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Diagonal Street 2, with Neil Fraser
25 August 2008

In the second part of an exploration of Diagonal Street, memory and democracy are again pitted against "progress".

Neil Fraser
Neil Fraser

I am picking up where we left off last week with a quotation from The Star of 1988: "The JCI project is a major element in the redevelopment of Newtown, where the issue of redevelopment in the context of the conservation of the architectural and urban heritage, and the safeguards of the rights of tenancy for historic residential communities will be an ongoing concern."

With the announcement of the new development on the Diagonal Street site by JCI, a great deal of concern was raised regarding the future of the people who would have to make way for the new building, people who had lived and traded in the precinct for decades. The developers had purchased some seven properties which collectively provided town planning rights far in excess of what had been utilised until then.

A development of the collective site could thus result in the demolition of a number of historic buildings to make way for one large structure and, as a result, not only would the previous occupiers be adversely affected, but the city would lose the core of Johannesburg's traditional Indian shopping precinct and residential neighbourhood. The architects, RFB (now Fee & Challis, a practice that has been and remains intimately involved with the development of the city), came up with a practical, workable solution.

It proposed that all the rights be consolidated on to the main redevelopment site, that the buildings fronting on to Diagonal Street be left intact and that the Arcade and living quarters be recreated to replace the 1930s building that would have to be demolished.

Thus the final design of the development was not merely to provide prestige office space but to save the important heritage buildings and the facilities that, as was pointed out last week, were the historic home of those who had lived there since the earliest days of the city's establishment, against all kinds of odds.

Demolition conditions
The proposals were approved and the demolition permit that was issued by the then National Monuments Council, or NMC (now the South African Heritage Resources Agency)  was subject to very specific conditions that emphasised the nature of what was to be provided - "the same type of trading and the original shop frontages and quality of space between"; "the same essential architectural character of the (existing) building" "the new residential section ... shall not interfere with the architectural and historic integrity of Saxonia Buildings".

The last of the NMC's conditions was: "In the event of any one or more of these properties being sold the above undertakings shall be included in the condition of sale as binding on the new owner/owners."

So, what emerged from the exercise was a valuable built addition to the inner city and the retention, not just of its historical component, but of the local community. Then, as was mentioned last week, the 1990s saw the inner city's urban decay spiral uncontrollably and Ernst & Young moved from the building, leaving it empty. It then changed hands a number of times and in 2003 was bought by the current developers for conversion into residential accommodation.

Billing itself as "a contemporary property developer that seeks to enrich our cities by re-inventing the culture of true inner city living" the building was just one of quite a large number of buildings bought by developers with a great deal of fanfare - "The American Dream Shifts to Joburg" - "Sexing up the City, new kids on the block turn downtown Joburg buildings into New York style loft apartments". The Knights in Shining Armour had arrived and the damsel in distress (the inner city) could breathe again!

Only by 2003, the damsel was actually quite able to breathe on her own and was improving daily. Now, a number of the buildings the developers bought are in a worse state than before although a number of years have passed since they were acquired - Shakespeare House, the old CNA Building, New Kempsey Building - others are standing only partly refurbished - Corner House, 1 Rissik Street.

The Franklin
However, the Ernst & Young building, renamed The Franklin, was one of the buildings in the portfolio that has gone ahead, although painfully slowly. I believe, from some of the people who have bought into it and are now staying there, that it provides really good inner city living.

Incidentally, the blurb says that the developers will convert this building "into some of the most opulent apartments available anywhere in the world. Everything 'designer' is being incorporated in these luxurious living spaces, etc etc." Ja, well ...!

The Indian tenants evidently were not even told of the change in ownership and only found out through the changed details on their rent statements. Three years after the purchase, in 2006, the Indian tenants of the shops were called together and "asked to be part of the renovation project"; a year later they were given notice; later, their rent was doubled.

The plan is to change the retail to accommodate a new batch of national and local retailers, not the locals. In fact, the plan is sub-titled "Shopping - Luxury - Lifestyle" and the upgrade "to emulate European street shopping".

In other words, it is the introduction and promotion of a foreign retail experience at the cost of the destruction of the existing Oriental street shopping experience - only because the former pays better and "progress", after all, is all about financial returns!

