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An Ode to Christchurch of the 1990s

A love letter to Christchurch of the 90s

Christchurch in the mid to late nineties had a heartbeat. It was a living, breathing creature, and it is no exaggeration to say that it had a very serious hand in raising me. As a school girl, early on we had a volatile relationship, my city and me. I was a country girl, stuck in a public school boarding school against my wishes, and I longed for home. I didn’t cry floods of tears about it (not my style), but I ached endlessly for the wide open spaces and the ocean of my not so distant childhood. Alas though, we have a choice in life: we either ruin ourselves by wishing for what is lost, or we straighten our spines, raise our chins and make the best of it. Which I (eventually) made the very conscious decision to do. And so, began a bit of a love story. Because Christchurch won me over. It won me over with its art galleries, its Cathedral, its Arts center. It won me over with its parks, its people and its cafes. When I finished high school, I went onto to study and work in the central pulsing heartbeat of the CBD. They say that you never truly become part of a city until you are happy to wander its streets alone, and although I had plenty of friends, I was more than happy exploring the cities hidden gems on my own steam. Smiths Bookstore with its winding, ricarty staircases and seemingly haphazardly arranged books. The owner always wore an elegant overcoat and had an impressive mustache and knew where every single book was catalogued, despite the apparent disarray. The book store teetered on the ballasts of long forgotten ships (so the owner told me when I saw him at a market in Wellington many years later, where he was selling vintage maps). There was Victoria Square, where the glue sniffers would ask me for money as I walked through, and I would reply honestly that I had none, and they left me alone. Robert McDougall Art Gallery where I could spend hours. Java café on High Street was our favorite for coffee, with its relaxed, funky vibe.

I would purchase vinyl from Echo records on High Street and play it on the ancient portable record player I had purchased for five dollars from an op shop around the corner.

The most cost effective and tasty lunch was from the Hare Krishna’s on Colombo Street, where five dollars would give you a meal big enough to keep you full all day. If that wasn’t your jam, there were stuffed baked potatoes from a food cart in Cashel Street, popular before carbs became as evil as Satan himself. I absorbed the cities energy by osmosis. In short, I fell in love with it.

I worked in a once high-end salon upstairs, above Hannah’s shoe store. The salon had the air of a once grand ocean liner that had seen better days. It was huge, sagging and a little unkempt, but with signs of aristocracy if you looked hard enough. If you were any hairstylist worth your salt in this city, you would have started out here. The stylists then were an eclectic bunch, but friendly and inclusive. It was the slightly post -grunge era, which left a faint whiff of Doc Martins and petticoats worn as skirts in its wake, mixed with a hint of Rachel-from Friends-vibe. Everyone dressed accordingly. There was no Kmart, and no Warehouse either, so all our flats were decorated with wares bought from Deka further up the street. (There was also Arthur Barnett’s department store and of course Ballantynes, they were both way over our budget. Excellent for free perfume samples though). Squatters often took over the empty rooms above the salon, and we would chase them out, armed with brooms, hairdryers and a naïve belief in our own strength. Fridays were late nights, everything was open until eight, and with it came weed smoked on fire escapes, cigarettes smoked in salon by everyone and the odd hooker as a client. For a very green country girl, it was a serious education. Everyone knew everyone: the center of town was a vibrant, humming community. Sometimes we would go out on the town after, me under age (the legal drinking age was twenty) and my manager vouching for me at every bar on the once iconic strip.

Oh, the nightlife. By then I had acquired a slightly older country boyfriend, but once he went by the wayside, Christchurch at night and I, with my group of girlfriends, became very well acquainted indeed. There was the Bog (the original) where my hand bag got stolen one night, recovered by another group of girls I didn’t even know (solidarity even back then), Trader McKendrys, The Palladium (affectionally known as the Getladeium), Sneakers and The Loaded Hog. There was Baileys 818 and Roman Scandals. When hanging out with my country friends we would haunt The Carlton (the original) and Lochinvar’s. If you were a Lincoln student, these were mandatory. Boozy snacks at the 24hour McDonalds on Cashel at 3am. No night was ever a success unless you went to bed when the sun was rising.

But of course everything changes, as it always does. We always think that everything lasts forever, and that time can be squandered like a finite thing we have an endless supply of. The earthquakes happened, and Christchurch as we knew it, was gone. But I see her, tenacious as always, growing up like wildflowers in cracks in the pavement. She is still here. She is pushing her way back. She is in Little High. She is in The Tannery. She is coming alive in the Arts Centre. She is in gap filler projects. She never left, not really. Because she is you; she is me, she is all of us. She is our city. She lives on.

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