Barbed Wire and Avo Toast

In Woodstock, Cape Town, local, eco-friendly, and progressive businesses are displacing a multi-racial community that has survived apartheid. What is a conscientious tourist to do?

The story begins with avocado on toast. Except here — in Woodstock, Cape Town — no one calls it that. You order avocado; the waiter translates: “avo, coming up.”

So we’re sitting in this trendy cafe — all the cafes here are trendy — sipping our lattes, nibbling our avo toast, leafing through issues of The South African Artist. A trio of chic thirty-somethings sits at the adjacent table. The group is mixed-race and mixed-outfit — a stylish headscarf next to the latest flower print — but these are superficial differences, pleasant touches of local color subordinated to the tableau’s overarching theme: sophistication.

We have arrived — at South Africa’s Hipster Central.

After breakfast, we head towards our next destination: a street-art tour. We have an hour to kill, so we amble along Alberts Road — Woodstock’s trendiest street. I’ve never experienced such a density of bespoke furniture stores. Certainly not of locked bespoke furniture stores. It’s 11 AM on a Friday, but every door seems to be barred and padlocked.

But then something moves inside one such store, and it dawns on us: they’re locked, but open. You simply ring a doorbell to be let in. Just a little safety precaution.

Between the furniture stores — run-down car repair shops. Next to the car repair shops — galleries and cafes. Over every fence — barbed wire.

I feel spooked. Welcome to Woodstock: Gentrification Central.

Drive twenty-five kilometers west from Woodstock, and you’ll find yourself in a different universe.

Blikkiesdorp. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

The only delightful thing about Blikkiesdorp is its name. The word, which means “Tin Can Town” in Afrikaans, perfectly describes the bleak settlement, composed of rows of corrugated metal shacks, one-room boxes of sardinized families.

Crime runs rampant here. Man robbed in broad daylight. Twenty houses burnt down in one night. Woman raped in front of her two-year old. Such things are old news in this area with ten times as many murders and three times fewer policemen than central Cape Town.¹

This is where Woodstock’s residents end up if they can’t afford the rent.

We meet our guide for the street-art tour, Eli² in front of the Woodstock Exchange, a luxury shopping mall/art center/coworking space/food court. Eli is a local resident of Cape Malay³ descent and a 23-year-old student of electrical engineering.

He explains that until recently, what is now the Woodstock Exchange was the home and studio of more than 50 local artists. Encouraged by the owners, the artists covered every available wall in colorful murals.

After the space was auctioned off in 2011, only a handful of artists managed to move to a smaller space next door. The rest had to find new studios in different neighborhoods, stifle their creative impulses — or revert to illegally “tagging” buildings. Meanwhile, their one-time studio was replaced by “Cape Town’s solution to creatives that yearn for a place to create.

We walk behind WEX (as the Woodstock Exchange is “affectionately known”) and enter the antithesis of a trendy neighborhood. One and two-story houses huddle together. Their paint is peeling, their corrugated metal roofs are raw with rust — but with the help of their pastel colors, they give off an air of joyful dignity.

The art feels similar: exuberant in the face of adversity. A springbok, the South African antelope beloved for its prancing (the technical term is “pronking”), is a whimsical collection of springs and wires. Elsewhere, pure abstract color erupts in patches of sunlight. Giant, meticulously realistic bees are resting on one of the walls; they might resume their flight in the next instant. This is a real possibility; the murals rarely last more than a few years, when they serve as a blank canvas for the next aspiring artist.

The streets are busy with people. Kids run and skateboard; adults stop to exchange greetings. From underneath his bleached hair, Eli flashes toothless (I suspect a skateboarding accident) grins at everyone we pass, greeting them in one of four languages (English, Zulu, Afrikaans, Arabic). Regrettably, he doesn’t speak Xhosa — yet.

I have never experienced a community as community-like as this. And this neighborhood is being torn apart by places like WEX, which boasts that it’s the home of “local furniture manufacturers,” “makers of eco-friendly eyewear that’s both stylish and sustainable,” and “progressive fashion designers.”

What WEX claims for itself seems truer of Eli’s original Woodstock:

This really is a central space in which you can dream, learn, create, and celebrate the wonderful variety of life.

This appears to be WEX’s real “exchange:” of a real community and a living art for pale, purchasable counterparts.

The story continues with free-range eggs.

Source: Flickr.

It’s the next day, Saturday. That means market day at the Old Biscuit Mill, Woodstock’s #1 tourist attraction. With stands selling organic fruit and vegetables, award-winning restaurants specializing in… things on toast, and overpriced souvenir stores (aka “local artisans”), this gated marketplace is practically indistinguishable from WEX. This turns out to be unsurprising: both venues are owned by the same business, Indigo Properties.

I enter a deli, order a plate of mushrooms and free-range eggs on toast… and realize that I’m a moral failure.

