It was already late afternoon when I arrived in Observatory, but the inner-city neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa, was only just waking up, it seemed. A single young woman with a backpack skateboarded down the otherwise empty main street, and as the sun began to set over Table Mountain, a few bars played thumping house music through still-locked doors.
I wandered into a guitar shop, interrupting a lively conversation between three gray-haired men.
“What kind of music do people like around here?” I asked.
“White people tend to go for rock; black guys go for kwaito, rap and jazz,” answered store owner Lionel Jordan. Kwaito, he added, is dance music with African vocal samples. Jordan and his friends, however, mostly play classic rock.
“There are 14 cultures in South Africa,” chimed in Richard Pitcher, Jordan’s friend and bandmate. “It’s hard to be part of them all.”
Bordered by two oceans and one mountain range, Cape Town is a rare city that abuts actual wilderness. On the eastern side of town, the warm Indian Ocean crashes into the continent, sending a salty spray across the coastal highway. On the western side, the cold Atlantic periodically tosses unlucky ships onto the rocky shore. For people on the outskirts of town, baboon break-ins are a perennial problem, and in at least one southern suburb, penguins regularly waddle into hotel lobbies, looking for handouts.
But as I ran through six lanes of traffic to escape an overzealous panhandler one day, I realized that the real dangers of Cape Town are of the typical urban variety. “I won’t rob you if you just give me some money,” the panhandler yelled as I trotted back to my hotel.
I’d been trying to walk a half-mile to the waterfront. But I quickly discovered that in a city with homicide rates that are about on a par with Detroit, casual strolls are generally inadvisable.
I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Cape Town is, after all, still recovering from the scars of apartheid — including economic inequality and an unemployment rate of almost 50 percent among young adults. In fact, it was only 50 years ago that the South African government declared the city center to be for “whites only” and began forcibly removing blacks and mixed-race people from their homes.
Although most of Cape Town quickly succumbed to segregation, apartheid’s enforcers somehow overlooked at least two inner-city neighborhoods: Observatory and Woodstock. In recent years, these multicultural enclaves have led the city’s renaissance — attracting artists and other creative types from all over the world. Still hoping to do a little urban hiking, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of Cape Town’s reawakening, I resolved to explore these lively neighborhoods on foot.
If music tastes divide along racial lines, Observatory’s residents seem decidedly multiethnic, not to mention young and attractive. As I walked the streets, I saw one mixed-race couple, arm-in-arm, contemplating their tempera-paint options at an art store, and a diverse group of chatty teens debating where to go to eat.
I found the surrounding neighborhood, however, to be decidedly less friendly. Many homes hunkered behind tall concrete walls topped with razor wire. Prominently placed placards named the security company that protected each property, complete with illustrations of a revolver’s business end.
As I snapped a picture of a placard for a particularly festive-sounding security company (Shock-o-loza), a curly-haired 20-something stopped to assure me that Observatory isn’t as dangerous as it looks.
“It’s like a small town, “he said. “Everyone knows everyone else.”
His favorite part about living in Observatory, he said, is the fact that you can go shopping or out to eat without traveling downtown — though the train takes you there in just 10 minutes, he said.
The next morning, my boyfriend and I drove to Woodstock, a trendy neighborhood in the heart of Cape Town. Once a sparsely populated industrial area, Woodstock has become the epicenter of Cape Town’s emerging design industry. Foodies soon followed, starting a popular gourmet market and a smattering of high-profile restaurants.
As we neared the market, at the Old Biscuit Mill, several young men trotted after our car, offering parking spaces and car-guarding service for the equivalent of a few dollars. Suckers, we let one flag us down and ended up parking nearly a mile away from the market. That, however, gave us the chance to appreciate the striking contrast between the world outside the mill and the scene inside.
Outside: A yellow Yugo rusted on blocks. Inside: A shiny Mini Cooper displayed hip T-shirts. Outside: Barefoot children hustled tourists. Inside: Well-heeled teens picked through designer clothes. No one stood guard at the Biscuit Mill gates, but some invisible barrier stopped these very different worlds from colliding.
A 20-something guy in skinny jeans and a scarf summed it up for me: “Outside the Biscuit Mill gates, you’re in a third-world country,” he said. “Inside, you’re in Williamsburg.”
Indeed, the Saturday “Neighbourgoods” market seemed very Brooklyn, with a trendy array of artisanal, organic and pricey foods: sea urchin pasta, goat’s milk cheese, gluten-free bread and, of course, cupcakes. One food stand, however, struck me as particularly South African — a “biltong” stand selling spicy jerky made from the country’s vast array of ungulates and other tasty beasts. I asked Mike Mays, a cheerful man who was handing out samples of ostrich and kudu, which meat was most popular.
“The sirloin, which is just for this market,” he answered.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I’d rather not say,” he said with a wink.
We skipped the steak, instead opting for a delicious breakfast of goat-cheese quiche, Belgian waffles, Nutella crepes and rooibos tea, all collected from vendors inside the Victorian-era storage shed. We then sat down on a milk crate and elbowed for space at a communal table made from an antique barn door, listening as people chatted in a dozen different languages.
Our tummies full, we headed to our last stop on our tour of Cape Town neighborhoods — a small brick church that stands as a monument to one of the most shameful moments in Cape Town’s history: the destruction of District Six.
“I will never forget the day they bulldozed our house,” said Noor Ebrahim, perched on a stool in the museum, one of the few District Six structures that the apartheid government left standing. A trio of young women paid rapt attention as Ebrahim told stories about growing up in the multiethnic neighborhood. Christmas, he said, was his favorite time of year, because he loved tailing the choirs that paraded through the streets.
“We all celebrated Christmas, not just the Christians,” said Ebrahim, a Muslim. “I prayed with the Hindu community, the Jewish community, the African community, and there was nothing wrong [with it]. All my friends, they put on a fez and went with me to my mosque. That’s what made District Six such a great place,” he said.
That thriving multiculturalism spooked the nascent apartheid government, which declared the area a slum and razed it in the 1970s, relocating the neighborhood’s 60,000 residents to suburbs or, more often, actual slums on the outskirts of town. All that remains are a few dozen street signs, which hang, chandelier-like, from the church’s ceiling.
After listening to Ebrahim, I walked through the small museum, pausing at a paper map where families had penciled in their names and former addresses. I wondered: What would District Six look like today? Would the jumble of apartments have given way to walled fortresses, like those in Observatory? Or, as in Woodstock, could District Six have become a hotbed of creativity and perhaps anti-government dissent? I could see why such a possibility wasn’t tolerated by the segregationist regime.
Unlike many of his former neighbors who were forced to move to slums, Ebrahim now lives in a well-to-do suburb. But if he ever gets the chance, he’ll move back.
“District Six will always be my home,” he said.
Dingfelder is a Washington writer.