Dear Rest of New Zealand, our caring family, friends, school mates, colleagues, and lost loves. Those of you who experience Christchurch through the newspapers and the TVs.
It is now two years since the strangeness descended on Christchurch. The first shake that set of the rolling maul of mixed emotions that continues now: senses of luck, despair, abandonment, love, hope, hopelessness, excitement, of people lost and communities gained.
Remember in hours and days after the February earthquake, staring at the television, with tears streaming down your eyes feeling powerless in the face of such violence and randomness.
Remember in the days and weeks after February trying to keep in touch with friends, loved ones, and old acquaintances. Not really knowing how to help, but offering none the less.
Remember in the weeks and months, when your focus returned to your own lives, to your own financial crisis, and your own family tragedies. The events became something remembered in anniversaries and progressed measured through small items on the news.
The rubble maybe slowly disappearing into deep holes, but believe us when we say the city is still on fire. There are thousands of individual battles occurring across the city, it’s a massive slow moving urban bush fire that’s been raging now for 2 years. It’s hard to see the form of the future when you are fighting for your own house, securing your own city.
Whule your tears may have dried, people here are still crying, and these tears aren’t enough to put out the fires raging in our lives. People are tired, tired from two years of stress and fighting fires. Grey is the new colour of Christchurch, and it isn’t the sky and empty building sites. Those photos you see of elderly people getting angry at insurance companies haven’t even had their mid-life crisis yet.
The urban surgeons and political gamblers can see a new city. It’s not even an act of imagination for them, it’s so real it’s almost tangible. They have such confidence in the strength of it’s vision, it’s power, its uniqueness. IT’S INNOVATIVE. It’s best practice. It’ll be cutting edge. It’s going to be an ICONIC CITY MOVING FORWARD. It’s so new and exciting it can’t really be explained in language we understand. We say “great, but who is paying for it?” They say “Oh, you are of course, but we can’t tell you how much it will cost.”
It’s the paternal nature of the political approach that is so unsettling, experts telling us how we want to live in our own city. We have become so marginalized in our own city that the idea that we might have something constructive to add is considered radical. Everything is backwards, upside down. We fear that by the time we work it all out we will be living in someone else’s city.
It’s like ignoring the quiet terror of domestic violence. The victim is too tired to complain, too exhausted to think that there might be another type of relationship. The violence is not so much to the body as to the imagination. The abuser is drunk on power, forcing her to sell of her grandmother’s jewellery to pay for his grandiose visions. “But you said you like nice things” he whispers at night.
Or perhaps its the patient and the expert doctor about to undertake another round of emergency operations, they’ve almost lost her so many times, and now her family has to keep working so aren’t there to support her. She was sick before the accident, so the doctors have decided to try some new techniques. Trust us the doctor says we are the experts, we are doing everything to get you back to health. She feels tired, exhausted. The endless pain killers and aesthetic are effecting her memory, she sometimes forgets what life was like before the accident. Sometimes she gets confused and angry, “What are you doing to my body?” The doctors don’t like seeing their patients get up set, so they’ve largely stopped explaining the complex operations they are doing to her, instead politely returning questions with questions “You want to walk again don’t you?”
What’s this all about you say? Stop talking in metaphors! It’s hard because we are still in the fog of war, buildings demolished, news announcements made, plans launched. It’s all a confusing blur. But there are a few simple and startling truths to start with.
We don’t actually know who is governing us. Think about what that means. The Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction act means we don’t know who has authority over the big decisions in our lives. The Christchurch City Council seems bewildered by situation, CERA tries to be friendly but is secretive to its core.
The government is in the process of the biggest government buy out of private land in our small nations history. They claim it is voluntary but it is founded on the thuggish threat that if you don’t sell the government will cut off your power and water, and you won’t be able to insure your house.
The recent government blue print was created with no input from citizens of the city. Doctors aren’t allowed to do this our bodies, teachers aren’t allowed to do this to our children, so why is this process (which despite their claims goes against contemporary international best practice) allowed in our city?
The government, with our tacit permission, is failing those that we owe most to, our elderly. It is humiliating and shameful that our elders, our kuia and kaumatua are been left alone to deal with the violent bureaucracy of EQC, insurance companies, and CERA. If society is measured by how it treats its young and elderly, then we are failing. It is well known the elderly are strong and resolute in crisis, they understand what it means to put others ahead of themselves, to sacrifice. But it is also well known that this sacrifice is often too much for an aged body to bear, and it is often the case that many die quickly after the initial strength and resilience. Plans for the future are nice to things to have, but we shouldn’t forget the reality around us, even if it is hidden behind closed doors.
But this isn’t just about us. If other ways aren’t articulated, aren’t argued for clear and loud, then this process becomes normal, inevitable. Then politics has won over people, and your city will be next. Even now the extraordinary legislation being used in Christchurch that enables cabinet to make executive decisions without the normal checks and balances such as the Resource Management Act has been used as a precedent in the War Memorial Project in Wellington. Watchout New Zealand, the NZ cabinet urban design team is coming to a city near you!
The stresses of our lives, the focus on holding our own ground in difficult times is making us forget our collective powers. We only have what we have because at various points in the past others have stood up for our rights, our rights as citizens, as parents, as children, as Maori, as women, as disabled, and even just our right to be human.
Right now there are many groups in New Zealand really fundamentally struggling to live a just life: the young and poor, the forgotten elderly, and many many burnout and tired people in Christchurch.
Come for a visit, have a walk around and think about what your home town would look like if this happened to you, and think about how others would be able to help you. German Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote a famous poem in the late 30s.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Dear New Zealand,
This is on you too.
The Freerange Team in Christchurch.