Heartbreak, despair and life lessons in earthquake town: Discovering we don’t actually have absolute rights to ‘our’ land and homes.

In 1942 my grandparents Elsie and Jack Locke moved to Christchurch with their young son Don, and bought a run down workers cottage. This was 392 Oxford Terrace, on the banks of the Avon River, in a community that came to be known as the Avon Loop. At first they were unimpressed with what must have been a damp, dark and small four-roomed house, until they looked back at the river from what was to become Elsie’s study. The river and its banks held much promise; so there they stayed and had three more children. The youngest was my mother who was born in the cottage itself, a rarity in the early 1950’s.

Years later, in the 1980’s my mother settled with my Dad to have us three kids further down stream towards the ocean. We made weekly trips back and forth between that home and the Avon Loop. Ten doors down on Oxford Terrace lives my Dad’s mother, our Grannie, Janet. We spent years along this stretch of the river with our cousins, popping in and out of the cottages, running along the riverbank, swinging in the branches of the willow trees, and revelling in the nurturing attention of our grandparents and the Avon Loop community at gatherings and festivals on the riverbank.

In recent years the Avon Loop has consisted of approximately eighty houses and numerous units in council flats. It has had a long-standing history of strong community resilience. The area started out as neighbourhood of workers houses in the late 1800’s, and became an area for young families in the 1940’s, when my family’s connection to the place began. In the mid 1970’s, a hotel in the Loop threatened to take over much of the community in its proposed expansion, prompting a coordinated community resistance. This heralded the birth of the Avon Loop Protection Association, now known as the Avon Loop Planning Association (ALPA). ALPA won, ensuring that all future developments needed to consult with the community. Furthermore, ALPA created a strong bond between all the residents, young and old, who shared the common aspiration of a connected and responsive community, where all voices and opinions could be heard. A place for the people who took care of the location that supported them, the river itself. ALPA settled into its role as the kaitiaki, the guardians of the river. My grandparents started a recycling scheme, planted the riverbank with natives and instigated the creation of a community cottage and children’s playgroup with ALPA.

However, since September the 4th 2010, anyone connected to Christchurch has had their lives changed forever. Due to two devastating earthquakes and all the smaller ones in between huge parts of Christchurch have been damaged beyond repair. The Avon Loop community was badly damaged, and this time the people have had no power or control over the fate of the community. No means to take part in the subsequent decisions made by the Government regarding the ongoing occupation of the Loop or what will become of the area in the future.

Nearly two years on from that cool spring morning in September 2010, I am sharing my story of the change and loss my family has suffered and continues experience as a result of the earthquakes. The home us kids grew up in out in the suburb of Burwood, a mudbrick house built by family, has crumbled and must be rebuilt. And we are also in the process of losing our family home, our cottage in the Loop, to land zoning and bureaucracy.

The undamaged cottage in which my parents currently live, is a beautifully built house, completed just after the February 2011 earthquake, using the materials from the original cottage that stood on the same site at 392 Oxford Terrace. The new cottage looks the same as the old one from the riverbank, and looks out onto the broken and dying magnolia trees my grandparent’s ashes are buried under. It is nestled among many others, half fallen down, demolished or abandoned. The cottage survived the earthquakes in one piece brilliantly, however the Loop has been red zoned as the riverbank is badly damaged and the land the houses sit on has sunk. The Government is unwilling to fix the riverbank, and insurance companies will no longer cover individual residences because of the new flood risk to the houses. This means all the houses will eventually have to go, whether the houses themselves are sound or not. Our parents have to leave their undamaged, year old home, as does our 92 year old Grannie who lives around the corner. She was on track to live out her days in her home with the support of my parents, however she will now be shifted to a retirement home.

At night there aren’t many lights on, a few here and there in between patches of darkness. It really does feel like coping with imminent death, as more and more households leave the Loop, finding new strong houses and communities elsewhere. This community in which I grew up in with my family, is in the process of dying. Gone are the dreams of living in a supportive, vibrant and happy community, within walking and biking distance of the city centre, living by the river and enjoying family so nearby.  Coping with this situation is very difficult, every day is different. Some days I am angry, others peaceful and accepting. It is an unknown, and no doubt long process we are all moving through together. I am still in shock and disbelief at it all, and sometimes I wonder when I will move on to the ‘next stage of grief’, to get closer to acceptance and healing. I don’t know how these things work, I’ve never felt grief like this before.

There is nothing we can do, lest we pump all of our money into a court battle with the Government we would inevitably lose. Since the second, most damaging and deadly February earthquake, the National Government established an authoritarian department called the ‘Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority’, CERA. It is headed by MP Gerry Brownlee, and has effectively taken over the Christchurch City Council’s ability to lead the city’s direction in the future. CERA has a mammoth task co-ordinating a city wide replan, rebuild and repair job, and makes it harder for itself by shutting out affected residents. They are excluding residents and alI the ideas, opinions and experience they have to offer, as well as many professional experts in areas such as design and architecture. Why they have made it impossible for public input is questionable, and as they rarely release any information, technical or otherwise we are left to feel shut out, shut down, disregarded, suspicious and disempowered.

Our family has been learning the hard way that we do not really own land and houses, just the rights to them. The Crown virtually owns New Zealand, which I argue was mostly stolen from Maori. Anyhow, the Crown, enabled by the Government can forcibly remove the rights you have to your land in such events as these. We could think of ourselves as lucky as they are buying out the entire Avon Loop along with many insurance companies, so we do not leave empty handed, if not very short changed, but I cannot consider us lucky. In fact I am fearful. I am scared that as we come back to the Loop less and less, our memories will fade. Each day I have spent there, and spend there now, walking around the riverbank and cottages, I see places that remind me of my grand parents and other memories with family. The community causes me to think daily of my connection to the land and the people on it. I am worried about what will happen when we don’t have this land. I am deeply saddened and frustrated that my daughter will not visit the Loop very often, and will have much less physical reminders of her family roots. She will not remember the time that we were here at all, as she is just two years old. I have taken all of this for granted my whole life, and now I see that not many people have grown up with such a home base.

What is certain is that next April 2013, our family will move out of the Loop, but what will become of the undamaged cottage remains to be seen. Will the Christchurch City Council be convinced to buy it as a park visitor centre? Can it be shifted to another location, or will it be deconstructed within two years of being built, reduced again to a pile of wood as the original cottage was only three years ago.

I currently feel very angry and deeply sad about our predicament, however I know that we will find a new family base somewhere when the time is right. I also know that I will be stronger for this experience, once the wounds begin to heal, and that there are many life lessons we are in the process of learning. I am not sure what they are exactly yet as I feel we are still in the midst of it all. But one thing that is for certain, which comforts me to no end, is that Nana and Grandad will forever remain in the earth on the riverbank, and for this reason alone we are forever bound to the Avon Loop, whatever may come of it in the future. It is sure that machinery will eventually dig up their resting places in order to restore the fragile, collapsed riverbank, or turn it all into a park. However, we will always return to be with our parents and grandparents, with Elsie and Jack Locke, no matter what the uncertain future holds for the river, its banks and the land the houses once stood on in the Loop. They are in the earth and a part of me, therefore I am in the earth and it is me.