Charlotte Grimshaw: Eerie city reveals its broken heart

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A visit to Christchurch proves sobering with blank windows, vacant lots and birds flying up out of ruins.

If the city is the people's psyche expressed in bricks and mortar, then Christchurch's heart looks seriously broken. Photo / Geoff Sloan
If the city is the people's psyche expressed in bricks and mortar, then Christchurch's heart looks seriously broken. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Derelict buildings are scary. I know this from experience. Years ago when I was working for a law firm in Central Auckland, I found myself between flats and accepted, without much thought, an invitation to move into an apartment on top of the CML building in Queen Street. On the face of it, everything seemed fine. I would be flatting with a law student and a policeman. The apartment had glass doors opening out on to the roof, which served as an enormous concrete deck. It was slightly shabby, but most flats were. It was convenient, so much so that I could see my own office from it. But there was something I didn't take into account until I'd moved in: the CML mall was scheduled for demolition and the entire building below the flat was completely empty.

When I was a child, I used to be frightened of the house if there was no one home. I would wait outside, or go to a friend's house until the place was occupied. Now, in Queen Street I relived that old fear on a grand scale.

In the evening after work I would unlock the glass door to the abandoned mall, walk the length of it, enter the lift and ride up through the empty floors. The lift only went to the seventh; then you had to walk up a flight of stairs. This, I soon realised, was potentially dangerous, since there was no way of knowing who could have got into the building during the day.

I managed to endure the torturous entries and exits from the flat; life was busy and I didn't have time to find anywhere nicer to live. But it got really intolerable when summer came and my two flatmates went away on holiday. I recall the first night alone when I realised I couldn't lock the doors to the roof, and they could be accessed from the empty building. If anyone got in, eight floors above Queen Street at night, no one would hear you scream.

It was one of those paralysing messes you get into when you're young. I was going to work each day, but at night I was so frightened I often sat on the roof for hours and watched the shadows. All around me were the yellow windows of the city, rubbish whirling up from the street and the sighing of the wind in the aerials. Below me were seven storeys of silence, emptiness and black space.

All this came back to me last week, when I stood in the centre of Christchurch and saw that almost all of the buildings around me were dead.

Christchurch people would say: no kidding. But I'd never visited the city post-quake, hadn't properly appreciated the extent to which Christchurch is in ruins. I could scarcely believe the number of high- and medium-rise buildings that are derelict and yet still standing: dead hotels, dead office blocks. By the ruined Cathedral, birds sit in lines along blank windows, birds fly up out of ruins, dust billows from vacant lots. At night, the city was so empty the only sound came from a group of youths dancing to a stereo under a streetlight. If the city is the people's psyche expressed in bricks and mortar, then Christchurch's heart looks seriously broken.

During the day there's the Restart Mall, there are a couple of new shopping areas and numerous sites being rebuilt. But why, after all this time, are the high rises still standing, boarded up and rotting? You only have to look up, say to the eighth floor of the Rydges Hotel, at the black windows in the cracked concrete, to feel the desolation seeping from it, to imagine being inside one of those airless rooms, in the lawless, frightening space that a dead building creates.

Broken-hearted Christchurch: you could certainly say it's got more interesting. The residential red zone was poignantly beautiful in late summer sun, the wrecked houses by the pretty river weed-choked and overgrown. Past the keeled-over pillars of the Holiday Inn, you could look at whole streets sinking and decaying, returning to the earth. There was something to see here all right: after the natural disaster, a disaster of neglect.

You could only wander through it and marvel. How can those in charge justify this mess? What on earth does the Government think it's doing?

Charlotte Grimshaw is an Auckland author.

- NZ Herald

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