*First published on the thesewalkingblues.com
In 1984, my mother gave birth to me and brought me home to a modest little apartment in Central, an area of Port Elizabeth in South Africa. And it is here that I have spent most of my life, simply relocating from one street to another over the years. Much of the architecture speaks to the history it has as a neighbourhood that was largely built to accommodate the English settlers in the 1800s. However, having lived in this suburb for so long, I have watched as it has changed from a notably white urban space – a reality of apartheid-enforced segregation – to one that now boasts a majority of non-white South Africans and African immigrants. The neighbourhood today plays host to a large number of Zimbabweans, Somalians and Nigerians to name but a few of the African countries of origin from whence its residents have hailed. As a white resident walking the streets of Central, I am in fact something of a rarity.
With this influx of African immigrants, the area has similarly gained a reputation of some notoriety. Upon discovering that I live in Central, it is not uncommon to find myself asked if I feel ‘safe’ living here. My response is always that I suppose I would feel no more or less safe than anywhere else in South Africa. The recent trial of South African sprint runner, Oscar Pistorius, has taught me that danger can lurk in the seemingly safest of places. But because of such nervous questions, I have become increasingly interested in what constitutes a ‘good’ neighbourhood.
I cannot deny that the streets of my neighbourhood are more often littered with refuse than perhaps in the more affluent and ‘nicer’ suburbs. There are impoverished people living on the streets here. Pickings are slim and they are desperate for food, rifling through the garbage left out for collection in the hopes that they might find something of value. I am also frequently offered a little something extra on the streets after leaving a club, or even on walking to the nearest corner shop during the day. Likewise, it is not advisable to frequent the streets or draw cash from the ATMs after a certain time at night in Central. Many are struggling in this country and the disparities between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ are so vast that crime is an inevitable part of life here.
Yet, I feel that those who see this neighbourhood as suspicious are perhaps rather blinded to the thriving sense of urban vitality the area has to offer. Because many of the residents live in cramped apartment blocks, the public parks in Central are always bustling. On any given Sunday, you will find a number of soccer games being played by children and adults alike in these parks and beyond that, in the surrounding parking lots. The streets similarly teem with activity most of the day, and especially on weekends. When I sit and type away on my laptop, I have no need of a radio. My neighbourhood delights me daily with the sounds of jazz, R&B and kwaito (and thanks to my downstairs neighbour, Michael Bublé). In spite of what may be seen as drawbacks, then, to residing in such an area, it is here and no place other, that I feel I am living in a truly inspiring and integrated African community. It is here that I am able to find that point of connection to others, regardless of skin colour, regardless of the mother-tongues we speak. I cannot imagine the harshness of a gated community where the only other human being I encountered most days was the security guard ushering me in through the boom. As Marcus Samuelsson wrote in an article for the New York Times, “Is Harlem ‘Good’ Now?”, it is in integrated communities such as these that a “culture of hospitality” is fostered. A ‘culture of hospitality’ sounds like a marvellous thing for a community to rest upon. So why do these urban spaces struggle so to shake their odious reputations?
In her highly acclaimed muti* noir escapade, Zoo City, South African author, Lauren Beukes makes a case for perhaps the most infamous neighbourhood in all of southern Africa, namely Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Recreating Hillbrow as Zoo City, the only place in Johannesburg that accommodates those who have been ‘accursed’ with animal familiars, she reveals the hidden beauty of a place that has been rendered as little more than a ‘slum’ in the South African imaginary, a blight on the urbanscapes of cool modernity we otherwise aspire to in our cities. Instead, readers discover the dynamism of city-living in Hillbrow when our narrator, Zinzi December, describes the hubbub of commotion and interaction that it becomes after dark. She notes that while those who would “happily speed through Zoo City during the day won’t detour here at night, not even to avoid road blocks.” However, she thinks this misguided as this is “precisely when Zoo City is at its most sociable.” The scene that follows is one where
From 6pm, when the day-jobbers start getting back from whatever work they’ve been able to pick up, apartment doors are flung open. Kids chase each other down the corridors. People take their animals out for fresh air or a friendly sniff of each other’s bums. The smell of cooking – mostly food, but also meth – temporarily drowns out the stench of rot, the urine in the stairwells. The crack whores emerge from their dingy apartments to chat and smoke cigarettes on the fire-escape, and catcall commuters heading to the taxi rank on the street below.
Beukes, of course, does not recreate a Hillbrow as seen through rose-tinted lenses. Daily survival for some means drug-pedalling or prostitution. Also, where areas are less tightly regulated, the occurrence of transgressive acts is far more likely. She neither denies the squalor that those living in Hillbrow generally face, as in the ‘stench of rot’ and ‘urine’ that permeates the ‘stairwells’. However, because of the potentialities of the neighbourhood, the children play in places otherwise not designated for such a usage, filling the corridors with their sounds. The prostitutes, too, repurpose the public space of the fire-escapes and add to this with their own noise as they whistle and catcall at the passersby below. Rather than being locked away in their own homes, ‘apartment doors are flung open’ with abandon. By neither glamourising nor denigrating the urbanscape of Hillbrow, Beukes emphasises the inherent sense of community in/of such a space. As such, she perhaps asks us all to reconsider so-called ‘slums’ or ‘bad neighbourhoods’ and the people who live there.
The question, then, what comprises a ‘good neighbourhood, is an interesting one. It is an important one to consider not only for own sakes. While I might enjoy the urban encounters I have in my chosen suburb, there is a much larger issue at hand. If we do not deem a neighbourhood as ‘good’, what then? In our attempts to make certain neighbourhoods ‘nicer’, what do we sacrifice? Who do we evict? Whose lives do we deem as insignificant in our cities? The squatter, the illegal immigrant, the street vendor infringing on ‘legitimate’ businesses…Surely, we cannot look our fellow man in the eye and tell him he is not fit to be our neighbour? Who am I trying to fool when I think I am better than another? I fear it might be our greatest loss if we cannot recognise a common humanity. So before you think to yourself, That is a bad neighbourhood…Give it a second glance… Enjoy a coffee at their local café… Buy a peach from a fruit vendor there and have a chat. You might find that it is a very nice neighbourhood after all.
*Traditional African medicine or magical charms
Photographs by Janet Fryer