An essay I wrote as a 20 – year old university student living in Woodstock.
It is lunchtime. Typically, in this hour I find myself navigating towards a cafeteria which erupts with the sound of aggressive chattering, a swarm of adolescent bodies pulsating to the rhythm of gossip and laughter. With my head bent low, I weave through the crowd, trying hard to avoid the strained vexation of small talk.
But, today is different.
Today spontaneity fills my bones. With adventure in mind, I deviate from my normal routine and scramble into the front seat of my car, winding the vehicle through traffic and entering the colourful streets of my beloved neighbourhood.
Woodstock Main Road is an explosion of midday commotion, a crawling, convulsing maze of cars and activity. The road seems to embody everything that is this city, a reflection of the vibrant diversity that comprises Cape Town life. Established in the nineteenth century, the district originally consisted of only a handful of Cape Dutch farms, modest fishing cottages and a public beach, popular with sun-kissed bathers and picnicking families. Conversely, as time passed on and the inevitable transiency of all things in life took hold, dramatic changes begun to occur. Industrialization reformed the quaint seaside town into an urban landscape peppered with shops, factories and warehouses. The beach disappeared, the farms were sub-divided and the cottages replaced with bland apartment blocks. With these changes came an insurgence of crime, poverty and drugs. The town lost its antiquated glory and was malformed into a compass of indigent backstreets, crumbling buildings and broken windows sheathed in squalid coils of barbed wire.
It appears that each decade brings reformation to this humble district. But in the end, it is history that has rendered this district into a melting pot of diversity, a place where cultures merge, mesh and mingle, where ethnicity’s converge, foreigners coalesce with locals and the colours of the Cape’s many citizens blend into one.
A pair of construction workers, dressed in blue jumpsuits stroll leisurely along the crowded sidewalk, fast food packets crinkled between greasy fingers. A car drives past, coughing thick smoke from its exhaust, while heavy drum and bass emanates from grainy speakers. The cloudless, October sky offers little protection from the sun, as I wander, aimlessly along the sidewalk, broken glass crunching beneath my feet. Children’s laughter rings out from a residential park nearby. They swing across monkey bars and slide down metal slides while their nannies gossip beneath the shade of tall palm trees. Two security guards, in day-glow vests, stand in front of a dilapidated sports bar, their radios crackling with static. Traffic seems interminable on this street, as car after car traverses along the paved road. A taxi hurries past, “Cape Town… Cape Town”, a man bellows, half his body hanging out of the minibus. Kissing noises interrupt my daydreams, “Com, baby, come…” he cries. I continue walking.
All around me are reminders of the past. Old Dutch style buildings remain, their walls painted in bright pastel shades. New Brighton Building, 1963, reads one. Beneath it, several small shops are clustered together; a cellphone repair shop, a dismal-looking shoe store, an Internet café, a sports bar. At first sight one would assume the past has been entirely destroyed by the excess of modern establishments that litter the street with their obtrusive neon signs and tacky window displays. Yet, a deeper look reveals that the past is still alive, breathing in the form of old buildings that transports one to a former time. The street whispers the essence of the cities former grandeur; if only one takes the time to dig a little deeper. The new and the old collide past each other, dancing gracefully between now and then.
A shop owner reads The Daily Sun in the doorway of his store, while globed fruits and vegetables spill out of the boxes around him. We strike up a conversation. His skin is the colour of milky coffee and his grey hair sits in wiry tufts upon his head.
“Hello, Sir…I was just wondering, how long have you owned this store?”
Looking up, a shy smile flickers over his face, revealing a friendly demeanor.
“The store was handed down through my family. My grandfather opened it, over a century ago,” he replies. “He originated from India and sailed to the Cape, with only the money in his back pocket.”
However brief our conversation, he seems more than happy to share his story with me. It becomes evident that the past continues to thrive not only in the buildings that line the street but in the very people that form this community. As I walk my thoughts drift away, images of a former time amounting in my head when horse carts clopped along cobbled-stone streets and the sound of the ocean could be heard from where I was standing. A dozen horns hooting and a gathering of ‘tannies’ loudly scolding their children in Afrikaans snaps me out of my daze and the calm buzz of nature seems miles and miles away.
Strolling past a shop, I glance up to see a bold red sign: Charms. Instantly, upon entering the store I know this is more than just a place where rejected antiques go to die. Old telephones, frames, boxes, cameras, chairs, tables and radios clutter the shelves. The owner, Clive shakes my hand. A cataract impairs his vision, yet still his eyes glitter with the spark of an intangible wisdom.
“I opened this store 12 years ago.” He sighs, looking around. “I know it seems like a junkyard now but I’m a collector. Over time, it all just piled up.”
“I love it,” I say. “There aren’t many places like this left.”
“Yeah…” he shrugs. “I’ve lived in Woodstock for many years now and its constantly changing. Gentrification is a big problem around here, especially for us small business owners.”
“Do you fear the old will be completely lost to the new?”
“Well, not really…lately, there’s been a demand for the old again.”
“What do you mean?”
“The old fashion is coming back. Bicycles, records, vintage cars, second-hand clothes. Woodstock before the crime and the factories swallowed up all the magic, it’s having a revival.”
His smile lights up his face, the skin around his eyes gently wrinkling.
“You see… I’m a sign maker. I make vinyl signs for businesses. But recently there’s been a request for traditional hand-painted signs. The old is coming back. It’s like all this stuff…” He turns to point at the shelves behind him, “To some it may just be useless junk, but to others… this is the real treasure!”
Eventually we say our goodbyes and I stumble out of the store. Yet I cannot seem to stop his words from echoing through my head.
Walking down this road, a place I thought I knew so well, I see a thousand things I never saw before. I realize how much magic is hidden in places we neglect to even notice. Everything has a past just like every person has a story worth hearing. Yet, we separate ourselves from the world around us, forgetting how much can be learned through a mere question or simple conversation. The past lives on through the people. It never dies but simply takes on new forms. Who knew so much could be learned in my lunch hour?