Christchurch recovery
Ice cream at the beach. Picture: Andre Glynn

Late one autumn afternoon, roaming the northern edge of the inner city Red Zone and following the Avon river as best I could, I came to Madras Street.

As an occasional visitor to Christchurch during the 1970s, it was more than 30 years since I had been there. But only a couple of days back is more than enough time to understand how much damage four major earthquakes can do to a city.

The depressing reality is that most of the big cranes on the skyline are concerned with demolition rather than reconstruction. Even deep in the centre of the Botanic Gardens, where the vistas are entirely deciduous glory and immaculate lawns, the hydraulic clack-clack- clack of the big jack-hammers dominate the soundscape.

It is a weekday but Madras Street is empty. Christchurch's former CBD is not a place the locals go. It's just too distressing.

On the site where the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church once stood, I find a temporary art installation entitled 185 Empty Chairs. Painted white and ranging from plain stools to padded armchairs, they mark the lives lost in the earthquakes.

Across the road is a stone clock tower with the word "Peace" inscribed across its midriff. Propped up and wrapped, it is being prepared for removal and repair. The clock's hands continue to mark the moment on February 22 last year when the first "killer" quake struck.

This is a particularly heart-wrenching part of the city. Just up the street on the other side of Latimer Square is the site of the CTV building.

More than half of the February 2011 victims died there. Mesh fencing around the cleared concrete slab is festooned with bright ribbons, dried flowers and farewell messages.

The only vestige of the CBD open for business is the Cashel Street mall and the only original building still occupied there is Ballantynes, an old-style department store. All the other businesses operate out of dongas or prefabs.

I go there a couple of times but business is slow with more people behind the counters than in front of them.

Not that things are a lot better out in the suburbs - particularly in the eastern part of the city where many small businesses also operate out of dongas or prefabs. The greengrocer near where I stayed is supplying fine fruit and vegetables from a tent.

There are signs of damage wherever you look - buckled pavements, new roofing where chimneys have been taken out, wonky garden walls, empty lots, mesh fences and witches' hats. There is a general sense of everything being slightly skew-whiff; of lampposts, roads and fences being out of kilter.

The closure of some roads has created traffic problems, made worse by the redistribution of where people work.

To get some measure of the destruction, I go to Bottle Lake Forest Park.

Bottle Lake is a pine plantation on the coast 10km north-east of the city. Most of its 800ha are still used as a recreational park but a large clearing near its centre has become the place where much of Christchurch ends up.

Bottle Lake Debris Pile. Picture: Andre Glynn
Bottle Lake receives building debris - mostly from houses and older commercial premises. The facility receives about 90 trucks a day, six days a week. So far it has received 350,000 tonnes but it will eventually take about a million tonnes.

Larger concrete slabs and rubble go to a landfill site near Lyttelton, the city's port. An estimated eight million tonnes of debris and rubble will be carted out of Christchurch.

The present ground level at Bottle Lake is brick red because that is what it is. In the first weeks, all the brick rubble was dumped here. Now it has been pulverised by the heavy trucks, dozers and excavators as they go about making a 25m hill of debris.

Houses and buildings unsafe to enter or occupy come down with everything in them - tiles, carpets, smashed furniture. I picked up a piece of marble, presumably from someone's kitchen or bathroom bench. One would like to focus upon plans to rebuild a new Shining City. But the basic, daily realities are just too grim.

In the middle of a street not far from where I stayed sits a bright orange cube about 8cu.m, surrounded by barriers and amber lights. Large black hoses attached to either side disappear into the ground. This is a sewage pump, connecting two sections of broken mains until such time as the line can be repaired, cleared of silt and realigned to restore gravity feed.

Nobody knows how long that will take.

Quakes, tremors, aftershocks continue. And, despite the popular notion that Christchurch was not prone to earthquakes, the cathedral spire was brought down by earthquakes in 1888 and 1901.

Christchurch memorial: 185 Empty Chairs. Picture: Andre Glynn
I had planned to visit Canterbury Museum, itself a grand old building and home of an important Antarctic exploration collection.

The museum had advertised an exhibition on the earthquakes since September 2010. I believe such memorialising projects are not to be underestimated in the difficult business of people collectively condensing and clarifying their experiences.

We arrive to discover an apologetic notice on the front door. The building may be unsafe and engineers have closed the museum until further notice.

Over the road, fenced off and propped up, is the Canterbury Arts Building. This was formerly the rambling old university buildings where Ernest Rutherford (father of nuclear physics) studied and where, between 1937 and 1945, Karl Popper gave philosophy lectures.

Behind the museum, the Botanic Gardens' elegant old glass conservatories are closed. At least the lawns, flower beds and the trees (some 150 years old) are still there to work their potent enchantment.

Down the street, the swish new art gallery is also closed, with no firm date to reopen.

It is hoped this group of institutions immediately to the west of the CBD Red Zone may, when repaired and restored, become an historic precinct; the evocative remnant of a city that is, by and large, being trucked to Bottle Lake and Lyttelton.

Christchurch is still picking up the pieces. Even as I write another magnitude-five shake (the 41st since September 2010) has knocked off few more loose bits. And probably settled the fate of a few more homes.

It is no surprise that many people want to leave. But many want to stay, their reasons as diverse and individual as particular memories.

In the meantime, everyone just has to keep going. Turning up for the daily grind.

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A mere tourist has no business advising the people of Christchurch how to cope with their lot. But it does seem to me that small treats and indulgences, like courtesy and small kindnesses, are not trivial things.

I kept thinking of something Karl Popper did amidst wartime austerity.

It is not widely known that Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, one of the most influential books of the late 20th century, was written in Christchurch. Happily, I can report Popper's house on the Port Hills has survived, and that his view of the Southern Alps remains sublime.

Karl Popper Plaque, Worchester St. Picture: André Glynn
For me, the apposite story of Popper's time in Christchurch is the one of how he and his wife, Hennie, after completing the massive manuscript, upon which they had worked in great adversity for four years, took a holiday by "going down to the sea". There, they treated themselves to as many ice-creams as they could eat.

Out in front of a double row of shipping containers supposed to stop boulders the size of cars from falling on to the seaside road, you can still buy an ice-cream at Sumner Beach. So I followed the Poppers' example, and made the gesture looking out over Pegasus Bay, with the wrecked houses teetering on the brink of the broken cliffs behind me.

Madras Street was empty. Christchurch's former CBD is not a place the locals go. For many, it is just too distressing.

The West Australian

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