Should we give Chch a new name?

21:21, Sep 02 2012

As the two-year anniversary of the September 4 quake looms, one can be forgiven for indulging in nostalgia for the old city and the way it was.

A sculptor friend of mine explained to me once that her craft was not so much about the work created but the spaces around it and in between it. It's an abstract thought but it makes perfect aesthetic sense in Christchurch now with so much removed.

With the mounds of messy rubble cleared away to leave large vacant lots, the CBD has become a giant sculpture park.

At night when you walk the eerie streets of the CBD, orange traffic lights flash on and off at deserted intersections as you encounter the occasional worker wending their lonely way home like a lost ant subordinate to the senseless architecture which remains.

The place is so utterly different from what it was that the city's name, Christchurch, dare I say it, seems to have become anachronistic, irrelevant.

Loss can make you hard, bloody-minded, turn you into a bottom liner who says why not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and with the brave new world, call for a new name for the city to go with the blueprint.


The city was given its name by the Canterbury Association back in 1848, suggested by John Robert Godley, who had attended Christ Church Oxford. It was first written down as Christ Church then became Christchurch.

The Maori name for the area is Otautahi, the name for a specific site by the Avon River near where the Kilmore St fire station is today. It was also referred to as the place of Tautahi, named after the Ngai Tahu Chief Te Potiki Tautahi.

The name Otautahi was adopted in the 1930s but Christchurch it has been for over 160 years. With the controversy over the Christ Church Cathedral demolition and the imagined loss of identity that will go with that, if it is to go, and with a population that is largely secular and non-churchgoing, should the name of the city still defer and refer to a Christian church?

I can still remember my grandparents referring to England as the Old Country when their parents and grandparents were born in Christchurch, and still this most English of cities persists in referencing itself to England.

Imagine if the Basilica had been awarded the leading role and located in The Square, would the city have been called Basilica?

I know that there is no way that a city that has lost so much would countenance the thought of losing its name as well, and predict a long-range forecast of rage from the descendants of the first four ships at the merest suggestion.

Calls for Christchurch to be called Otautahi or Otakaro (the Maori name for the Avon River) would have an Anglophile and red neck racist up in arms, but it is hard to think of other names that would be both historically relevant and acceptable.

Perhaps we should embrace the bogan nicknames of other towns like Ashburton and Invercargill, affectionately known as Ash Vegas and Inver Vegas, becoming Christ Vegas or Jesus Vegas, thus attracting both the holy roller and gambler tourist dollar.

Earthquake-related names spring to mind, such as Shaky Town, Brownburg (after Gerry), Parkerton (after Mayor Bob), Wizarton (after the Wiz), Sutton on Avon (after Roger Sutton) Swampton in recognition of the swamps on which the city was built, Sandyton referencing the impact of liquefaction, Duckton in appreciation of the floating residents of the Avon, or Cranesky acknowledging the cranes patrolling the landscape.

The demolition of the old train station and Science Alive building in Moorhouse Ave epitomises the much-overused word "awesome" as the tallest of cranes elegantly attacks and undoes the tower like a brutal lover.

A few days ago I saw four identical bulldozers working together at the base in wondrous harmony as if they had minds and instincts all of their own, or were working to a musical scoresheet.

The movements and impacts of the machinery conjure up the written sound of comic strip language such as wham, ka-thud, biff, blam and kapow! Brand-spanking, bright orange new road cones appear on our street to fence the road works and celebrate the first day of spring.

All quiet on the eastern front.

The Press