Where is the vibrancy?

2010-05-25 00:00

THE back part of the Point Waterfront is un-glamorous. The brickwork speaks to craftsmen, not to crafters of a different art. It is a place of beauty that is to be cherished. The empty spaces belie its story.

There was a time that even the most posh and prudish of Durban took part in vicarious carnal delight. “Smuggies” was much loved by all that were prepared to admit their weakness for smut. Nobody had ever been there but they knew people who had.

There is little to see now but a few smelly ruins, some of which is carried on my shoes in the form of vagrant excrement.

The history of a district will never be lost. The survival of the supporting community in this case is a lost cause. The buildings stand, or a bit of some of them. There were people here once. They had their place and made our city what it was.

The once dark and mysterious back rooms, ranked with cheap perfumes brought by a visiting sailor, or mayor, or bishop, are exposed from above. “Everything alters, and one by one we drop away … ” says Yeats. Durban’s Point drops away in favour of characterless modernisation.

The canals are square and lifeless. The buildings are grey and gormless. The people plying their trades on the street or selling their goods are North African. Point Road is now Mahatma Ghandi Road. My, how he must be turning on his funeral pyre!

It is a challenge to our landscape planners to keep the important parts of our heritage alive, as uncomfortable as it may be. Richness is in the language of our land. If our planners articulate this, there is a future. If not, we have no past or hope of a better city.

Racial segregation was ignored in the heyday of Point Road. I guess the apartheid police were the best customers of the street. The cosmopolitan vibe is gone. It was safe for students to have a “steak egg and strip” for one rand and get to Latin 1 at 6:40 pm on a Friday for Ma Bristow’s lecture on Sherlock Holmes. I believe her story that she is related to the fictional Holmes. She knew all about us.

As students we too were part of a culture that is now gone.

I see the same pattern in the townships. Happy days and abandonment in the few hours of relief between the real world of survival and the next day’s challenges now have strictures. Pressures that we were able to ignore now dominate our young and fertile minds.

It has a lot to do with “development” and even more with disappointment. The good burgesses of Point Road of old will never sit in the grey suites that now dominate their territory.

Mike Sutcliffe, the city manager, must look inward. I know him to be a person of compassion, massive as his task is. Understandably he may fall short.

My concern is the consideration that was given to building the necessary life skills of the incumbents before their life and community was taken away. I bet they were swept out as scum.

I am a lawyer and will recite the detail for you if you like, but in simple terms, the city did not comply with the constitutionally driven obligation imposed on all organs of state to understand their own, local “state of the nation” before making planning decisions.

Amafa (our Heritage Council), in a lonely fight, preserves the shop front. This is not good enough. The real stories are in the shops that were. These have history and must be part of the annals of our city because they define who we are.

The law imposes vicarious responsibility for the protection of heritage on our city managers. They have failed us.

It is not too late. I am not suggesting a return to the old days. They were bad in their own time. But they had character and this should not be lost in the shaping of a new city.

• Jeremy Ridl is a Durban-based environmental law specialist.

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