Cape Town is embracing its pedestrian-friendly side like never before with the regular First Thursdays, Thursday Late and Open Streets events as well as creating the City Walk to become one of its official top seven attractions.
Reclaiming the Streets
Under apartheid, street gatherings were actively discouraged, if not banned across South Africa. At the corner of Burg and Church Streets is a monument (by the artist Conrad Botes) entitled The Purple Shall Govern. This commemorates an anti-apartheid street protest in 1989 when a brave soul turned the police’s water cannon on the authorities, spraying them and the surrounding buildings with purple-dyed water. The next day grafitti proclaiming “The Purple Shall Govern” plastered Cape Town.
Today, this pedestrianised section of Church St, lined with art galleries and craft stalls, sees a rainbow array of Capetonians intermingling as they go about their daily business in a democratic South Africa. And it’s never been more busy or a better reflection of the city’s diversity than on the evening of the first Thursday of each month when it forms the core of First Thursdays with the galleries and shops clustered here and around Bree Streets staying open until 9pm. Food trucks, street food stalls and live music add to the party atmosphere, which is particularly intense around the bars and restaurants near Riebeeck Square, including Weinhaus + Biergarten, La Parada and Clarkes Bar & Dining Room.
Stellenbosch graduate Gareth Pearson had the idea for bringing the concept to the Mother City after attending a similar event in Zurich in 2011 and hearing of the success of First Thursdays in London’s east end gallery district. Together with graphic designer Michael Tymbios they persuaded a handful of galleries to participate, created a map and launched the initial event in November 2012, attracting a few hundred people into an area that typically goes deathly quiet at night.
The local love for a party, amplified by social media, has turned First Thursdays into a massive hit. Scores of businesses now stay open past 5pm as thousands of people hit the streets to indulge in late night shopping and cultural browsing as well as catch up and hang out with friends. The Cape Town Partnership, which promotes the City Bowl area as a place to live, work and play, manages the happenings on Church Square, which becomes an open canvas for anything for debates and short movies screenings to giant Scrabble games, and DIY exhibitions.
Across the road, upstairs at 8 Spin St, is the pop-up gallery space Jnr and the more formal Sir Herbert Baker designed space of 6 Spin St, a restaurant that hosts classy art shows.
On Church St the key place to visit is the AVA Gallery an exhibition space for the nonprofit Association for Visual Arts (AVA). Here you can buy signed prints by the famous local cartoonist Zapiro as well as see some fascinating contemporary works in a variety of media.
Other places to check out include Youngblood Africa, an impressive multi-level gallery space and creative studios, with a café and musical concerts; and Commune.1 focused on sculpture and installations by established and emerging South African artists – it’s based in the same historic building (once a mortuary) as a hip cocktail bar specializing in gin and Honest Chocolate Café, a delicious spot for late night dessert.
The big hitters of the local commercial art scene, including Stevenson, Goodman Gallery Cape and SMAC, are east of the city centre in the gentrifying area of Woodstock. So it was a natural development that Thursday Late, held usually on the third Thursday of the month, has sprung up here. As with First Thurdays there is no set tour or route – you just grab a map and wander between the various venues as you like.
The official after party venue is Woodstock Cycleworks, where fun short movies on bicycling themes are screened, DJs play and you can sip a fruity cocktail from natural juice producers Juicebox who are also based in the complex.
Open Streets & City Walk
Fostering a creative approach to Cape Town’s streets is also part of the policy agenda of Open Streets Cape Town, a grassroots initiative inspired by Bogota’s Ciclovia, which is a temporary network of car-free areas and routes in the Columbian city. Starting in 2012 as a voluntary group, the concept, which also aims to bring about more social mingling between Cape Town’s racially divided communities, has gained official city backing, enabling a shut down of the traffic on a Sunday in January 2015 along Bree St.
The thousands who attended this event, walking, cycling, skateboarding and roller skating, their way up and down Bree St, could also take part in activities including handball, capoeira, salsa, tango, ultimate frisbee, yoga, street art, a scavenger hunt and a treasure hunt by bicycle. There was also a performance by Cape Town Opera, a #prayfornigeria silent display of solidarity and a pop-up street lounge. There are plans for the further car free zones across the city throughout the year, with the next Open Streets being held in Langa in March.
Also in the works is the City Walk project which will become part of the marketing campaign for Cape Town’s big six sights (Table Mountain, Robben Island, Cape Point, V&A Waterfront, Groot Constantia and Kirstenbosch Botantical Gardens), thus making it the magnificent seven.
The walk’s proposed route starts in the Company’s Gardens, runs down St George’s Mall, across Strand St to Waterkant St where it follows the Walk of Remembrance to terminate at Prestwich Memorial Park. Free wi-fi will provide digital interactive opportunities for historical interpretation along the route to supplement street signage revealing some of the city’s hidden stories. Street food, public art, events and entertainment such as busking could be part of the mix, as well as a revamp for the market stalls strung along St George’s Mall.