Monday 12 January 2015

What happens when sense of place is traumatized?

In my recent reflection on the value of developing competence translating practices between places as a way to explore the meaning of everyday life, I was focusing on minor challenges and assuming relatively supportive environments. Food needs to be found and prepared; clothing and linens need laundering; basic requirements of well being need to be met under different circumstances and using diverse tools. Between then and now, however, I have spent my time navigating the wrecked parts of the city of Christchurch—a place that has been shaken by recurring earthquakes, and whose urban fabric is now under an extended regime of flux and uncertainty.

Although the disaster has obviously been traumatic (and continues to be for the many people still homeless for now nearing four years), in contrast to many places made vulnerable to crisis events through uneven development, Christchurch has ample resources to rebuild--in fact, some argue that the thoroughness with which The Rebuild is proceeding is exacerbating the trauma of place. This study trip to a highly storied landscape has made me more actively aware of the way that we experience places by telling ourselves "now this is here," and "now I will see (or smell, or feel, or experience) that..." 

This way we are conscious of places through our narration of our experience of them to ourselves is highlighted starkly when everything changes. The obvious version of this is seen above when the view from Latimer Square does not have any of the familiar buildings, but rather piles of rubble. A slightly more subtle warp in the sense of how the place is put together might be illustrated by the way that tall building down Gloucester Street is now visible with nothing intervening. 

Two new experiences, however, moved beyond what I was expecting. I knew how many buildings had been damaged, and even though I was surprised by the extent of the demolition still underway, I understood that the central city and a large percentage of housing along the worst vectors of the earthquakes' effects were being removed or rebuilt to new specifications. I may have been shaken by the loss of beloved places (the Piko grocery co-op) or the unexpected collateral gentrification (the loss of the house where I lived)--things that demanded closure or revision of my narrative of the place. But the view of curtains blowing out of broken windows of an office building in the downtown--four years after the closure of the building, fluttering like iconic footage of Cabrini Green--seemed to simultaneously invoke the need for the story of this place (what was it? why is it still standing, but with broken windows, but with curtains??) while it also shut down my ability to make sense of the urban fabric around it. Stunned would be an exaggeration. But struck enough that I have no good photographs of it, and although it has that quality of feeling burned into memory, I cannot find it on my systematic striding around google streetview now. It was somewhere around here:
 But this kind of disorientation seems almost romantic as I navigate the pastiche palimpsest that is the google record of the place. With thanks to google maps for these images, I recommend spending some time navigating around Christchurch, noticing what kind of story you try to make for yourself to make sense of what you are seeing there. So much of the base imagery is from before everything fell apart, so trying to find a ruin, one is suddenly placed back into the familiar comfort of knowing where one is--placed. But a step around a corner, and we're in gritty rebuild.  

Or, even more strangely, we take a step forward toward that skeleton of a building, and it has become fully realized, as below. I was mesmerized, but also horrified when this happened. Had I stepped into one of the elusive Google Map "easter eggs"? I was certain it was an architectural rendering. But then, "stepping back" to try to see if I could get out of this strange fantasy of a new place (keeping in mind that my experience of it has been much more the wreckers above), I had to turn around to New Regents Street, a cheerfully unaffected seeming retail strip so surreal it sets some new bar for what might be normal in this place (below).
Seriously not knowing what to make of this, wandering around the electronic version as I have walked and driven around the place all week, I am driven back to Doreen Massey's classic work on the need to remain progressive in our senses of place. If we understand places as processes, rather than remain conservatively and defensively attached to their concrete manifestations, we are much more likely to create equitable and inclusive senses of place, she argues convincingly. 

As I consider what it must take to hold together a sense of place between the stressful pressures of an unstable ground and the embodiment of the financialized vision of what functions cities perform (insurance companies, banks, tax potential, and property investment are the messages billboarded loudly around the city right now), I find myself grasping for the stories that people are telling themselves and each other about what has happened and how to make sense of this place. This palpable sense of how many ways one can be lost in space reminds emphatically how social space is, and how much muttering to myself "turn right here" relies on so many more relationships embedded in the space.

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