Mourning for ‘Authenticity’

image by Helen Harris

How do we read the city? With nostalgia; an endless active eye for history, inclined towards rendering past-on-present in romantic, indiscriminate comparisons; both detesting and craving change, all the more for the reiterative layers these produce. Noses out of online definitions and ideals, move onto the street. 

The M4 starts in town, next to the castle, and ends all the way past Wynberg, past Kalk bay, right at the turn off to Cape Point where it morphs into the M65. Main Road/Victoria Road/Queens road, is an incredible stretch linking city to beach, Salt River to St James. It is hugged by the Cape Town- Simons Town train line, as well as being a rather well-trodden minibus taxi route. It is also the road I live on. The early morning cries of ‘Kaayp Tyown’ and ‘Wyyynburg’, move at speed past my window like a siren, starting quiet, reaching full pitch and then fading into the distance. I admit, I’m a fan.

Imagine that you get up one morning and decide to walk to town. You’re in Rosebank. It’s not that far. It really isn’t. You walk down the stairs, out of the building and turn right. Pretty soon you’re out of University territory and you’re past Mowbray and into Obz. The Mountain’s on your left and once you’ve passed Salt River you can see those giant giraffe cranes at the harbour on your right. Some of the men might be a little over friendly (did I mention that today you’re a woman?), and some of the more persistent street-dwellers will follow you for a block or two asking for change. Basically, it’s a normal day. Eventually you pass through Woodstock and you’ve arrived. Town awaits.

Walking gives you time to notice the transition that happens around you.

There are some areas on route where you pick up the pace, but it’s a weekday, the suns out and there are lots of people about. If it’s the afternoon, you’ll be walking through small crowds of factory workers and shop assistants waiting at bus stops, an honest day’s labor under their belts. The Rex Truform building still stands proudly, if a little shabbily, on your right. A couple of Rasta’s sit at intervals on the pavement selling a variety of bulbs and herbs, often alongside a man selling fresh veg. Upon enquiry you’ll discover the bounty comes from Epping market. A Congolese woman runs a second-hand clothing shop while a Nigerian woman sells yams and other imported foods from several of the African countries to our North.

Mowbray is second-hand central, a bit further on, it transitions into shoe shops, then fish shops and butcheries, now into furniture and suddenly intercepted by galleries and smart cafés, ending in an array of fabric stores. A hugely simplified description, but it serves to illustrate the long skinny conglomeration of an urban street. The transition between the zones is rather gentle, a couple of shops stand empty, broken windows, dusty floors, but not for long. The road is constantly rejuvenating, small businesses and shops move in and out.

Something changes though, in Woodstock; something breaks in the fabric of the street, the mood shifts; no more Rasta’s, slightly fewer friendly men. It isn’t second-hand anymore; it’s carefully aged for effect, either antique or pseudo-antique. A couple of rather wonderful galleries play it up, their pristine white walls and large glass doors lead into a cool interior, careful lighting, no distractions. The cafés are slightly higher energy, a bit of a buzz, freshly squeezed juices, homemade everything; in stark contrast to the dead fish and stomach on display about 3km earlier. The truth is that now we are in the land of the creatives. The ‘look’ is now the result of careful planning, a matter of taste more than anything else. In short something like this has happened;

“the restoration of run-down urban areas by the middle class (resulting in the displacement of low-income residents).”

It’s called gentrification. It’s ever so tasteful and debatable and it happens everywhere. The Old Biscuit Mill is an example, lower-main road Obz and the Bo-Kaap are often cited too. Basically it’s anywhere where grunge-chic has taken over from everyday grunge. What happens in London, Berlin and New York, only vaguely mirror what happens in Cape Town; it is intrinsically city specific. Yet comparisons are worth drawing and made all the more salient in the historical context of forced removals which – when they aren’t really happening in informal settlements, think Blikkiesdorp – seem to have been been replaced with the slow push of ‘up-scaling’.  The jargon also correlates; ‘cleaning up’, ‘up-cycling’, ‘rejuvenating’, ‘regenerating’, gently sweeping away the riff raff.

A number of solutions have been put forward such as social housing projects and rent-control, nothing seems quite ideal and the desire/need for economic growth is so strong that measures are only implemented in so far as they don’t disable the process itself. So much has been written on the topic already it seems painful to thrash it out again. However there is something here worth teasing out. The walk I described above smacks of it, in the background of all these discussions is a mourning for ‘authenticity’, the ‘real community’ the ‘indigenous peoples’.

As one of the creative class, a part of me rebels and wants a ‘real’ fringe, a ragged verge, not the tasseled edge of an expensive couch. Another part, a stronger part admonishes this exoticising statement. The creatives preserve and mimic what came before; the chipped-paint frame shop not only imitates age, a sense of timeless belonging, but also poverty. While pushing out old inhabitants we lament their loss and mimic their style.

I remember reading around the time of the World Cup about the gentrification of football, a sport of the working class that has slowly been re-molded and re-branded to suite the pallets of the wealthy. The grime and dust of the backyard soccer pitch brought high, ‘up-scaled’ to the wide screen in your snazzy living room. Another example might be music; rap and hip hop. One of the musicians playing at the Armchair in Obz about a month ago said “rap is the people’s music, that’s why I rap, it’s the language of the working class”, along with the other students, having paid my R25 entrance, I smiled benignly up at him.

I haven’t described the big property investors or the master-minds behind the push- whether the process is self-conciouse or organic we still get appropriation, assimilation, the age old cleansing process. The grunge of the street, the sports field and the musician all get commodified and sterilized re-produced and sold to the highest bidder. It’s not so much a creative hub as the production of consumable culture.

But hey, if that’s what you fancy.

What Do You Think?

Written by Helen Harris for a now-defunct section of Platform called ‘Reality’.


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