One of the outcomes of the city earthquake damage has been the loss of central meeting places – C1, the Globe, Le Café, Dux de Lux, The Coffee House, Alchemy, Café Roma… (I’m thinking tea/coffee here as opposed to alcohol). My other destination of choice to meet with friends – Lyttelton – has lost all but one of its many cosy, cheerful, character-filled cafes. An interesting consequence of these losses has been the necessary search for other spaces in which to gather, enjoy good coffee and share stories. There has been a move to the periphery. So yesterday my friend Anna (who has relocated from her damaged home in Heathcote to Leeston) and I met halfway at the Tai Tapu store. Other recent gathering places with other friends have included the Little River Café & Gallery, The Blue Duck at Motukarara and the general Store at Diamond Harbour (the always-popular Cup on Cashmere remains). So other little businesses benefit, in the interim, as our places and spaces shift to accommodate a changed and changing world.
Even for those of us less materially affected by the quakes, the sense of dislocation is significant. Never in my life did I think I would mourn the passing of a supermarket, but, as I negotiate the still unfamiliar Colombo St Countdown, I long for my St Martins New World where I knew the location of all items, recognised customers and checkout staff and felt ‘at home’. I go to the Riccarton Mall of necessity but do not feel I belong. It is not my part of the world. Despite having worked for many years in the (comparatively unscathed) north-west, my allegiances have always lain in the south-east of the city: Opawa, where I was born; Beckenham, where I lived for many years; adjacent St Martins, en route to the Rapaki track; Sydenham where I shopped and enjoyed the gritty history; Heathcote and Horatane Valleys – Sunday drive destinations from long ago and weekly must-goes for summer fruit; Sumner for the sea; Lyttelton through the tunnel to another world. The common threads are proximity to the Port Hills and the Heathcote River – the defining, much loved geographic features of my life.
Last week the Opawa shops were demolished. No great architectural loss; certainly not a significant commercial loss. But these brick shops defined my childhood. A five-minute (less?) walk around the river or up and over the railway tracks to a group of little shops that served a community. From where, pre-supermarket and (for us) pre-car, my mum purchased all her groceries. From where I collected my much anticipated, weekly Princess magazine. From where the ‘lucky’ children at Opawa school, in the 1960s, could buy fish and chips for lunch.
The earthquakes have ‘surfaced’ our often taken-for-granted allegiance to place. Suburbs that some Christchurch residents may never have heard of are part of the collective conversation, precisely because they are about to be erased entirely from the map. The more community-oriented ‘village’ seems to be replacing ‘suburb’ in the discourse of rebuild. If, out of all this, we who remain in Christchurch end up with an enhanced sense of commitment to our communities – to the parts that constitute the whole – then something of great value will emerge from the rubble and silt.