Christchurch: our troubled city?

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

by Paul O'Hara.

The following blog was written within hours of the event in Christchurch. It is printed on this website largely unedited in order to preserve the integrity of the expression that came through the author at that time.

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March15, 2019, forty people shot dead (1), many more in a serious condition in hospital. Christchurch once again under siege, this time not the result of earthquakes as in 2010 and 2011, but from within its own population. Described by its prime minister as a terrorist attack, this time the New Zealanders who lie in the morgue and in the hospital beds are the victims of deeply rooted social problems rather than subterranean tension.

New Zealand once again makes world news, the world looks on, words of sympathy roll across the globe – how could this happen? New Zealand, land of the long white cloud, land of divine beauty, ‘God’s own country’, yet a people with issues reflective of anywhere else on this planet: suicide rates ‘up there with the best’, with inequality and poverty bordering on chronic, and now, ‘terrorism’.

Christchurch, New Zealand, modelled on Christchurch, England, the epitome of colonial thought, built on an ideal, an ideal of imposing one model that seems to have merit on another people, another place. The model that Christchurch is – a Victorian England mindset of class and status – brings with it not only the quaint trams skirting grand, stone architecture and the daffodil-lined Avon river, but the separation of working class and ruling class, the racism of white over coloured, and the sexism and various other comparative judgements that linger in human society, in human beings. Christchurch is no different to any other city, to any other place, and its people are not immune from the social and personal issues that face any other. The image of Christchurch as ‘English’, as the ‘Garden City’, as prim and proper, sweet and subdued offers only a superficial façade while beneath lies a rather different story.

New Zealanders like to think of themselves as somewhat different to the rest of the world, and I suspect the people of Christchurch probably have a similar sense of themselves in relation to everyone else. The realisation now presents itself even more clearly, as yet another global problem makes its way to the surface in this country. Forty people dead, yet this time it is not New York, not London or Paris. This time it is Christchurch, New Zealand, not to be confused with Christchurch, England.

Situated on the edge of New Zealand’s largest plain, sheltered by a large hilly outcrop, Christchurch city is actually built upon very fertile land, amid natural resources that in pre-European times supported a thriving population. Lagoons, gardens, fisheries, birdlife and accessible, flat, open space brought natural fertility to the region. Clear flowing rivers and trails inland to mountain passes facilitated access to resources of various stone, and sheltered harbours made sea travel from and to the region straightforward.

The area that today we know as Christchurch and surrounds, is actually historically significant to the early peoples of New Zealand. The Canterbury Plains were known as ‘Kā Pākihi-whakatekateka-a-Waitaha’ (2), the seeding grounds of the Waitaha people. Today, this history is largely buried under the same colonial ideal that has shaped our modern New Zealand society.

What the pioneers who built Christchurch city ignored would in 2011 rip the city to shreds, for unlike the England on which they modelled their architecture, New Zealand was a very shaky land and Christchurch, like much of New Zealand, has fault-lines beneath it – fault-lines that twist and rattle and tumble stone architecture as well as multi-story concrete structures designed without the reality of what the earth can hurtle at us in mind. As the tram-lines twisted, the churches tumbled and liquid mud oozed up through the asphalt, so too an opportunity for what has been held within to be exposed and brought up for inspection.

How have we fooled ourselves? What have we built that is flawed at its foundations? What have we been holding on to, that is not ours to own?

These are the questions the Christchurch earthquakes presented us with had we chosen to unlock the meaning of such events, rather than brush them off as mere random events of nature.

If we simply embark on a rebuild, on re-creating what was there before, we fail to acknowledge the lessons being presented and we fail to truly evolve.