he required help, particularly with his garden. Someone came to walk his dog, because he struggled to use his wheelchair on the broken road; the lawns were mowed, the sewage tank emptied.
His only gripe was the road. People in cars would ignore the barrier, swerving around it onto the riverbank, digging treads in the mud.
He liked the idea of a story in the newspaper, pressuring the council to do-it-up, restore some civility to the place.
"The road around here, following the river, is too bloody rough. I can't go up onto the riverbank with my wheelchair," he said.
Other than that, he liked the open space. He liked the overgrowth. He loved both Avonsides: what it had once been, and what it had become.
TIME MARCHES ON
As autumn became winter, Taylor became sick.
He had been struck down with severe bladder stones, which came with an excruciating pain he could sense, but not always pinpoint due to his paraplegia.
He complained of a chipped tooth and a swollen tongue, which slurred his speech. In his darkened bedroom – paint peeling from the walls, artefacts piled like a hidden corner of a museum – he lay attached to a network of tubes, the only patient in this gothic hospital room, looking over the broken road and the Avon.
"For all intents and purposes, I'm a bit of a hypochondriac," he said. "But I'll be around for a few more years to come yet."
He still liked to talk, through the pain. He was an environmentalist; he hated fracking, which he expressed through protest signs on his property, although few people were there to see them.
He dodged bureaucrats, which was not easy for someone in a red-zoned house in post-earthquake Christchurch – a task akin to a fish hiding from water.
His hatred for paperwork was almost pathological. It was apparent in the 10 years of unopened mail he had amassed, a detail he failed to tell the postie, who still dutifully traversed the long and perilous road to deliver it.
Once Taylor had decided to stay in Avonside, any discussion would inevitably turn to the future of the red zone. As the neighbourhood's sole resident, he took a spirited interest in its future.
There is still no formal plan for the future of the Avonside red-zone, many years on. It remains, for now, the city's gaping wound, untreated.
A proposal is due in November.
When the subject came up, Taylor's eyes would light up: "I think a riverway parkland would be absolutely magnificent, and it would be a real drawcard for tourists" he said. "A riverland parkway could become the Mona Vale of the future."
It appealed to his keen gardener's sense: he would muse on the native plantings along the river, the native birds that would flourish in a green corridor, a forest in a city.
Given he still owned his house, he would have a front row seat. He couldn't wait: "I'll be around a bit longer yet," he said.
A STORY TO TELL
Taylor agreed to be interviewed at length when he was better; he promised he had a story to tell about his life in the red zone, and looked forward to telling it.
After a cold night in the middle of winter, Taylor's gardener found his body on the floor. It was morning and the roads were still flooded from the storm days earlier.
Taylor had cradled in front of a blow heater, where he rested in his chair on the cold nights in his damp house.
The coroner's initial report was inconclusive. It pointed to his long history of bladder stones, a recurring problem he'd recently had surgery for. He appeared to have fallen out of his chair while in a deep sleep. His paraplegia was such that another broken vertebra would have made him tetraplegic, increasing the danger of falls.
Despite the pain he was in, he never took medication. He was 62.
His sister, Ann Fieldes, saw him three weeks before he died. She returned to Otaparakororo from her home in Central Otago to organise his belongings.
His house transferred into the family's possession.
"We were very proud of John," she said. "We've got a lot to be grateful for. He was very independent, and a bit different, but that's OK."
His death notice in The Press made no mention of his final stand in the red zone. It said he died in his "happy place, Otaparakororo, on the banks of the river Avon". A private memorial was held a few days earlier.
Life with her brother hadn't always been easy, she said, but he was loved.
When he cancelled his insurance, she feared the worst would happen. And yet, he survived with the odds against him.
"From a sister's perspective, it's been an interesting journey. It was a hard thing for him," she said.
"He wouldn't have hurt a soul. He was a good person."