Fok Your Hood

Next time you see billboards advertising Cape Town as the “World Design Capital," know them for what they are.

Photo credit: Barry Christianson.

As someone who has lived in the Bay Area in California for over a half decade now, you don’t have to tell me about corny neighborhood renaming schemes spearheaded by property developers. After a year or so of living in an apartment on the border of North and West Oakland, banners began to appear on the lampposts reading “KONO,” apparently short for Koreatown-North Oakland. Aren’t these agents of gentrification supposed to be the creative class? Seriously, that’s the best they could come up with? Then there’s the two or three blocks along Telegraph Avenue downtown renamed “Uptown.” See, former mayor Jerry Brown was involved in the building of an all-inclusive apartment complex, complete with gym and hideously incongruous signage over the past couple of years, and it’s only fair that we reimagine these blocks as a “neighborhood.”

What’s with this obsession with pretending parts of the central business district qualify as a neighborhood or community? Ask Cape Town’s creative class, as this city is Richard Florida’s fantasyland. As I was leaving one of my favorite bookstores today, I noticed some new window decals across the street at the mock Portuguese coffee chain Vida e Caffè. (At the risk of pedantry, someone needs to tell the genius behind the name that caffè is Italian; the Portuguese is café.) Across the sliding glass doors, a number of names were listed along with an injunction to “name this hood” by going to

The options are awful: Roodehek or Buitenkant after nearby roads; Soro, or South of Roeland Street; Hamro after the triangle between Hatfield, Mill, and Roeland; a couple of names after nearby shopping centers; Little Gardens, even though this area is across the City Bowl from Gardens itself; and a half dozen others. One of the potential names is La Guma, after novelist Alex la Guma, once imprisoned in the neighborhood. By far the worst is “Creative Quarter,” currently tied with La Guma for second place, behind Little Gardens.

Who’s behind this endeavor? According to the website, the committee includes “journalists, historians, designers and entrepreneurs.” But once you click to see who’s actually involved, the “historian” is actually the director of the Jewish Museum, who received an undergraduate degree in history, but went on to get an MBA. The “journalists” all appear to be radio hosts, and every other person on the list works either for the City, or more likely, is in business. In short, hardly a diverse group representing the “stakeholders” in this project, this is a textbook instance of growth machine-style urban politics. And I’d be remiss not to mention that close to 60 percent of the panel is white.

Lest you leave this blog thinking you’re going to have to call a chunk of District Six the “Creative Quarter” in the near future, the plot thickens. Another business-driven coalition, the Cape Town Partnership (CTP), is simultaneously behind the drive to rename roughly the same area “The Fringe.” While formally registered as a non-profit, the CTP is the chief force behind Cape Town’s City Improvement District (CID) model of urban development. One recent academic paper describes the CTP as “a bilateral partnership between the City and the business owners of the CBD.” The same authors describe the objectives of the CTP as twofold: “to respond to the needs of large companies, and to the international tourism industry in the CBD by fostering urban regeneration.”

So again, we see textbook growth machine politics, complete with City Improvement Districts, subsidies for business to remain in the area, and an emphasis on “creativity,” with that word standing in for what used to be called entrepreneurship. Seriously though, for a City that still calls District Six “Zonnebloem” – the post-removals whitened name, Afrikaans for “sunflower” – you’d think there’d be a bit more sensitivity. After all, the District Six Museum isn’t but a block or two from the aforementioned Vida e Caffè. But no, these ouens insist on calling this place “The Fringe.”

Why a fringe? Is this the barrier between the CBD and the parts of Woodstock that can’t be fully gentrified? Perhaps this is the fringe of the CBD itself, the last stop on the way to leaving the confines of “improvement.” Or else perhaps I have it backward. Maybe this is the fringe as the outer reaches, the periphery, that which is beyond the norm. Is this growth coalition serious then, calling central District Six a “fringe”? It was only fifty years ago – less in some areas – that this was the center of so-called Colored life in Cape Town. There’s a veritable industry of memorialization surrounding the place, and the best they could come up with is something that peripheralizes the area and doubles as a signifier of its bohemian nature?

The erasure of District Six from popular memory almost seems to be a coordinated program for these people. The Name Your Hood campaign was distributing brochures in the area, and it included a brief history of the neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, it begins with Dutch heritage in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then immediately jumps to the 1960s (one mention) and 1980s (one mention). The only sign even suggesting that something foul went down here is the concluding mention of Alex la Guma and Dulcie September, though it’s simply mentioned that they were imprisoned here as anti-apartheid activists. The history conveniently skips the fact that all Colored people were forcibly removed from the area over the course of two decades, with District Six renamed “Zonnebloem” and an all-white Technikon constructed down the road.

This is all part of Cape Town as World Design Capital 2014. A couple of years ago, Cape Town was voted World Design Capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), which, despite the misleading name, is essentially a PR operation for industrial design firms. Indeed, ICSID’s own website describes itself as “a non-profit organisation that protects and promotes the interests of the profession of industrial design.” Funny enough, the WDC2014 offices – a “pop up” office in their own jargon – are located in the “Fringe District.”

Next time you see deceptive billboards advertising Cape Town as the “World Design Capital” or seemingly innocuous campaigns that purport to foster a sense of community, know these operations for what they are. Far from a conspiracy theory, this is straightforward City Improvement District (CID) politics, public-private partnerships, and urban boosterism: textbook neoliberal urban policy. The CID concept has long gone hand in hand with removing “crime and grime” from the central business district, both in Cape Town (since 2000) and in Johannesburg (since 1992), and attracting businesses by any means necessary. In practice, this has meant the reproduction of the apartheid city and augmented repressive apparatus, all under the banner of “improvement,” “design,” and “creativity.”

Marx describes this phenomenon well in The German Ideology: “For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.”

If you were to criticize someone from the CTP, or anyone from the City really, as representing the narrow interests of property developers and design firms, you can be sure you’ll catch some confused stares. They’ve been so successful in promoting this World Design Capital nonsense – the concept is so hegemonic –  that most people in Cape Town seem to think it’s a prestigious design award, as opposed to a scheme originating in the heart of businessland.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.