Quakes two years: on our unreal city

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 05:00 22/02/2013
Quake
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ

Memorial service in Hagley Park.

Quake
JOSEPH JOHNSON/Fairfax NZ
A road cone with flowers.

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Time has strange effects; it plays tricks. February 22, 2012, feels as long ago to me as February 22, 2011.

Of course, that is subjective, but is it really only a year since the river of flowers and the first memorial? I looked over some notes I took about the coverage a year ago and the city's emotional temperature. I remember hearing Catholic Bishop Barry Jones on the radio that morning saying gravely that there would be ''a roll call and then silence''.

He was referring to the memorial service in Hagley Park, where it took 13 minutes to read out 185 names, and then there was two minutes of silence. Silence was the overwhelming feeling all through the day. It was the dominant mode. I was at home.

There was almost no traffic. When people phoned, they sounded subdued and slightly apologetic, afraid to disturb someone else's silence. It was an odd mood. We felt formal, untrivial. There was nothing else to think about.

Not everyone went into Hagley Park. Others went to Latimer Square, or the Botanic Gardens, or the Re:Start mall, or to their local school, or to the banks of a river.

People threw flowers into rivers. That was one of the city's organised and sanctioned memorials. Then there was the unofficial memorial - the flowers in road cones - that grew from one person's imagination and spread across the city. That was remembrance from the ground up.

And you're telling me all this was just a year ago? What has happened in the year since that will make today seem so different? My feeling is that if February 22, 2012, was about grief, as we heard and remembered the names of the dead, then today our attention is likely to turn to our earthquake-ruined city and the parallel reality we have lived in for two years. Or two and a half years, in some cases.

Those who lost close friends and family continue to grieve, but I think that for most of us the earthquake has stopped being a human tragedy and now persists at the level of a civic problem.

It wasn't only the first anniversary that moved us past the human dimension, but also the coverage of the inquest into the Canterbury Television building deaths, which dominated last year. It became an exhaustive account of the most hellish part of the disaster.

Even the discovery that the engineer who supervised the CTV building's construction, Gerald Shirtcliff, had faked his qualification gave us a compressed narrative: grief, shock, disbelief, blame. The earthquake stopped being an entirely natural disaster and became at least partly man-made.

If it is not the human tragedy that dominates this year, then what are we left with? Again, it's that parallel reality - our unreal city. This strange, frustrating, sometimes promising place. The human tragedy is easier to mourn.

There are clear guidelines and traditions. But mourning for the lost city, or fearing for its future, or even feeling hopeful - there are no guidelines that tell us how to do that, or how long it will last.

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How long will the rebuild take? What shape will the city be in? It's impossible to guess. Who would have imagined that large parts of the central city will continue to be cordoned off from the public a full two years after the disaster?

A year ago, it still felt OK to talk about resilience and endurance and the community spirit that the earthquakes produced.

Another year later, with people still living in cars or ruined houses or unable to afford to pay market rents, talk of resilience sounds a little sour, as though resilience is just another way of saying that some are putting up with living conditions that no-one should have to put up with.

Because we're resilient, we don't complain. Or we can't work out who to complain to.

Between the last February 22 and this one, the narrative of progress was pushed forward a little as well, with the release of the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan.

Within it, there were plans for an earthquake memorial, although details were sketchy. On this day in years to come, it will be the place that the city goes to and perhaps it's wise to wait and see which place feels right (history is full of squabbles over memorials).

Latimer Square is to be the city of earthquake remembrance this year, which makes sense given the proximity to the CTV site, the transitional Anglican cathedral and the installation of 185 white chairs. That side of town is developing naturally as a site for remembering.

Eventually this day will stop being marked at all - how many readers knew that February 3 was the date of the 1931 Napier earthquake? -  but the 185 names will always be recorded, even when they are no longer remembered.

Philip Matthews is a senior writer at The Press.

- The Press

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