(Appeared in a modified form in the NZ Herald Online)
“Have you signed the Pledge?”, people kept asking me in the months after February. The Pledge was a register of people who were committed to staying in Christchurch; copies were made available for signing in public places, and the whole thing was to be bound and presented to the mayor. Curiously, all the people badgering me seemed not to be in a position to leave: trapped by dependents, job, unresolved insurance, or an unsellable house. One should only pledge to stay if one is free to go; I was, and didn’t pledge, because I don’t like loyalty oaths. This was before the June 13 quakes. And the December 23. And the thousands in between. You don’t hear much about the Pledge any more.
After the first quake shock had worn off, there was an unexpected elation in the air. People were itching to reclaim the rubble and turn destruction into a fresh start. The Gap Filler project screened outdoor movies in an empty lot, and made a book exchange out of an old fridge; Greening The Rubble built parks where there used to be buildings. The urge to help – to do something – filled community meetings and swamped the City Council with suggestions for the rebuild, giving rise to that utopian document the Central City Plan, which painted a picture of tree-lined cycleways, green markets, and inner-city apartments. Not only would the quake damage be fixed, so would decades of urban sprawl and central city neglect. Ponies for everybody. Ponies with free wireless.
Afire with the spirit of the Revolution, I approached the owner of the neighbouring empty lot. It was going to be sitting unused for a year or two; could we turn it into a community garden? The Cashel St Victory Garden began with a working bee, adults and kids sowing seeds and planting a bed of lettuces edged with recycled bricks. The quake had uncapped an artesian well, so we had a pond and a trench for growing watercress; our digging unearthed fragments of Victorian crockery. There were grand plans: creating garden beds for all the neighbours, seeking sponsorship, even building a team to help create more gardens around the city.
Three days later it had been paved and turned into a Wilson Parking lot.
Apart from a fortnight when I was barred from my apartment by a police cordon, I’ve been living in the central city since the February quake, watching earthquake tourists circle the Red Zone on sunny weekends, and seeing buildings gradually disappear week by week. I’ve watched the crack in my wall get slowly wider, and energy and optimism leak away, replaced by frustration, cynicism, and a dawning realisation that bringing a heart and life back to the city will take a decade or longer. And that the only people who can speed that up are politicians and insurance companies, not citizens.
We’ve said our piece, and now we wait.
The favoured dismissal for those leaving was “doing a runner”. Cowards fled; they probably never loved Christchurch anyway, or so said people who seemed to be trying to convince themselves to stay. An All Black recently claimed we’re scared and should harden up instead of running. Nobody’s had the guts to tell me that to my face. Those praising us for our supposed “resilience”, or accusing us of cowardice, seem to be projecting their own fears and needs onto ordinary people who aren’t exemplars of anything.
The funny part is, I was planning on quitting Christchurch two years ago, and suspect I’ve only stuck around through bloody-mindedness. I’ve watched my friends and neighbours leave in ones and twos, to Wellington and Auckland, and finally decided I was going too. Who wants to live for a decade in a wasteland, where we’re told we should be excited about shopping malls? The signs on the back of the buses implore us, with a big red heart, to love Christchurch—love it or leave it, I guess. But this is a city without a heart, and I no longer have it in me to stay.