The people
Who are the affected people? Here's a small sample:

A. Has occupied the same shop for over 68 years. He was born and raised in the area. His grandmother and grandfather were the initial owners of the business. He is the third generation in the family to run the business on Diagonal Street. He knows no other home except this place.

B. "This is another forced removal. We have three children and three staff members to look after and their families. The area is a historical area, one of the few places where black traders are still allowed and have been trading over the years."

C. Has been running the shop for 40 years. After completing his matric he joined his father, who had owned the business since 1980. He used to come everyday before and after school to help - one of his black customers says: "I have been shopping in this shop since 1969. My children, my wife and brothers still come and do their shopping here in the same shop. We love the place and would like to see the shops stay."

D. The current owner has worked in the business from an early age, and was born and raised in the area. His grandparents owned the shop from the early 1940s. His grandfather died and his grandmother, who is in her 80s, is still alive but has retired. The current owner is the third generation of the same family to own and run this shoe business.

E. The business started operating in the early 1920s; he took over the business after his father's retirement - he is now 83. He is assisted by his son - a third generation of the same family running the business.

F. "People are dying of stress; the hairdresser whose family was on this site for nearly 90 years, died just a few months after being evicted. The other lady who was in her 50s also died of stress."

Destruction
This isn't the removal of a bunch of people who have been illegally occupying a building for a few years, nor of a bunch of criminals - this is the destruction of a community!

One of my colleagues writes: "It is important to remember that when the development was mooted, permission was granted by the responsible heritage authority, albeit reluctantly, to demolish the old structures on the site but with the proviso that the new structure should acknowledge and commemorate the important social history of the Indian people who lived in and around Diagonal Street, Johannesburg. In a sense, therefore, it was the way Indians were required to live and work that the new structures were designed to replicate, not merely the building typology that was retained. More importantly it was social values and a way of life that was conserved. I think it would be fair to say that what was conserved at the time was building typology overlaid with a recognition of the social values of an important but disenfranchised group."

I think we as a country are still largely feeling our way with the issues of "recognition" and "forms of recognition" related to our history. An article on Constitution Hill comments on its great success: "the occupation of buildings that once symbolized race supremacy and now stands for tolerance, the rule of law, and constitutional democracy; in itself carries a powerful pedagogic message".

This is what we badly need in this age which has recently been further compromised by xenophobia.

Memory sites
An international conference focusing on the relationship between memorialisation and democracy was held in Santiago, Chile in June 2007. While memorialisation (the process of creating public memorials) might not sound in line with what we have been talking about, I think that it is closer than one at first appreciates: "Memorialisation remains an underdeveloped, or unevenly developed, field. This may be because memorials are too often understood as outside the political process - relegated to the ‘soft' cultural sphere as art objects, to the private sphere of personal mourning or to the margins of power and politics.

"As a result memorials are rarely integrated into broader strategies for democracy building. Memory sites fall between the cracks of existing policies for historic preservation, transitional justice, democratic governance, urban planning and human rights.

"Whereas truth commissions, judicial processes, police reform and other mechanisms for addressing the past are subject to public scrutiny, few nations or communities have developed analogous expectations, let alone standards of accountability, for memorialisation."

I like that phrase "memory sites" - is that not what the Diagonal Street precinct is all about? The Rand Steam Laundry site was also all about memory, memory intertwined with history - that is now gone. We cannot allow such things to be repeated.

"The best bulwark against human rights abuse is an active, engaged citizenry with the awareness, freedom and inspiration to stop abuse before it starts."

Think about it, Regards, Neil

Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust tours
Saturday, 30 August - walking tour
Cliffside gardens - Endulini Ridge
The gardens at the back of Endulini House are lovely and contain rare indigenous flora planted by Rebecca Brown (née Lurie). Seventy years ago she was a zoology and botany lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. We will also be visiting the gardens of Savernake created by Bernard Price, the physicist and engineer who died in 1948. The world famous Bernard Price Institute for Geophysical Research is named after him. The terrain is steep so please wear really comfortable shoes and bring an umbrella to ward off the rain.

The cost is R75 and booking is at Computicket, on 083 915 8000 or 011 340 8000, or through the Computicket website. Meet Esme Wiesmeyer and Judd Kirkel at The Mount (Advanced School of Journalism), 9 Jubilee Road, Parktown at 2pm. For more information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

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Last Updated on 25 August 2008