If you walk down Darling Street in Cape Town towards the City Hall, you will come across the Grand Parade. This square is a rough-fitting assemblage of informal trade, passers-by, security guards, littered plastic and pigeons, but also a national monument since 1962, deemed to be South Africa’s most historic public open square.
Up until the early 1980s, the Grand Parade was described as “the pulsating heart of Cape Town,” a resemblance of London’s Petticoat Lane or Hyde Park corner, where raucous commercial activity would come to assert the space’s character as a long-standing and essential feature of city life. Customers had the luxury of being able to buy anything from flowers and fruit to cold drinks and even property in Belville, all at one flea market. At that time, many of those running stalls were third generation parade fruit-sellers.
Today, if you weave through the host of informal sales stands as you approach the square, you will arrive at what used to be called the ‘movie snaps’ corner, now recognisable as the popular ‘Texies’ fish and chips joint. Just behind Texies, and running alongside lower Plein Street, an open air corridor displays two rows of wall-to-wall food stalls: plastered with Coca-Cola placards and bright with primary colours. Erected in 1983, these wooden huts stand as a tribute to the developments undertaken at that time, which were aimed at creating a productive, attractive, and burgeoning market for the city’s local residents and visitors to enjoy.
Revamping stalls, which it has been suggested date back to pre-World War II, the City Council said, would “attract tourists, improve business and bring people back to the city centre.” The previously “ramshackle” stalls were revamped with 19th century architectural styled corrugated iron, slender columns and timber fretwork and decorations.
Developers envisioned that the two rows of stalls, ten of which sold fruit and vegetables and twelve of which sold cold drinks and light snacks, would be transformed into a pedestrian takeaway precinct where tables, chairs, umbrellas and pedestrian-scale lighting would contribute to creating a leisurely atmosphere. The parking bay on the other side of the square would become a short-term rather than an all-day facility. It was also envisioned that a row of trees would run down the centre of the outdoor mall created by the two rows of stalls, and a “new-look” restaurant would take up the “movie-snaps” corner.
Despite concerns that developments would change the character of the place, stallholders welcomed the upgrades. In an article published by The Argus on Tuesday November 24, 1981, one stallholder (“don’t publish my name, just call me Mr Quality”) laughed at suggestions that the Parade would lose some of its character in the transformation.
“We are the character. The council is leaving the interior of the stalls up to us, the character of the Grande Parade will remain,” he said.
Another fruit seller was quoted as saying, “it will be nice to rebuild, as long as they do not put the rent up.”
But rent did, indeed, go up. By December 1983, the reconstruction was complete, yet the redevelopment process was only the start of a series of meetings between traders and the City Council over what were deemed to be serious misgivings over lease agreements. By May of the following year, rent prices had forced one in four of the original twenty-three stallholders to reject continued investment in the refurbished Grand Parade market.
Thirty years later, a walk across the square and through the stalls may lead one to consider the Grand Parade as strikingly unglamorous. There’s an enthusiasm for and a fondness of the memories created by the flea market that newspaper articles from the 1980s depict that does not explicitly show itself today. The market is now characterized by neglect.
The brightly lit displays of steaming samoosas, pies, hot chips and frankfurter sausages abundant behind the warm glass of stalls suggest a reliable flow of customers from day to day. The handwritten posters of weekend specials reveal ongoing entrepreneurial activity of what can only be a collection of stable businesses. While counter assistants eagerly await the next customer, there’s a consistency of activity behind the built up board work that divides the inside space between the front and the kitchen area.
Bannered with impossible-to-miss boldness across its overhead canopy, “The Entertainer” offers a deal of four crispy samoosas for the modest price of R5. The stall owner would be happy to give you an indiscriminate assortment of chicken and beef if you don’t specify. If you are vying for a sweet alternative, R1.50 at “Nobuntu” would land a koeksister so hot in your hand you would not question its freshness.
But the colours and delightful freshness of food jar eerily with the quiet that now overwhelms the Parade’s atmosphere. Disillusioned visitors can be found sitting on a park bench or leaning against a column reminiscent of 19th century vernacular, looking, waiting, commiserating, perhaps about a place’s soul that no longer smiles. The branches that spread from “majestic” rows of trees have been neglected too long to ever be a source of nurtured pride.
Yet despite what may be considered a sorry sight in comparison to what once was, nostalgia hangs in the air. Everyone here has a story tell, evident by the enthusiasm with which I was attended to by the assistant at “Shop No. 14,” which is lined on the inside by shelves of biscuits, scones, crisps and cigarettes, and sells at least fifteen different assortments of hardboiled sweets displayed in a grid-like glass holder on the service counter.
Perhaps, ‘Mr Quality’ was right. It is the people behind the counters that hold the character of what would otherwise be disregarded as a lifeless inner-city space.
There would be much contestation over where you could buy fast food quite as fresh and cheap. Next time you find yourself as the commuter hurrying past the square towards the neighbouring transport terminals, an alteration of route taking you through the mall may prove surprisingly worthwhile.
Images credit: Environmental and Geographical Sciences Library, University of Cape Town. Images were sourced from the library’s newspaper archives. Original captions used.
Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities.
Read older posts from this section