Christchurch’s main thoroughfare, Colombo Street, begins in the south at the foot of Cashmere Hill. Except for the small overhead bridge spanning the rail line at Sydenham, it runs flat as a steel rule until it reachs St Albans in the north. There it comes to an abrupt halt as it intersects with the Edgeware Road.
Flying overhead, or perhaps gazing down upon it from some vantage point on the Port Hills, you become aware of how many different parts of the city its north south axis dissects. Indeed, were you to travel its six kilometer length, you would find yourself passing through numerous shopping centers, a small industrial area, the central city and a quantity of diverse suburbs.
The photographer, Uiga Bashford has recorded the urban and suburban landmarks along with the people who live and work on this arterial road. Their lives, like the street, intersect.
I had seen Uiga¯ Bashford’s work before. Perhaps that was the problem. She had put together a small, autobiographical book of photos and her accompanying text was so moving, so simple and apt, that when, in my writerly way, I set about constructing a small essay to go with these photos my words seemed bloated and irrelevant.
The more I wrote the more I seemed to be missing the point, though I wasn’t sure why.
I was aiming for informative. A broad historical overview seemed obligatory. ‘Christchurch,’ I composed, ‘still wears it’s English/Anglican heritage like a codpiece. An outmoded and somewhat offensive affectation, but one that’s hard to ignore.’ Even the few exotic street names— Barbadoes, Madras, Colombo— were, as I pointed out, in recognition, not of those steamy cities but of places where the Church of England’s missionary arm had established what are still, quaintly, referred to as ‘Bishoprics’.
I considered the individual nature of streets and what, if anything, defined them. (Shops, businesses, homes, location—obvious really). Then I focused in on Colombo Street. ‘The city’s main artery,’ said a city council media release ‘essential to the health and vitality of the heart...’
Poor Colombo Street, arteries are not the image a city wants to present. Arteries do not make it into tourist brochures or calendars. They are troublesome, they congest and give councillors headaches which they seek to relieve with no right turns, restricted entry and rearranged bus routes.
(It used to be bicycles. In the first half of last century Colombo Street was known for its congestion of cyclists. A moderate sort of congestion of course—you could fit a lot of bicycles in the space taken up by a 4WD city wagon.)
Traffic control wasn’t what I’d envisaged writing about but when I asked people their impressions of Colombo Street that was the most frequent response. A street to avoid when driving. Others said Ballantynes. No one mentioned Smiths City, though both have been there forever—enduring monuments to Christchurch retailing.
Of course to live in a street, or have lived there, makes it yours, no matter what other qualities that street may possess. We even lay claim, in a second-hand way, to streets where our friends live, or have lived. One of my sisters-in-law lived in Colombo Street, in an apartment as spare and stylish as she is. That part of the street is still hers.
One single house can claim a street. When my daughter left home her single ambition, she said, was to live in a house that was identified only by the name of the street. ‘There’s a party at such-and-such street,’ you would say, and everyone would know which house and who lived there.
I can remember those kind of houses.
There could be such a house in Colombo Street, though I felt sure Uiga didn’t live in it. At this point I knew I was struggling. I wanted to know, why Colombo Street? Why, out of all the possible streets in this city, had Uiga chosen that one? I felt I should have been able to figure it out, but I still had no idea.
Facts; Colombo Street runs from north to south, the shaft of the cross which forms the centre of this geometric city. In 1965, in one of the innumerable rearrangements of The Square, it was sliced in two.
It’s a long walk from the foot of the Port Hills where the street begins to St Albans where it ends, and I cheated here and there. And I got sidetracked by people I knew and shops I didn’t know. I took notes on the homes, the churches, the shops, planning to use them here. I talked to some shopkeepers. By the time I reached Mitre 10 on Edgeware Road I finally thought I understood Colombo Street. I even felt an affection for it. Uiga¯’s choice made sense to me.
Colombo Street, I’d discovered was chameleon, its nature dependant on location. It was in no way the presented face of Christchurch, but neither was it the underbelly. It was more ordinary, more real, than either of those; a sociological sampler of the city, without extremes.
So now, thinking I knew the answer, I could ask, ‘Why Colombo Street?’ Uiga¯ said, no reason really. Just there were some places in it she knew, others she didn’t.
That’s the trouble with words, they tie you up and tow you along garden paths. The real story is in the pictures. These people—the ones you see, and the few that you don’t see, but you learn about because this is their window display, their living room—they are the people you notice for a second or two as you walk down the street. But here they are forever. ‘Frozen’ is the word that’s used, but not here—there is too much warmth and life for ‘frozen’.
Go back for another look, and this time these people feel as familiar as friends. We know things about them. There’s that tug at the heart that tells us we care. That’s the photographer’s skill; to be both observant and loving.
So people was the part I’d been overlooking. It was utterly obvious but I’d failed to see it. Our streets are like our homes. It isn’t planning, or ambiance, or shops or architecture or location; these may all contribute, but it’s people that make a street, be it Colombo or Coronation.
And in fact when my notebook and I travelled Colombo Street the thing me most was happening to meet Margaret who I hadn’t seen for months. We had coffee at Sophies in Beckenham where a whole wall is devoted to photos of presumably famous people who had visited that cafe, but we hadn’t heard of many of them.
And later, there was Betty crossing the South City car park on her way to The Warehouse...
I felt a bit guilty spending time with them. It didn’t occur to me that they were both a part of what I was there for.
One last thing about Colombo Street—just this year I learned that my mother lived there for the first few years of her life. I never knew my mother or my grandparents, except from photos. They lived at number 334. This was almost 100 years ago, but I went off to search in case the house was still standing. It wasn’t. There’s a McDonald’s there. Still that stretch of Colombo is now my mother’s.