I see myself through the eyes of a Woodstockian on the cusp of eviction: a rich white foreigner happy to spend truly offensive amounts of money on the privilege of giving chickens a slightly better life. In my dash to help the chickens, I’m knocking over the livelihood of communities that could never, ever afford to be as “moral” as me.

And while after yesterday’s street-art tour, I at least know about the existence of these communities, just a few days ago I was as clueless as this Trip Advisor reviewer, who

felt like the only tourist in a local hot spot — enjoying farm-to-table fare and enjoying some live music.

Meanwhile, actual locals express views like these:

Oh down there. It is mostly the rich white people going there … I don’t know what’s so wonderful there, everything is so expensive … it is all visitors and tourists that are going there. I have never ever heard anybody that I know in this whole community say that they will go there … I wouldn’t want to go there because everything is so dear …

I tally the meals of the past 24 hours. Three out of four include lattes. The same number is on toast, and the one which isn’t — a veggie burger — well, morally speaking, it might as well have been on toast. And the avo score? A perfect 4/4.

The evidence is inescapable. Guilty as charged: a hipster.

My toast arrives. I want them to take it back. I want to smash the plate. I want to be a good tourist — not one who buys a badge labeled “good,” then shuts her eyes.

In the 1970s, Cape Town was cut to pieces: white, black, Indian, and colored.⁴ Over 60,000 non-white inhabitants of District 6, an area designated “white only,” were forcibly relocated to so-called “townships:” tin-shack slums far from the city center.

You probably know this. What you might not know that not every piece of Cape Town was labeled “white” or “non-white.” So-called “grey areas” escaped segregation.

Woodstock was one such area.

Even at the height of apartheid, black, white, and colored residents of Woodstock were allowed to live together side by side, in what could almost pass for peace. Only in the 21st century is Woodstock’s grey beginning to turn white.

What was too hard for apartheid might not be too hard for hipster-friendly entrepreneurs.

Twenty-four years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town is still two towns — or parallel universes. The murder rate in wealthy neighborhoods like Rondenbosch is just about the world average. Meanwhile, in the infamous township of Nyanga, 2 out of every 1000 residents are murdered each year.

On the one hand —Poor Town, a land of sprawling slums practically run by criminals. On the other—Rich Town, the cosmopolitan city steeped in natural beauty that attracts tourists like me.

During apartheid, the borders between the two towns were created, and then maintained, by racist legislation. Today, the blame is harder to allot. The guilty parties range from politicians through drug syndicates to the police⁵ — but as I pick at my free-range eggs, I see myself on the list too.

Because even if Cape Town’s heartbreaking inequality isn’t maintained by the tourist, it’s maintained in part for her. After all, she — and her money — will only come to a safe Cape Town. She’ll only come to the safe Cape Town — so the unsafe one is locked away.

No one really knows how to combat crime in the townships, where vigilantes are more trusted — perhaps more trustworthy — than the police. Easier to simply keep it from spreading to Rich Town. Easier to roll out another length of barbed wire.

I don’t want to be here, in the “Neighbourgoods market,” where hawkers play at neighbors and goods masquerade as goodness.

I don’t want to be in this

vibrant, warm-hearted little village in the heart of Woodstock where talented people come together to share, collaborate and well… show off the heart-felt passion.

I don’t want to be warm-hearted in my heart-felt heart. I don’t want to ❤ ❤ ❤ my local, organic, sustainable, recycled, diverse, innovative, progressive, free-range avo. Most of all, I don’t want to show off.

Indigo’s old motto. (Source.)

Because that’s really what Indigo Properties is about. Hiring “local” vendors who displace poorer local vendors — and partnering withdiversely cultured” designers from… Russia. Selling eyeglass frames from recycled wood: “I love trees” tattoos for your face. Profitable businesses with nice names — and real moral impact between negative and negligible. It’s right there, in their one-time motto:

Theatre in retail.

As I finally dig into my eggs, I take solace in the fact that at least I’m better informed than your average hipster. At least I supported the local community by paying for a street-art tour. At least I know the real Woodstock.

But something is nagging at me. Something about the tour wasn’t right either.

It started when Eli, who likes to keep the audience engaged, turned to us and asked: “What do you prefer: art that looks cool, or art that has a message?”

“Er, both?” I stammered. I have opinions here, but it’s hard to fit them into a few words. “But if I had to choose… probably looking cool? If you start with the message, the art suffers. It risks being moralizing, shallow.”

“Exactly, both,” Eli picked up enthusiastically. “Without a message, the art suffers.”

By and large, Woodstock’s artists are on Eli’s side. Most murals seem to have a moral, ready for a savvy guide to pluck and wrap in a few words. A giraffe is there because it’s endangered, and we all know that we need to protect the environment. Faces are collages of different shapes… because diversity. A man wearing a zebra suit represents the entanglement of our fate with nature’s. Apparently, in a quite literal sense — the mural’s Ukrainian author believes in reincarnation.

