Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The trick of standing upright here

Elmwood Park, looking toward Heaton Street, on an afternoon in June.

On 13 June, when the second earthquake came, we were at the park. An hour or so earlier we'd been at home, and after the usual rush for the comparative safety of the doorway, we had sat on the couch and waited for some minutes, in that period of unnatural quiet that always falls after a large earthquake, when time seems to slow and your senses are preternaturally attuned to the smallest signal from the natural world. You sit and you wait for what happens next and you hope that when it comes you will be equal to it. My daughter's arms were tight round my neck. Her breath was warm and regular on my cheek. The lights stopped swinging and the power was still on and everything was quiet and nothing else happened. After a while I found my phone and sent the usual texts to family members. I heard the neighbours' cars reversing down their driveways. I picked up some things that had fallen from the shelves in the dining room, and found my shoes, and my daughter's shoes and her coat, and lifted her into her buggy, and tucked a blanket around her legs. We set off for school on foot, turning into the park along the avenue of old chestnut trees behind the cricket club.

Elmwood Park on a winter morning

Because I grew up down the road, I've spent a lot of time at Elmwood Park over the years, as do most local children, including, now, my own. A stony path around the perimeter of the park measures almost exactly one kilometre; it's a peaceful flat green field bordered by graceful avenues of 90-year-old old trees. The park's used by joggers, dog-walkers, private school kids wagging class, sun-bathers, kite-flyers, picnickers, mothers with small children, and young teenagers mooching about by the playground looking for an escape from their parents. There's a tennis club, and a croquet club, and a bowls club. The cricket club is a proving ground for many of Christchurch's representative players. My step-brother, who captained the Canterbury cricket team back when they were still amateurs, once described Elmwood Park as his second home.

Along with the neighbouring Heaton Intermediate School, Elmwood Park was part of the original Elmwood homestead of Sir Robert Heaton Rhodes (1815-1884), who made his money shipping frozen meat to Britain. The park was laid out in 1920 after the council purchased the land from Rhodes's son, though the son's gift of a final small parcel of land following World War II has meant that history largely remembers the establishment of the park as an act of benevolence from one of Canterbury's founding families. The original wooden Rhodes house off Heaton Street, built in the mid-1860s and said to be 140 feet in length, was razed by fire in 1882 and rebuilt in 1883; its grounds included a notable collection of imported specimen trees, including elms, some of which are still standing near the Papanui boundary of the old property. There was an ornamental lake with waterlilies and a rustic bridge, extensive conservatories, and a tennis lawn which was excavated to a level lower than its surroundings so that it could be flooded with water from an artesian well. The upper part of the estate was built on reclaimed swampland.* That's the land that's subject to liquefaction in a major earthquake, as the underground water is squeezed to the surface.

Elmwood in 1899. Photograph via Christchurch City LibrariesThe architect of the second version of Elmwood was Frederick Strouts (1834-1919)**, who designed many notable Christchurch buildings now destroyed or severely damaged by the Christchurch earthquakes, including an old section of the Ballantynes buildings on Lichfield Street, the Rhodes Convalescent Home in Cashmere and the three-storey Stranges Building on the corner of High and Manchester Streets. Strouts also designed the famous Otahuna homestead for Rhodes's son.

Robert Heaton Rhodes died shortly after Elmwood was completed. The grand wooden house eventually became a holiday retreat for Governors General, before being occupied by the military during the war and falling into disrepair. For some years Heaton Rhodes junior grazed a herd of red poll cattle on the lawns around the house, to keep the grass down.

In 1947 the Elmwood homestead and what was left of its grounds was purchased under the Public Works Act by the Education Board as an intermediate school for local Form 1 and 2 boys. Men had returned from the war; babies were being born; the middle-class suburb of Merivale was growing rapidly. It was a period of educational and cultural expansion, as New Zealand moved from Dominion status to independent nationhood. Only one street away in Leinster Road, Allan Curnow had written some of the great poems of New Zealand's mid-century nation-building period, including 'The Skeleton of the Great Moa at Canterbury Museum', and was moving towards a more personal version of what he later described as his 'geographical anxieties'.

Signage at Heaton Intermediate after the February earthquake.

By the time the legislation to purchase the school grounds was enacted, the front sections along Heaton Street had already been sold off by the Rhodes family: many of the grand, streamlined, boxy 1950s houses which were built there over the next few years remain today, though a particularly fine one in brick is damaged beyond repair. (It's interesting to note that the purchase of the land for the state intermediate school was achieved in the teeth of fierce opposition by the board of governors of St Andrews, the private school next door which took over the neighbouring Strowan Estate: there was still something of a Mexican standoff evident between the two schools when I was at Heaton in the early 1980s.) Rhodes's Elmwood was finally demolished in 1954 to make way for the barracks-like weatherboard brutalist buildings of Heaton Intermediate School. The only part of the Victorian homestead that still remains is the entrance to the underground cellars in front of Room 15.

Damage to buildings at Heaton Intermediate School following the February earthquake. Some buildings have stretched as the ground has spread laterally. There has also been extensive liquefaction throughout the school grounds. But happily, it's open again.

But the past has a way of returning, and Christchurch is currently locked in what seems an endless loop of feedback as the swamps rise to the surface again and the seaside cliffs remake their edges. It's the 'new normal', as the local cliche goes, and it is surprising how quickly one can get used to the strangest things. On 13 June, at the end of the park, by the beech tree with the memorial plaque in the corner, there were the few customary circles of liquefaction, like giants' footsteps in the grass, which had only recently disappeared after the February quake. Having threatened to fall for nine months, the block wall bounding the bowling club had finally succumbed to gravity and peeled away like a Mobius strip, opening a private green world to public view. I was looking at it when I met my neighbour coming the other way, wheeling her bike. "They've just sent the kids back into class," she said, smiling. "Everyone's fine. No one's hurt. They're getting to be old hands at this."

