Inspiration without integration in Cape Town’s thriving new creative hub
By Katy Osborn
When American artist Andrew Breitenberg first moved his studio to the six-floor, 14,000 square meter Woodstock Industrial Centre in 2009, the space had what fellow artist and Woodstock native Kent Lingeveldt described as a “sweatshop vibe.” “There were windows broken everywhere — birdshit knee level,” the building’s then-owner, Elad Kirschenbaum, told me. “No property developer wanted to come see the property, no alarm companies wanted to come put locks on the space.” For Breitenberg, this was all part of the appeal. “It was just this raw space [with] beautiful textures on every wall.”
Karen Dudley, native Capetonian and owner of Woodstock’s popular eatery The Kitchen, told a similar story, having converted her deli from an old fish shop in the middle of what she claims was “drug dealer and prostitute central.” “The guy who owned this building had been stabbed here and no one wanted to touch it,” she recalled. “I came to look at this building — this really smelly old fish shop, and I thought, ‘Perfect!’”
As Breitenberg aptly put it: “The artists go first. They’re like blackbirds.”
Drive east until Cape Town’s city center gives way to warehouses and these blackbirds’ nests will begin to sporadically appear. Freshly painted, pristine shops and galleries punctuate old industrial spaces and deteriorating Victorian cottages. Street art springs unexpectedly from walls. This is Woodstock, at least in its current moment.
It’s a tale that we’ve heard before — from Brooklyn to Williamsburg to New York’s meatpacking district— with creatives, as South Africans like to call them, almost always paving the way for other young urban professionals. But in Woodstock in particular the process of creative “renewal” is particularly convoluted. While Woodstock’s creativity rides the youthful momentum of South Africa’s mere 19 years of democracy, it struggles to deliver on this new era’s promises of integration.
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Woodstock has long been a site of economic struggle and home to Cape Town’s laboring class, dating back to 17th century immigrant farmlands and fisherman’s houses that gave way to a major industrial center in the 20th century. Where Woodstock has traditionally lacked economic prosperity, however, it has gained recognition for its resilience against South Africa’s history of racial separation. Lower Woodstock, largely by virtue of its low-income population, became the only suburb of Cape Town during apartheid to remain integrated in the face of its “White” classification under the Group Areas Act. Karen Dudley proudly told me of Walmer Road, where she now lives: “When Group Areas came along they came down my street and said, ‘This side of the street is white, and this side of the street is black.’ The families living there for all these years said, ‘No […] we’ll just swap houses.”
In spite of such historic victories, the uncertainty of life under the Group Areas Act made it difficult for Woodstock residents to maintain property ownership, and the area took a dramatic plunge in the 80s and 90s as the drug trade ushered in unprecedented levels of crime and prostitution. By 2005, Woodstock was, in Kirschenbaum’s words, nothing short of a Wild West. “You couldn’t be doing what you’re doing today, walking down [Albert Road],” JP, owner of antique furniture store Collectible Café and 40 year-resident of Woodstock told me. “Somebody would come along and grab your bag, then run and jump over a wall. No one would see anything.”
Thus was born the Woodstock Improvement District (WID), established in response to a need for safe transport for employees of businesses in Woodstock from the train station to work. Funded on levies collected from city tax payers, WID began to make basic but instrumental changes to the suburb; cleaning parks, fixing traffic lights, paintings roads and hiring security vehicles, to name a few. In 2006, the conversion of an abandoned factory called Old Biscuit Mill into an upscale retail space featuring the renowned organic food market Neighbourgoods furthered the effort. Around the same time, Elad Kirshenbaum spurred Woodstock’s creative movement in the form of Woodstock Industrial Centre, subsidizing a residency program run by street artist Ricky Lee Gordon to bring street artists from all over the world to Woodstock and color its walls with their art. Today, Upper Woodstock is the epicenter of Cape Town’s — if not all of South Africa’s — design industry.