What’s going on here? Do working-class Woodstockians really care about the environment so much — or is this art maybe meant for a different audience? Perhaps one happy to be reminded of its praiseworthy concern for the environment? An audience of… hipsters?

The street art-tour is in the same business as Indigo Properties: selling goodness. To an extent, that’s excusable — it’s hard for them to reach an audience that wasn’t already planning to visit Woodstock. And the people who do come to this neighborhood are, by and large, collectors of shiny badges spelling the word “progressive.” Woodstockians are simply fighting fire with fire. As long as it’s for a good cause…

What would you think of a place described like this?

It’s a thriving creative hub, with a trendy coffee shop, an independent bookstore, an events venue and all the studios fully let (…) For the last 3 years the developers have only been taking in creative tenants, so they have a coffee roastery, some designers, and lots and lots of artists.

The Woodstock Exchange? Nope — the Woodstock Industrial Center (WIC). Same difference, you’d think — except that WIC is precisely that shared studio space Eli had told us about. That helpless victim of gentrification.

In fact, the object of Eli’s nostalgia wasn’t a venerable, community-led initiative, but the work of property developers which lasted for a mere seven years, between 2004 and 2011. It wasn’t old Woodstock, but Woodstock during first-wave gentrification.

Back then, the area’s contrasts were even starker than they are today. Here’s how visitor Montle Moorosi described them in 2011, shortly before WIC was auctioned off to Indigo Properties.

A few seconds ago I was in [WIC,] a factory type space with an art gallery, some book stores and coffee shops serving hot ciabatta bread. Now I’m watching mangy dogs dying in front of me, tip toeing, doing a modern dance over a medley of sewage, broken bottles, broken dreams and, of course, that old chorus of used tampons and condoms.⁶

The street art is an even more recent addition. Most of it dates from the I ART SA Community Mural Project, co-sponsored by Adidas and non-profit “A Word of Art” in 2011.The project’s guiding philosophy was

to inspire ourselves to inspire each other to inspire change.

A little too much inspiration and a little too little change to, well… inspire my confidence. Supposedly,

if we can create inspiration, we can create change.

For instance, the change from grey walls to exuberantly decorated ones. For instance, the change from plastic eyeglass frames to recycled ones.

Some of the artists involved in the project thought they were doing more than simply giving the walls a gorgeous makeover. This is clearly seen in the answer one of them gives to Moorosi’s question “What do you think about gentrification?”

I think its [sic] going to benefit the community as a whole, it’s changing the mind focus from gangsterism and drugs to something different that the kids can be involved in.

Presciently, the cynical Moorosi is unconvinced. He thinks about

downtown Johannesburg and its inner city art projects, apartment blocks for the creatives amongst the illiterati; derelicts, bums, the semi-working class and immigrants.

Moorosi asks a second artist, who is more ambivalent.

[L]ook, I was hearing about how gentrification fucked up New York and Berlin, and it’s just going to be exactly the same… but I was recently talking to someone from the community while working on this project and they said ‘look if it means that someone’s going to buy my house, then I’m going to buy another house with an extra room for my kids…’ How do you stop gentrification if the community supports it?

The artists who lived in WIC may have eventually become victims of gentrification, but before that happened, they were gentrifiers themselves.

This is true across the globe: artists are first-wave gentrifiers. Their brand of gentrification is benign, even beneficial for the original communities. At first.

But once the artists move in, the second wave is inevitable. It was like that in New York; no reason to think Woodstock would be miraculously spared. The artists could have predicted what was coming. Without them, Indigo Properties might not have been able to spread this far. It’s not fair to credit them with all the short-term benefits of gentrification and none of the long-term costs.

They thought they were saving the world; they were just making avo toast. If both end in eviction, how much better is arting than hearting?

A spotlight narrowly focused on the poorest members of local communities, a dramatic contrast between old and new, some carefully selected ironies of fate, a smattering of personal touches — take these ingredients, like I’ve done in the early sections, and you too can scapegoat any prospering business in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

But shift the spotlight a little farther, and the case against gentrification becomes much more equivocal. The process makes cheaper housing available for the middle class in centrally located areas — along with all the accoutrements of a middle-class lifestyle, like lattes and avo. It’s hard to say this with a straight face, but it was also hard for Moorosi to count the aesthetic appeal of the murals in their favor.

On a rudimentary level, their [the residents’] morning views don’t only consist of tik addicts and someone being raped, they can now enjoy it with the extra ambience of great artists like Mr Fuzz Slipperz and Boa Mistura from Madrid — encouraging the population to “fight for your dreams”.