The fallen wall at the bowling club.

When I got to school the small guy's class were on the mat listening to a story. I put my head round the door, half apologetically, and his teacher sent the small guy out to see me.

"I didn't actually realise there was an earthquake, Mum," he said. "We were playing rugby out on the field. But then suddenly I saw people sitting down and crying, and I thought something must have happened. Handy you're here though, because I fancied a wee and Mr S always gets a bit cross if you're putting your hand up and going out of the room all the time getting drink bottles and weeing."

So we arranged to come back at 3 o'clock, and the small guy disappeared back into his classroom.

A council notice nailed to a tree at Elmwood Park after the February quake.

Back at the park, I strapped my daughter into the baby swing, and wondered, not for the first time, what would happen if there was a big earthquake while she was on the play equipment. It takes considerable discipline not to be consumed by such thoughts. I checked Twitter and saw that the aftershock had been centred in Sumner and measured M5.4 (this would be later revised upwards to M5.6, and be considered a foreshock of what came next).

She had just got off the slide when the big earthquake struck. There was a deep, terrible low boom, first, I think, though it's hard to remember the exact sequence in which things happened. The park tipped from side to side and I couldn't stand. I caught my daughter up in my arms, and sat down hard on the damp bark chips of the playground. The trees and the lamp standards beat back and forth furiously. I saw waves run across the big green field, as if it were liquid, as if it were an ocean, as if it were a tablecloth picked up and shaken out at a Victorian garden party. Across the stream the back wall of a house, seriously damaged in the earlier quakes, collapsed in a cloud of red brick dust. A huge pile of slates slipped off scaffolding around a partially-repaired roof and crashed to the ground. A jet of water shot skyward from the drinking fountain.

There was silence, and then the sirens started.

I sat with my daughter for a while on the bark. She didn't cry. The ground shivered from time to time, and then it went still. I stood up. I sent the usual texts to family members. I lifted my daughter into her buggy and covered her legs with her blanket. And then we walked slowly and deliberately down the long avenue of trees to the crossing. This time the pavement had fallen in; the sinkhole had opened up in the same place as in February. The same muddy stream was flowing along the road. At school, the children were outside again in their class groups. The teachers were holding clipboards, as before. I collected the small guy, and we walked home. "At least the war memorial's already fallen over," he said. And then: "Some kids were frightened because this was their first or second big earthquake, but I felt OK because this is my third." The roads were choked with slow-moving traffic and it was hard to cross Heaton Street. My boots were caked in mud. We met N in the very centre of the field in Elmwood Park, the point he'd reached in biking from town and coming to find us.

"I've come from home," he said. "It's still standing. We're OK. Everything's OK."

And it was, and we are.

The cricket pitch roller at the park, which was there in my childhood and has presumably been there since 1920. It's not used any more as the council groundsman drives a motorised one like a tiny steamroller. I hope this roller,  which thousands of kids over many generations have climbed on and skulked behind, is still there in another 90 years.

But Christchurch has always been a hauntological kind of place, a place where evidence of the futures imagined in the past but never realised in the present was reflected in the faux-Englishness of the Gothic Revival buildings and the willows along the riverbank, in the neo-brutalism of the university's architecture and the prosperous mercantile Venetian Gothic buildings of the CBD. It is a place of contradictions, in which a central enclave of high culture and old stone buildings is surrounded by acres of sprayed-polystyrene cookie-cutter subdivisions and used-car lots. It is a place in which people have always made their fortune by speculating on big parcels of land and selling small sections to people poorer than themselves; and a city ostensibly concerned with heritage in which an elite few have always made money by tearing down buildings and building new ones in their place. Since the first days of European settlement in this most civilized of New Zealand cities, Christchurch's guilty secret has been rapacious property development.

And although, after this terrible swarm of earthquakes, nothing in the city will ever be the same, nothing has changed. The people who hold the big parcels of liveable land will win, at the expense of others who do not. It would take the equivalent of an invocation of the Public Works Act to acquire suitable land in order to re-settle many of the people whose houses, or the land on which their houses stand, are now damaged beyond repair. There seems little appetite for that. Instead there is a reliance on the market to provide. This is an event out of which some people will make a great deal of money, while others lose it, along with their homes and their dreams of a future that never happened.

Heaton Street from the park, late one afternoon in June. In the background a giant digger is demolishing the last wing of Parkdale, the grand old house on the corner of Rossall and Heaton Streets designed in 1920 by an American architect named Delamore.

*In the early years of Canterbury settlement, the low-lying district now known as Marshlands (an area of which is shortly to be renamed Highfield, as a new subdivision for the people displaced from their homes in the earthquakes) was known as Rhodes Swamp, after -- as the Christchurch Star had it -- both the landowner and the boggy soil in the area.
**The great Arts and Crafts Christchurch architect Cecil Wood was articled to Frederick Strouts; modernist architect Miles Warren in turn worked in Cecil Wood's office. There is a genealogy of Christchurch architects which to the best of my knowledge hasn't yet been written; many of the buildings, of course, are now gone.

I've drawn information for this blog post from a range of sources, including the Christchurch City Libraries Heritage material, now an extraordinary resource of images of our lost past. My information about the gardens of the Elmwood homestead is taken from Thelma Strongman's authoritative history of landscape design in Canterbury, The Gardens of Canterbury, published by Reeds in 1984.