Long Street

Written by Brent on February 25th, 2009

The contrast between upper and lower Long Street illustrates an important point. Expedient demolition may bring rapid urban renewal, but at the cost of unique historical character. Unless you’re a salaried drone in one of its office towers, who wants to hang around soulless lower Long Street?  The success of upper Long Street (amongst those of us on the dole, studying or visiting) rests in its almost accidental preservation, though concerned citizens, the National Monuments Council and architects such as Revel Fox in the 1970s did contribute. Much of this conservation is of course only skin deep as façadism has become widely practiced. Yet, the street does retain a vitality and vibe that runs much deeper.


The sharp contrasts at almost every corner between grand and grotty, smart and tatty, restored and crumbling, can co-exist thanks to low rentals. Even second-hand bookshops – such as Tommy’s, Clarke’s, Select Books among others – have survived here. A mix of residential and business premises keeps the street real. Long Street is not a theme park. It’s a relatively civilised, Cape version of Yeoville’s old Rocky Street.


Weird and not always so wonderful characters abound: white Rastafarians in hessian, gold robed Nigerians, the great unwashed European backpackers, a Masaai warrior, devotees of Tom of Finland. At night the street belongs to the younger set, spilling over the pavements in carnival mood, out of nightclubs and pubs such as Jo’burg, the Dubliner Irish Pub and the Zula Sound Bar.


It’s also about as cosmopolitan as Cape Town gets, reflected in its many ethnic eateries, among them Ethiopian, Cuban, Indian, Kurdish, African, Israeli. There’s the African Music Store, Pan-African Market and Mama Afrika restaurant. On upper Long Street, speaking isiXhosa isn’t going to get you as far as a command of French.


Innumerable film crews are always closing down the road and radio taxis double parked in both lanes paralyse traffic at night.


Desmond Martin in the introduction to his charming book Walking Long Street (Struik, 2007),

which meticulously documents over 50 buildings, describes how he fell in love with the street when living in the 1950s in 44 Long, then the YMCA. The building narrowly missed demolition in the mid-1970s. It is now under the ownership of Indigo Properties, the creation of Nick Ferguson and his associate Jody Aufrightig, who are breathing new life into Long Street.


They developed the highly successful Biscuit Mill, and already have on Long Street the Daddy Long Legs Hotel (No 134), the Grand Daddy Hotel (No 34, formerly the Metropole) and The New Space Theatre (No 44), which opened earlier this month with Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins.


Run by the NewSpace Trust, a public benefit organisation, the theatre hopes to preserve more than a building. The original Space, opened in 1972 by theatre photographer Brian Astbury and his actress wife Yvonne Bryceland, was in Bloem Street. It relocated in 1976 to the YMCA building. In 1979 Astbury emigrated, and it was renamed The Peoples Space. Sadly, it went dark in 1984.


Defiantly non-racial and anti-apartheid, the Space was in the vanguard of South African theatre life. It saw the premier of Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest under the Immorality Act, the original productions of the John Kani, Winston Ntshona and Fugard’s The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead, and it is where the likes of Pieter-Dirk Uys, Marthinus Basson (then a stage manager), Mavis Taylor, Fatima Dike and Thoko Ntshinga, among many others, cut their teeth.


The project is therefore close to the hearts of many of us who love our city. As a school boy, I went almost every month. When 14 years old, I saw Fred Abrahamse (now Artistic Director of the NewSpace) playing a guinea fowl and became star-struck by a 20-year-old David Dennis in 1789.

The concept is to create a mini precinct offering a wide variety of cultural activities and facilities.

On the ground floor is Anytime, an Italian trattoria and ice cream emporium, and the Oolong Cafe, a tea emporium. Above the theatre, which is on the first floor, are the offices of the Africa Centre, and on the top floor is the Gymnasium, a dance studio by day and at night an 80-seater performance space for stand up comedy, film, experimental and developmental work and one-man shows. The rest of the building they hope to let to ‘theatre friendly tenants’.

Located almost exactly in the middle of Long Street, few projects could be better suited to the spirit of this street.


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