Here is a great article on The Fringe – Cape Town’s Innovation District in Cape Town’s East City by Richard Holmes in the latest edition of Indwe Magazine, just in time for the announcement on Tuesday about the World Design Capital 2014 shortlist:
Mother City looks East
“The opening of the Fugard Theatre has sparked a revival in Cape Town’s remarkable ‘East City’.
“MAYIBUYE IAFRIKA! Sing loud, Africa. We’ll be ringing the bells when you come back. We’ll be beating the drums when you come back.”
The rich, deep voice of Vusi Mahlasela fills every nook and cranny of The Fugard Theatre. Melodies wash over the 200-odd theatregoers sitting, rapt, in plush leather seats listening to one of the continent’s greatest troubadours. It’s just another Friday night in Cape Town, but Mahlasela’s song of homecoming couldn’t be more fitting. Just two short years ago the high ceilings of The Fugard – in the ‘East City’ of central Cape Town – would have resonated with the scratchings of a few vagrant pigeons. But after lying empty for years, in February 2010 the arches of the Congregational Church hall – built in 1830 – and the historic Sacks Futeran building next door found new life as the most exciting theatre in the Mother City.
Fittingly, it’s named after South Africa’s greatest playwright, Athol Fugard. “There’s still this perception that the centre of town is a dangerous place to visit, but it’s not the case at all,” general manager Daniel Galloway tells me earlier in the day. “It’s a case of introducing locals to a new part of the city; showing them what there is on offer. When Anthony Sher starred in Broken Glass recently, 6000 tickets went to first-time visitors to The Fugard. With all the other great things happening around here, people are literally flooding back into this part of town.”
He’s quite right, and while The Fugard’s varied calendar of music and theatre may be attracting much of the publicity, the blocks east of Buitenkant – between Roeland and Darling Streets – are all experiencing something of a revival. From boutique bakeries and furniture design galleries, to independent bookshops and trendy nightclubs, the East City is rapidly turning into the creative hub of Cape Town. It’s in no small part due to the efforts of the Cape Town Partnership, which has focused their efforts on rebranding this corner of Cape Town as ‘The Fringe – Cape Town’s Innovation District’.
This ambitious project, which is key to Cape Town’s bid to be named World Design Capital for 2014, aims to create an ‘urban science park’ based on projects in Barcelona, Toronto and London. If all goes according to plan, ‘The Fringe’ will position the buffer zone between the CBD and old District Six as a hub for design, media and tech start-up companies. And the wave has already begun, with the historic Granary building being revamped as a new home for the über-cool Bandwidth Barn; a ‘business incubator’ aimed at helping start-ups in the ICT field. Similarly, the Cape Craft and Design Institute and the Cape Fashion Council have both moved into the area, adding to the East City’s creative credentials.
On a smaller scale, it’s exactly the thinking behind The Field Office. Hidden at the upper end of unassuming Barrack Street, this quirky initiative by trendsetting designers Pedersen + Lennard hopes to showcase products and art from local creatives… and that includes their own innovative range of flat-pack furniture. But mostly it’s intended as an ‘office away from the office’ for the local industry to network and be inspired, with artisan coffee, gourmet sandwiches and fast Internet to help things along their way.
Nurturing the local design industry and young entrepreneurs is also a key focus for Woodhead’s, a leather merchant on Caledon Street that first opened its doors in 1867. “We’re a bit of a landmark in this area,” says Richard Harris, whose family has owned the business for the past 65 years. “Most of our business is in supplying the trade and local crafters, but we still get plenty of tourists just wandering in to take a look at the shop.” And that’s no surprise, with Woodhead’s retaining all the charm of an old-school merchant as apron-clad clerks help customers navigate nooks and crannies piled high with the minutiae of leatherwork.
It’s clear that the East City means business, but nightlife in this corner of town is also putting on its glad rags and drawing night owls away from the watering holes of the city centre. With clubs like The Assembly and Sugarhut Club, “Harrington Street has become a bit of a mini-Long Street,” says Harris. “There are almost 10 000 students staying in and around this area, so that really feeds into the young creative environment.”
The nightclubs will have to wait until after my Vusi concert though, so I head further up Harrington Street. A quick samoosa from the famous Al Haq spaza shop keeps away the autumn chills. As the last morsels of crisp pastry disappear I hear the sound of leather on leather: a rhythmic whack-whack-whack. A pause, then whack-whack-whack again. ‘East City Boxing’, reads the sign above the nondescript doorway. The security gate clangs open and a canvas ring reveals itself. “You here for the classes?” asks Matthew Leisching, one of the resident trainers at East City Boxing, as I stifle a laugh at the thought of me playing Rocky in the ring.
Revamped and reopened in early 2010, East City Boxing offers “old school boxing training” in a setting to match; all wood-panelled walls and sweat-stained leather. Mirrors flank one entire wall facing the ring, while brand-new punching bags, speed-balls and weights hide in the corners. Perhaps no surprise that Hollywood star Denzel Washington chose to train here while shooting a movie in the Mother City.
“We have 110 regular boxers working out here; either in the group classes that happen every day or one-on-one with the trainers,” explains Leisching, “We also have a fight night every three months; boxers from this gym who want to fight can get in the ring, and we also fight against boxers from other gyms. They’re really popular!”
But popular barely begins to describe what is perhaps the biggest draw card to this corner of the East City, and my last stop before heading to The Fugard for the Vusi show: Charly’s Bakery.
After years on work-a-day Roeland Street, Charly’s has a new home. And while not all locals are happy about the exuberant paintjob on the Victorian façade of the old Castle Hotel, this iconic bakery has certainly become the colourful new heart of the East City. Struggling actors nurse their coffee and talk about hard times, local fashionistas discuss Fendi and trends, while gawking tourists wander in as if they’ve chanced upon Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Which – in a way – they have, as the ‘oompaloompas’ behind the counter take your order from the array of baked goods on offer. To one side; savoury tarts and quiches made with rich butter pastry. To the other, the main event: row upon row of decadent chocolate cupcakes. And behind the counter, Charly’s famous “mucking afazing” wedding cakes are being constructed. I grab a cupcake and take a seat outside with a coffee. The counter bustles with lunchtime business and the pink-and-white candystriped cake boxes fly out the door ahead of a long weekend.
It seems Charly’s is the perfect metaphor for the East City. There’s an exciting new face to a business that has long been a stalwart of these gritty city blocks. There’s a fresh lick of paint on the walls, and new life breathed into a building that had gone to the dogs. But vagrants still wander across the car park and a few steps from this Aladdin’s Cave of confectionery there are strip joints and soup kitchens. There’s still a grittiness here that is both the East City’s charm… and its millstone.
But the times they are certainly a’ changing and if you want a peek at the Cape Town of tomorrow, you’d do well to take a walk between the blocks east of Buitenkant Street.”
30 JUNE 2011 INDWE