Some Capetonians call Woodstock’s metamorphosis creative renewal, some call it gentrification, some even call it “upliftment” — regardless of what one chooses to call this process, it’s occurring at an astonishing rate. Real estate prices have more than doubled since 2004, and new developments are popping up with increasing frequency. “Everyone wants to be in Woodstock right now,” Lingeveldt, the Woodstock native who designs and builds custom long boards, told me. “Prices are becoming exorbitant. There are waitlists. To get space as a creative right now is impossible.”
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Woodstock forms a crucial part of a wider Capetonian creative success story that recently helped the city win the bid to host World Design Capital 2014, a yearlong program of design-centered events geared toward inner city development. One of the project’s four key themes is “Bridging the Divide”: as the city’s winning bid reads, “In 1994, we inherited a city designed for separation. Since then, we’ve been designing a city for integration.”
This core of integration permeates creative spaces throughout Woodstock. Take, for example, Side Street Studios, Elad Kirschenbaum’s newest project since the property developers that own Old Biscuit Mill bought up his Woodstock Industrial Centre three years ago. It’s an unconventional setup for studio space — a bike mechanic sits across the way from an artist next to a carpenter across from a laser cutter next to a kitchen below a Capoeira studio above an herb and vegetable garden, and so forth. For Kirshenbaum, this smorgasbord of tenants and their careful placement alongside one another is part of a bigger picture of collaboration, inclusion and innovation — in his words, a “family.” When I visited with a friend, he invited us for tea and chocolate cake in the “big idea corner” in Zimbabwean conceptual artist Nix Davies’ studio, Let There Be Light, an “innovative shelter” where the Side Street family gathers weekly to share ideas. We talked mind-reading EEG-operated beer taps with a 23-year-old inventor from ThingKing.
Studiotonic, a second story studio that overlooks Albert Road, houses Lisette Forsyth’s upcoming exhibition “A Hard Days Work.” The project includes photographs of Woodstock’s workers on its streets. These images are painted on and constructed using recycled materials such as a 1956 wage page, an old door, a flour bag. It seeks to bring pieces of the street into the studio whilst conveying the style, grace, and will of Woodstock’s natives.
The conscious and unconscious sum of Forsythe’s exhibition, however, is a story of Woodstock’s patterns of integration and separation. The streets belong to a distinctly racialized labor and struggle — black or colored men who carry dishwashers on their heads and cart loads of lumber; young boys who ask for food as visitors pass. The interiors, meanwhile, are mystical playgrounds belonging predominantly to white creatives and their privilege. While the rawness of Woodstock’s abandoned and deteriorating spaces serve both as inspiration and palette to creatives, to longtime residents they represent a history and a socioeconomic reality. Even the most carefully considered creativity fails to be fully inclusive to the surrounding community — at 50-65 rand ($5-$7), Dudley’s delicious “Love Sandwiches” are still cost-prohibitive to many Woodstock natives, and Side Street Studio’s doors are manned by a security guard, a gatekeeper to the “family” within.
Woodstock Exchange and Old Biscuit Mill, what Dudley jokingly called “hipster central,” more notably lack this fusion and consideration. A large decal on the street window of restaurant Superette, for example, one of Woodstock Exchange’s anchor tenants, reads, “Lunch Stat: If you eat regularly at your desk, your keyboard will have collected 400 calories worth of food particles. Bon Appetite!” Outside lies a largely undeveloped stretch of dilapidated warehouses, where visibly emaciated young men are often found hustling passersby for food. Nick Ferguson of Indigo Properties, the property developer of Old Biscuit Mill and Woodstock Exchange, summarizes the move bluntly. “We’re not building [places like Woodstock Exchange] to pander to people on the street who can’t afford it,” he said. “We’re not there to try to do something nice. It’s not about having sayings that incorporate street kids and hobos who can’t afford to buy bread.”
As part of a creative movement that frequently credits itself with Woodstock’s “upliftment,” Ferguson’s statement seems out of place. To many, the problem is one of representation. Hassan Khan, CEO of Cape Town’s Haven night shelters and vice-chair of the Cape Town Partnership, is optimistic about Cape Town WDC 2014. Still, he said “I don’t think there are sufficient black people — in South Africa black people are people who are not white — participating at that level of creating a new environment. What we have in the creative industry here are liberals — nice people — but designing for someone else […] is not likely to connect to the beneficiaries nearly as fully as it could.”
