I wrote this on my blog the day I went in to the red zone:
I normally try to make these posts mostly positive, but I’m afraid this one won’t be like that. This one deals with the large elephant that has been hanging around our rebuild party and making a nuisance of itself: the red zone in the central city. For over eight months it has been off limits to the residents of this city, so it has loomed large in a lot of our minds and taken on a mystique greater than the relatively small size of its street footprint. I have seen pictures of it, people have taken video as they drive around in it, there have been numerous aerial shots taken and with each and every one the place I remembered has faded and ‘the red zone’ has taken on an almost mystical value. The pictures show a place that is desolate, filled with wide open spaces where empty lot follows on the heels of empty lot and in between them buildings slump in unnatural ways. I was expecting a wide open wasteland, but the reality is quite different.
It was with great trepidation that I even went on this trip in the first place. There has been an implication in some quarters that people who go in there are sick and indulging in ‘disaster tourism’ and while I didn’t feel like those were my reasons for heading in, I could see how it might appear to those who had no need or wish to go in. As a related aside, there was a family on our bus who very clearly were there as disaster tourists and anyone who is thinking of going in for whatever personal reason, and is worried they may appear like disaster tourists, can rest assured that by far the majority of people are clearly not doing it for those reasons, and that it is quite easy to tell the genuine people from those tourists.
It was a mostly silent and sober busload of people that pulled away from Cranmer Square and headed into the city. The first place we came to that affected me was Victoria Square. I’d forgotten, even though I had seen pictures, that the lanterns which had been put up for the lantern festival the weekend after February 22nd were still there. The sight of them, faded, ripped and broken in some places really got to me. I had been expecting to go to that festival and to be coming to that place so many months later and having such a vivid reminder of the way life just stopped so suddenly on that day was quite startling. It set the tone for most of the way I felt on the rest of the trip – a strange sense of coming home mixed with a feeling that said, ‘what the hell is this place? Where did you put MY city?’
My mental picture of the red zone, gleaned from so many photos taken by so many different people, is of a place that is wide open. In my mind, it is a place where the bulldozed holes run rampant and any remaining buildings dot a desolate landscape. In reality it felt very closed in being in there – and not just because we were corralled in a bus. The buildings are so much closer than in imagination or memory, and they loom a lot more than I had expected, their broken forms so much more real when . The sudden ripping of the red zone from pictures and into reality diminished the image a lot, which was good in a lot of ways. Anything off limits for too long becomes bigger than its reality so to bring it back down to size was a good thing – a lot of the mystique surrounding the area is gone for me now. However, that diminishment also made it harder to bear. Instead of the distance provided by pictures and video, their perspective skewed perhaps by lenses and different positions, it was very confronting to have those buildings close in so much that it felt like if we could just take the windows out of the bus I could reach out and touch some of them. It’s hard to explain just what it’s like to have your mental picture of a place suddenly changed like that, from something that is horrific but only imagined into something else that is different, no less horrific and all too real. It’s an odd feeling, and impossible to articulate.
What I also found in there was that what had once been ‘my city’ – the bits I knew and felt at home in, has now been split into two cities. One of those cities somewhat resembles the desolate wasteland of my imagination. It’s not as open as I had expected, but it has lost many of the places that were significant to me. Buildings and businesses that were touch points of the city I knew have been obliterated and in some cases it’s very disorientating to try and figure out what is missing and even what street you’re on. So many familiar landmarks, things I never realised I used to navigate by, are gone.
On the other hand, my other city looks almost normal. Looking east down Cashel Street, if you ignore the leaning Grand Chancellor in the background, and its enormous crane, and gloss over the fact that there are no people on the street you can almost think that it’s any city anywhere in the world, or that the city I knew and roamed around in is still up and running. You can pretend, if you try hard enough, that the city is just quiet for that one day and that shoppers will be along to breath life into again any minute now. That’s an illusion of course, and I’m sure at least some of the buildings will be gone next time we’re allowed to get into the city, but it was an oasis in the sea of destruction of the rest of the CBD.
Then, of course, was the cathedral. The bus stopped at three points along the way (the sites of the PGC building, the CTV building and the cathedral) but at the other two I felt like it wasn’t right to take pictures. I have several personal reasons for that, but the cathedral feels different. In a way it was really nice, in light of the news this week about the cathedral’s partial demolition, and the unexpected complicated swirl of emotions that brought up in me, to be able to get close to it and take a picture. It’s a sad sight, but it did feel good to be able to say goodbye to it before anymore of it goes and I think that’s where I’ll leave this. It was a sad day, and a challenging day but I’m glad I did it.