Sunday, April 4, 2010

The search for TRUTH at Prestwich Street

Cape Town
Day 7

Prestwich Street is the second site we’re looking at for our pod cast tour of Cape Town's forgotten places.

I’m still trying to get a handle on this place, as it is considerably more complex [and controversial] than the zoo, but here’s the basic layout as I understand it at this moment...

Prestwich is a street located in an area of downtown Cape Town known as Green Point. Other important things in Green Point include the following:

“The Cape Quarter [also known as De Waterkant, pronounced “Va-tee-kant”].

Home to Cape Town’s gay community, this newly developed few-block-area boasts a variety of upscale cafes, shops, restaurants, and galleries. The generic architecture makes me think of an outdoor shopping mall somewhere in suburban California.

The Green Point Stadium

Still under construction, this huge and impressive stadium is being built in anticipation of the FIFA World Soccer Championships.

The Prestwich Street Memorial and the Rockwell

Although it is not actually located on Prestwich Street, this memorial was built in response to a controversy that erupted on Prestwich Street.

Basically, as I understand it, the story goes like this: the place that is now Prestwich Street used to be a burial ground for the slave population of Cape Town. Other than oral histories, there were no records kept concerning this land and as a result, the identities of those buried here remains contested.

Several years ago, when a large lot on Prestwich Street was being prepped in anticipation of the construction of the Rockwell Building, human remains were unearthed by the excavation crews.

What ensued was a consistently-messy and sometimes-violent controversy concerning whether or not the development should continue and what was to be done with the human remains.

The “Hands off Prestwich” committee was formed by a group of Capetonian activists to lobby on behalf of the people who had been buried at Prestwich Street and their descendants, many of whom are part of the disenfranchised “Colored” population of Cape Town, currently living in townships such as Mitchell’s Plain and Kaylitsha in the Cape Flats.

To skip ahead a bit, construction of The Rockwell Building continued, and the unearthed remains were moved to an ossuary at the newly built Prestwich Street Memorial.

The Rockwell Building currently offers luxury condos and long-term rental spaces to the population of Green Point, although there is some sense that the very visible controversy did have a negative impact on the project’s economic success.

Ironically, the story of unearthed human remains told by the Prestwich Street memorial does not specifically reference the Rockwell site, but rather, tells a general and very down-played tale of slave burials, disputed identities, and the ethical implications of developing contested spaces.

Even more ironically, the memorial building is now also home to a café that sports the logo “TRUTH.” There continues to be some debate as to whether the memorial-slash-coffee-house thing works [i.e. it attracts people to the site so a larger audience learns about the story of Prestwich Street] or if it is simply offensive.

Refraining from judgment for the time being, here is a photo collection of the memorial’s not-so-hidden-TRUTHs:

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