Observing inner city from the inside out
Critic’s informed take on Cape Town is sharp
STANLEY Hermans is arguably one of the best people to tell us about life in Cape Town’s inner-city – because he doesn’t live here anymore.
The Cape-born artist and critic lives in Joburg’s inner city these days, the setting of the body of drawings and paintings he is preparing for a major exhibition in April in Cape Town, at the Irma Stern Museum in Rosebank.
His Joburg association is also likely to be reinforced with his signing up for a creative writing course at Wits and plans for exhibiting his work in Gauteng.
Yet his attachment to the Western Cape remains strong and his gaze southwards perceptive. Distance doesn’t always lend enchantment to the view but, if not for the short-sighted, it can grant clarity or at least the scope for a more reflective consideration.
And this is pointedly true of Hermans’s long-distance view, coloured as it is by an extended stay in central Cape Town after his partner bought into a bare and blighted Loop Street building more than a decade ago, at a time when living in the city might have been considered, if not a downright risk, possibly a piquant lunacy.
Their apartment, which occupies a floor of the building, became – and remains – a treasured Cape Town home.
The pair live and work in Joburg, but have kept their local base, “which we have come to love and value, almost more so when we’re not there, because it is so very nice to look forward to being there”.
Hermans was born and brought up in Cape Town and describes himself as having been “a city kid for all of my life”.
“I’ve grown up alongside the city in Woodstock, gone to school and art school in the city and have always lived, worked and played in the city,” he said this week.
City life was “dynamic, open- minded and culturally diverse, a much richer and more challenging experience than life in the suburbs”.
The introduction to central city living, “well before it became fashionable”, was not, on the face of it, wholly auspicious. Their Loop Street hometo- be was a “shockingly decrepit” space.
They were alerted to the opportunity by a lawyer friend, who had also bought a floor.
“There was one more floor going, which had been a nightclub and a sweat-shop and was in a sad, sad state.”
But, for the entire floor of a building “in the middle of a city, any city”, the price was unarguably “very good”.
It was bought on the strength of photographs, but not so much as even a fleeting site visit.
Hermans recalled: “It was this huge space filled with rotting partitioning, a ratty blue nylon- block floor and with cracked windows. It was a sorry sight.”
If there was a measure of buyer’s remorse, it didn’t last long.
“The brilliant Johannesburg architect Hugh Fraser then went in with an aesthetic sledgehammer and gutted the entire floor artfully. In the process, he uncovered largeblock parquet flooring under the nylon carpet squares, which made a dramatic difference to the space, once restored.
“Fraser created a very chic and flexible open urban space for living, entertaining and working that was well before its time; his most effective transformation took you directly off the grimy street, into the rickety lift of our most vividly unremarkable building and then, underwhelmed and unimpressed, you came into a serene, almost post- modern space.”
“It is a surprising and delightful result and we lived there for about six years before coming to Joburg.
“It was the loveliest time, during which the space became a home to us and to our friends and family. It is also an ideal studio and salon.”
When they first moved in, the CBD “was on a serious downswing with many of the larger more historic buildings being in transition and without tenants”.
“It was and thankfully still is, a ‘bad’ part of town.”
A significant change occurred in the run-up to the World Cup in 2010 and after, when “it seemed that many more people were living in the city and it gave us great joy to see the CBD come alive again, a dynamic that continues”. One of the consequences was that “there is now a chronic shortage of good residential stock in the city”.
Almost certainly in contrast to conventional suburban dynamics, “over the time we’ve been there the city has become a fascinatingly cross generational/ cross cultural space. Increasingly, when we’re in Cape Town, I meet the most interesting people who also live in the ‘hood’… there’s something very right about an urban space where neighbours become excellent friends”.
Among the virtues of city life was being able to “get to wherever you need to be on foot, by bicycle or various forms of public transport”. Essential services – “good medical and grooming facilities” and other necessities were all within walking distance, along with “very interesting and original designers of clothes, furniture and so on”, speciality shops for food and wine and favourite restaurants.
Yet Hermans is not an uncritical observer. “When you’re away from Cape Town,” he noted, “it is easier to see the place for what it is rather than how it would like to be seen and this can be sobering.”
On one hand, he felt the inner city “has a long way to go to get the balance right between those of us who live and work there and those who come in to the city to party and trash the place”.
There needed to be a more decisive intervention “to actively and diligently protect the residential rights and privacy of people who live in the city” and better management of the “nightclub/bar/prostitution/drug dealing activity – which are all necessary aspects of inner city existence, but which have to be managed”.
“This isn’t difficult,” he added. “Other cities have done it very successfully, but it does require will, imagination and momentum.”
But there was a bigger picture, too, that could not be overlooked. “Frankly, Cape Town sinks or swims by its capacity to live and take itself beyond the oppressive colonial and apartheid constructions that, to this day, define who people are, or think they should be, with way too little independent thinking, self-criticism and re-invention.
“It is Cape Town’s profound bigotry, narcissism and hubris – imperfections in the character of any city – that I don’t miss at all.”
That said, while he found it “too much of a closed society”, Hermans was confident “the passage of time, experience and economic necessity will change that for the better”.
HIGH PRAISE: Stanley Hermans at his apartment in Braamfontein.
LIMIT: Cape Town sinks or swims by its capacity to take itself beyond oppressive colonial and apartheid constructions that define who people think they should be, with way too little independent thinking, self-criticism and re-invention, says Hermans.