African liveability

An ode to Adderley Street


What comes to mind when you think of Adderley Street?

For some of us, our immediate go-to mental image may be of automotive frustration. This image of bus-filled congested morning and late afternoon traffic is often spiced-up by the additional ingredient for supreme chaos, rogue pedestrians wantonly crossing through traffic seemingly on a whim. Others may imagine a space that they walk through to get between Point A and B. In this imagining of Adderley, weaving in and out between foot traffic and negotiating walkways narrowed by the hustle and bustle of trade become a routine obstacle course endured on a daily basis. The entrepreneurial and financially endowed amongst us may envision property and economic development potential, a space to jump into and pioneer before it becomes the next trendy, “it” space in the city centre.

For many others, Adderley is a street that has been long pioneered; a space that is instrumental in the functioning of their day-to-day lives. It is a space that offers the opportunity to purchase affordable daily necessities from conveniently located traders and mall, while also offering a space for people to work and play. Office blocks, small businesses, trader stalls and malls across the stretch become essential spaces for work and economic opportunity, with pavements stretching in front of these economic activities, providing spaces for people to catch their breath and share a cigarette with a colleague or a familiar passer-by.

For this last group of users, Adderley is not experienced through the shielded bubble of a motor vehicle or a blinkered commute. The street is an experience that is fundamentally human-centred and interpersonal in nature. Through the course of daily interaction – such as socialising on pavements or on public transport, hustling a better deal on a purchase and just generally getting by – life on Adderley demonstrates an enlivened urban routine that is only possible when social, cultural, political and economic relationships are given the space to meet and fire new impulses as they connect.

Spaces such as Adderley are therefore essential reminders that different contexts produce different forms of sociability and livelihoods, uniquely adapted and relevant to the people and the spaces from which they emerge.

This is an experience of not only Adderley, but more broadly of Cape Town as a whole; an experience that we are all a part of and able to tap into. Much like a spinal cord’s role in transmitting essential information across the body through both deliberate and automatic systems, so does Adderley serve as a crucial backbone for the city. It is a space that provides an essential thoroughfare for all flows throughout the city: the seen and the unseen, the physical and the nebulous, vehicles and people, and the formal and the informal. Both consciously and unknowingly, your daily Cape Town central city experience is in some way shaped by the social and economic activity unfolding on this spine street. On this street, flows that constitute the Cape Town experience – including businesses and offices, trader stalls, private and public transport, daily deliveries, fashion, education, food and beverage, history, heritage and tourism – all converging to create a unique sense of place.

Despite our differences, Adderley represents a shared urban experience that is interwoven throughout all of our lives as Capetonians. There is something for everyone; a single experience amidst many that someone will inevitably find relevant and resonate with. In a city gearing itself towards a pristine, world-class image, this humble street serves to remind us that Cape Town is first and foremost an African city; a city that serves many different sorts of livelihoods to complement many different sorts of residents. Spaces such as Adderley are therefore essential reminders that different contexts produce different forms of sociability and livelihoods, uniquely adapted and relevant to the people and the spaces from which they emerge.

For these reasons, there is good cause to celebrate the presence of a street like Adderley in Cape Town and to recognise its capacity to accommodate the diversity that defines the soul of an African city: the blurring of boundaries between the formal and informal and the local and global, and the creative strategies people create to navigate the uncertainty that is part and parcel of city life. This perspective can help us better understand such spaces in our city as not being lesser than or lacking when compared to other, more “trendy” spaces in Cape Town, but rather to be seen as equals for the value they offer to broader urban users. Thus, Adderley can help ourselves to develop as more empathetically equipped African urban citizens, aiding us in understanding that a city needs to be open to a variety of different spaces that, although not necessarily being relevant to you or me, offer a sense of place, belonging and utility for many others.

Featured illustration: Quasiem Gamiet

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