By Paul Scraton:
The question of how we tell the stories of a place becomes all the more urgent when the physical reminders of a city, a town or a village have been destroyed. With the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010/2011, the High Street precinct of Christchurch, New Zealand was irrevocably destroyed. Many of the historic buildings of the neighbourhood were reduced to rubble, and the streetscapes altered forever.
With a background in oral history and documentary film and radio, Zoe Roland in her role as public programmes developer at Heritage New Zealand instigated a project designed to capture the stories of the High Street, “from early days as a bustling commercial centre through its decline in the 1970s and ‘80s, and later regeneration.” With both a website and an augmented reality app for android, High Street Stories brings together 90 histories, anecdotes and other stories from the architectural heritage of the neighbourhood to sordid memories of the red light district.
In her essay ‘There’s nothing to See Here’: Rebuilding Memories of Place through Personal Narratives Zoe Roland reflects on how, after the earthquake “the city’s communities were left disconnected and disaffected, and their mental well-being compromised.” But through projects such as High Street Stories, the use of personal narratives - their collection and presentation - “is a powerful tool to creative collective agency, sense of place and to ameliorate historical amnesia.”
Exploring and listening to the stories of Christchurch, I am reminded of other projects in other, very different places, that also attempt to use this “powerful tool.” In Cape Town in 2010 I explored the District Six Museum, located in what was once a mixed community of “freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants,” that was declared a white area in 1966 by the Apartheid government. Over 60,000 people were forced to leave and their houses destroyed by bulldozers.
In 1994 the District Six Museum was established to bring together memories of the once-vibrant, now-destroyed neighbourhood, not only to preserve the stories of those who once lived there, but also to tell the story of the forced removals in South Africa in general and their impact on communities and the wider society. Exploring the District Six Museum was a moving experience, and as with High Street Stories, it suggested to me the power of individual testimony and personal anecdote in our understanding of the past.
Here in Berlin, in my previous job at the Circus Hotel, I was involved in a series of Eyewitness History Talks (which are still ongoing) organised through the Zeitzeugenbörse; the Centre for Witness to Contemporary History. In those talks we heard all kinds of different people tell us their stories of Berlin, whether it was growing up in the city during the Nazi era, student days in the GDR, or living with the Wall at the end of the street in West Berlin. Some of the stories were dramatic but it was the observations and memories of the everyday that were often the most powerful, as they all help us build a picture in our minds and offer a backdrop and a context when we are trying to understand the past.
Back on the High Street in Christchurch I continue to listen to the stories and flick through the images that stand now, on my screen, as a reminder of what was lost. I learn about a murderous assault in the 1870s at Barretts Hotel and what it was like to be a kid in the city in the 1960s; I hear about butcher’s shops and departments stores, and learn what as china jerry is and how it explodes into a thousand pieces when fired at with an air gun.
I have never been to New Zealand, and even if I was to visit tomorrow, the High Street of these stories is no longer there as it was. But it exists in memory, both individual and collective, and through projects like High Street Stories it is there for others to discover.
High Street Stories website and augmented reality app
District Six Museum, Cape Town
Zeitzeugenbörse Berlin (For the next history talk at the Circus, check out the events page on their blog)