“I look at some of the key players of WDC 2014, their creative team is [almost] all white,” he continued. “And they are a minority in the city of Cape Town. That’s daft. It means we are perpetuating the problems of the past. It means poor people are again becoming the victims of the success of their neighbors.”
Kent Lingeveldt echoed Khan’s sentiments. “The thing that bums me out is a lot of the street art around here is done by these main international artists. There’s a lot of local talent in Woodstock, but they’re not given the opportunities. […] My vibe is that for someone new and local coming in, if you don’t have the right connections, if you’re not the right skin color, or if you’re not their token person of color, then you’re not going to make it.”
While Lingeveldt admitted that he loves “being able to be in a space and a suburb where creativity is thriving,” the lack of local inclusion leaves him with doubts about authenticity. “A lot of this isn’t real creativity. It’s just hipsters looking at blogs. Like all these European and American delis? It’s copying and pasting.”
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I asked many Capetonians about the future of Woodstock — skinny-jean-clad shoppers in Neighbourgoods, shop owners along Albert Road, local artists. They all said something similar: it will be a shopper’s paradise, a “bumping” suburb, a much sought-after, upper class neighborhood. The benefits of renewal thus far are already abundantly apparent, if not in the business brought to Woodstock, then in the suburb’s drastic reduction in crime. “If kids are for the first time playing in the streets without guns, we’ve made their lives better,” Kirshenbaum pointed out.
But the costs are seldom talked about. As Khan aptly noted, “The cost of [gentrification] will not be seen, because we will have displaced the poor further from the city.” As rental costs increasingly price Woodstock’s poor out of their homes, many are being pushed into neighboring suburbs, including Salt River, whose lack of an improvement district has also made it a recipient of much of Woodstock’s former crime. This socioeconomic displacement is eerily reminiscent of Cape Town’s history under apartheid’s Group Areas Act, which evicted more than half a million black and colored South Africans from their homes and businesses between 1950 and 1984, pushing many out of Cape Town altogether and into its neighboring townships.
Chrischene Julius, who considers such displacement on a daily basis as Collections Manager for Cape Town’s District Six Museum, points out the injustice of crediting creatives with upliftment. “Landlords start kicking [residents] out, turning a property into a slum by not looking after it, and then all of the sudden you must be grateful that young creatives are putting the spotlight on Woodstock and regenerating it. And you just feel very angry, because all of a sudden people and families who have lived there don’t matter.”
For those Woodstock residents that remain, displacement may cause the tightknit character of the community to fade rapidly. “Black South Africans in particular don’t coexist well in [private, distant] circumstances. We like our neighbors to greet us,” Khan told me. “And if our neighbor’s child is in the road when he should be at school, we twist his ear — because that’s our child.”
When I asked Kirschenbaum about his Woodstock neighbors, he opted for a respectfully distant approach that seemed to confirm Khan’s concerns. “I get out of bed in the morning, say good morning to the lady [neighbor], ask her son why he’s not in school and walk down the street,” he tells me. “I’m a lot more comfortable to just be and let others be and see where we cross over.”
This seems to be precisely the dilemma embodied in Woodstock — “nice liberals” designing for someone else, creativity that astounds but fails to include, artists who beautify and simultaneously drive up rent, neighbors who greet but remain at a distance. There fails to be a clear right and wrong when it comes to Woodstock’s residents and their approach to its spaces. For a suburb with the strong legacy of having resisted the Group Areas Act à la Walmer Road, however, there does seem to be a clear right in maintaining the same sense of community that once defied the dividing lines of apartheid as South Africa navigates its youth as a free and integrated democracy.
After all, creativity seems to be Woodstock’s newest child — and it takes a village.
Katy Osborn ’15 is anthropology major in Branford College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.