Reflecting on the red zone

CHARLIE GATES
Last updated 05:00 18/08/2012

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The Zone Life series has explored Christchurch's residential red zone. To conclude the series, Charlie Gates reflects on how the city has changed.

Christchurch can sometimes feel like a bleak place to live.

I have spent the last six weeks immersed in the residential red zone, trying to capture its scale and tell the stories of the people caught within its boundaries.

Press photographer Kirk Hargreaves and I spent a couple of days touring the rutted and twisted streets of the red zone.

You can drive for hours and still be inside its borders. It sprawls across 630 hectares of Christchurch suburb and includes nearly 8,000 homes. That is about four times the size of Hagley Park.

It is a twisted and shattered suburban landscape. Not yet demolished, not yet abandoned. A strange limbo land weaving from the heart of the city to the sea.

The only sound in the more deserted suburbs is birdsong and the distant hum of machinery slowly unpicking the neighbourhood.

Kirk and I also joined a private security guard as he patrolled the red zone at night.

After sunset, the red zone streets do something you would not have thought possible. They get grimmer.

There were dark deserted streets with no lights. There were hollow-eyed houses leaning toward each other like conspirators. There were pockmarked streets covered with puddles and gravel. It was a long night.

We saw houses where burglars had stripped out all the windows and fittings. We saw homes where broken furniture and toys had been scattered across the front yard in anger.

Other homes had been broken into and tagged. It was mile after mile of shattered suburbia.

At one point, an oddly appropriate song came on the car stereo. It was Green Day's ''Boulevard of Broken Dreams''.

It is only now I have finished writing that the sadness of it all has crept up on me.

These were lovely suburbs set around the Avon River. It was the Kiwi dream - a modest, pleasant life that you didn't need to be super rich to enjoy.

I spoke to many red zone residents. They did not want to leave their homes. They felt powerless, afraid and sad for everything they had lost.

I remember the look on an elderly woman's face as she remembered the fruit trees she nurtured from saplings in her back yard and the daughters she raised over decades in her home.

The home has now been demolished and soon the rest of her neighbourhood will be gone. It is the end of a community where she played as a child, married, worked and raised a family over eight decades.

I remember the man thinking about his baby boomer childhood on the generous banks of the Avon River. His childhood home and every home we could see on both sides of the river will soon be gone. Whole communities will be cleared.

Even now, so long after the first quake, the scale of destruction and the challenge ahead are hard to comprehend.

I've lost many things. I've lost loved ones, childhood pets, first loves. We all have.

I never thought you could lose a city. But, we all have.

And we can't go home again. We live in a different place now.

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I'm reminded of what we have lost on my bus trip to work every day.

The route into town passes through a section of the red zone on Pages Rd. It is bleak. Broken homes sit at strange angles, their fences scarred with tagging. A little row of shops - once a lively bar, a video store and a pizzeria - sit smashed and empty.

The street is gap toothed, with empty sites dominated by large brown puddles the size of boating lakes.

It is a depressing sight to pass every day.

But yesterday morning, further along the same bus route, a man hopped on the bus only to discover he did not have enough money for his fare. One of the passengers leapt from her seat.

''I'll pay,'' she said.

She opened her purse and paid for his fare. A lovely smile broke out on the man's face, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. The pair chatted together for the rest of the journey. His smile was infectious.

I smiled too at the small act of human kindness. It was an act that transcended the bleak landscape around us.

The future of Christchurch is not a park or a conference centre, a rugby stadium or native wetlands. And nor is it abandoned streets and mangled suburbs.

It's the people.

It was always the people and it always will be.

- The Press

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