Ob­serv­ing in­ner city from the in­side out

Critic’s in­formed take on Cape Town is sharp

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

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”.

PIC­TURE: MATTHEWS BALOYI

HIGH PRAISE: Stan­ley Her­mans at his apart­ment in Braam­fontein.

PIC­TURE: LEON LESTRADE

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.

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