And yet these really are astonishing works of art. As I watched Eli interact with his neighbors, I had no doubt that they were grateful for the splashes of color on their once-bleak walls. Art is beautiful; avo is delicious. Neither is enough, but both surely count for something.

More compellingly, gentrification brought with it the dramatic decrease of crime levels. This benefits not just the newcomers, but every upstanding Woodstockian who can still afford the rent. Because one thing Eli neglected to tell us when taking us through his neighborhood was that, until around 2010, it had been one of the most crime-ridden parts of Cape Town. The friendly, open atmosphere of the streets in fact owes its existence to gentrification.

Which part of gentrification? The police thinks it’s its doing. The street artists believe it was the refreshing power of the mural project. Indigo Properties thinks it had a hand in this “urban renaissance” too. Just as easily, it could have been landlords evicting criminals — not just criminals, of course — for failing to pay their rent. I don’t know.

Defenders of gentrification often go further than just pointing out its immediate positive effects on those who move into — or remain in — gentrified areas. They contend that making run-down neighborhoods nicer is just the first step in the general direction of making every area nicer. Eventually, even the evictees — or their descendants — will be able to reap the benefits of economic development. If crime can be defeated in notorious Woodstock, the thought goes, eventually it will also be beat in the townships. The Blikkiesdorp of 2028 will be a nicer place than the Woodstock of 2008.

I’m skeptical. Not necessarily in general, but in the particular case of Cape Town. If we could be sure that Woodstock got safer because all the criminals were either caught or given job opportunities more lucrative than crime, then there would be hope for the same process eventually reaching Blikkiesdorp. But what if, instead, the criminals have simply been forced to move out — along with every upstanding resident too poor to pay the rent?

There’s no sign of the townships getting safer. This suggests that Cape Town’s economic growth, rather than trickling down to the poorest, is helping build stronger walls around the poorest neighborhoods, locking the residents in cycles of poverty.

If gentrification ever reaches the townships, it’ll only be to dump the current residents even further from town.

And there’s no sign of the townships getting smaller, either. In fact, their number is increasing. Blikkiesdorp, which might be mistaken for a survivor of apartheid, was built by the local government in 2007 as a “temporary relocation area.” This is final irony in our story: evictees from once-grey Woodstock end up in a 21st-century clone of an apartheid township.⁷

What can be done to help them? Don’t look at me. I’m just a clueless tourist. I know how to help chickens have slightly better lives. I can’t say the same of human beings.

In the mural, the zebra-man is sitting on a colony of what turn out to be cockroaches. Eli explains that this is a tag added by a different artist; cockroaches are the street’s symbol for the hated gentrifiers.

How easily the artwork takes the message into itself! Behold: it’s pro-environment and anti-gentrification. But the cockroaches might as easily have been meant as an accusation. You, artist, let them hitch a ride when you visited here. You, artist, who might become a zebra, might equally well turn into a cockroach yourself.

If you stand at just the right place in front of the mural, the painted mountains in the background line up with a tiny fragment of the real mountains behind them, forming one unbroken contour.

This is how Woodstock hangs together.

Symbols of community are painted on walls keeping out communities. Goods try to line up with goodness — only to block the view. Stacks of artists pile three levels deep, each layer less authentic than the previous.

We take a few steps away from the mural and reach a corner store. On one side — barred windows, on the other — a Fanta mural sponsored by the Coca Cola company. A faint yapping drifts in from the nearby doggie daycare.

As we exchange our goodbyes, Eli cheerfully reminds us: “Don’t forget to leave before sunset!”

Nothing is lining up.

[1] Adjusted for population. The murder rates are very rough estimates for Delft, the neighborhood which contains Blikkiesdorp, based on crime rates here and here.

[2] Not his actual name.

[3] The Cape Malays are descendants of Indonesians exiled to Cape Town by the Dutch, beginning in the 17th century. (The phrase is sometimes also used to apply to any Muslim resident of Cape Town and surrounds.)

[4] In South African terminology, colored people are those who don’t fit into the other three categories.

[5] Check out Don Pinnock’s 2016 book Gang Town for a more nuanced causal analysis.

[6] You should read Moorosi’s whole essay; he was a prophet. Just a very foul-mouthed one.

[7] It’s worth mentioning that Blikkiesdorp exists in part because of South Africa’s extremely liberal housing laws. The country’s constitution proclaims the right to adequate housing for all, and Blikkiesdorp is a (theoretically) temporary shelter for those on the waiting list for government-funded apartments. Add to that the fact that in 2011, Blikkiesdorp had a population of 3071 — barely one-twentieth the number of apartheid evictees — and the ironic parallel between the market and apartheid becomes little more than bloggerly theatrics.

Thanks to Alicia for helping me streamline a meandering first draft, and to Ben for catching dozens of boring sentences in the second one.

Visual artist following curiosity wherever it leads. I have a Harvard PhD in philosophy.

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