Once upon a time, in the time of our forefathers, a hamlet was accidentally created on the shores of Algoa Bay. Without inlets, coves, and navigable rivers, the littoral lacked a natural harbour. The need for freshwater is what attracted the passing vessels like a magnet to this nondescript point on the otherwise barren coastline. Being unintended, the town grew frenetically but without hindrance, plan or scheme to become the butt of derision for its unkempt, scruffy appearance and undefined & also unnamed roads if these tracks could be called that. Quaint was not one of the epithets used by visitors to describe the village.
But this was about to change
Main picture: The carcass of the Victoria Hotel. Note the bricked up windows in a futile attempt at preventing further destruction by the vandal hordes [Photo by Anton de Klerk]
Only with the creation of a municipality in the 1840s, driven by the indefatigable Scotsman, John Paterson, were these matters addressed. The appearance of the town improved. The erection of the first elegant multi-storey buildings along Main Street as well as the construction of elegant cottages – as Harradine termed them – on the hill for the shop owners and managers transformed the dreary town into a veritable thing of beauty, a charm that belied its mundane beginnings. To escape the hustle and bustle of Main Street, the shop owners fled their quarters on the 2nd floor of their shops and constructed superior accommodation on the Hill, as it was affectionately termed, with the most elegant being located in the Bird Street and Annerley Crescent area. It was here that Fleming & Paterson made their abodes.
Civic pride was invoked. Main Street became the centre of commercial activity while the Hill, with its simple but quaint often idiosyncratic cottages, became the residential area.
I have already, in a previous blog, dealt with the issue of the architectural integrity of Market Square.
Instead, this blog will deal with acts of commission by the residents and acts of omission by the municipal authorities.
Acts of Commission and Omission
Etched in my mind as I flew out of the HF Verwoerd airport on Sunday 10th February 1980 to start my job as a CA in Sandton with Barlow Rand, as it was then called, were scenes of a small provincial town as it was graciously growing older. Now well past young adulthood, it was firmly in sedate middle age. Cracks of late middle age were showing especially in the area bounded by Russell Road, Western/Whites Road and Strand Street; yet the beauty of youth was still evident. Some buildings had been subjected to facelifts, some more appropriate than others. For instance, rather than replace an Edwardian balcony railing with another similar item, the owner often attempted to enhance the building’s appeal by replacing it with the latest square tube variety.
In this slow but ineluctable manner, the original Hill area was transformed architecturally from a mid to late nineteenth-century museum into an agglomeration of styles often on one building. As these buildings had not been declared national monuments, like my great-great grandfather’s house was, such defiling had to be accepted. In the case of other buildings which had been declared national monuments or buildings of immense cultural significance, these had often wilfully been inappropriately renovated. The Donkin Row is a classic example of this practice.
It was only 25 years after relocating to Joburg that I managed to visit my home town again. My agenda included attending the Alex School reunion, running a 32km race at UPE, visiting the family – those left in PE – and showing my family the Parsonage House at No. 7 Castle Hill. A quick drive through the Hill area revealed that it needed attention but was largely still intact with many still reflecting their original architectural heritage.
On the 50th anniversary of my matriculation in 1971 and 25 years after my previous visit, I scheduled an 8-day visit in order to reconnect with the town and many of the people who have over the years assisted me with the writing of my blogs on PE. It was then that I came face-to-face with the stark reality of Port Elizabeth which was exposed to me. And it was not pretty. Having written about many of these buildings and their distinguished residents, it came as a shock. It was not that most required a simple lick of paint but more ominously that many were gutted, stripped of their windows and doors and some even burnt out, husks of their former selves.
Port Elizabeth had reverted to what the visitors of 1830 to 1850 called a scruffy unkempt town with few redeeming features. I had been exposed to rampant decay in Joburg as most towns on the Reef are today no more than urban squatter camps through which nobody dares to drive as one is accosted by beggars and drunks of all descriptions. Only the CBD of Cape Town has escaped the depredations of urban blight and decay and in my mind, when writing about PE, I still had visions of a city maybe not with the first flushes of youth but nevertheless reflecting elegance. I was rudely disabused of such fantasies.
Identifying acts of omission & commission
With a municipality, which is largely dysfunctional, there is little wonder that the services which make life tolerable and the place liveable, have vanished. In the Sunday Times dated 8 January 2023, there is an excellent article by Songezo Zibi entitled “Let’s get the little things right before everything really falls apart” in which he describes his ordeal when visiting a relative in prison. In fact, he misclassifies the deterioration and rot. It is not mild, as he attempts to state, but extremely severe with most electrical and electronic equipment either non-functional or simply not available. What exacerbates the situation is that the systems, such as they are, are illogical and dysfunctional. This resonates with the situation in Port Elizabeth.
Rot & decay in action
What drew my attention to the extent of this decay was my brother who after more than 25 years spent his obligatory 8 days in PE. His examples and elaboration were extremely disheartening, dispiriting and discouraging. After intense reflection, there is nothing that can be done to ameliorate let alone reverse this process. Having witnessed the process in action in Gauteng over the past 40 years, it is unstoppable, ineluctable and, sadly, inevitable. My solution is to inhabit my bubble and visualise a city before the ravages or degradation struck, for Port Elizabeth of today is no longer the town that raised me. Apart from the decay, the ultimate barrier to relocation back to PE would be my family and friends in Joburg and the 80% of my family and friends in PE who have emigrated. Sad but true.
Ironically for a PEphile, whenever I have a business meeting in PE, I never stay in a hotel in Central such as the Grand or the King Edward. It would always be an hotel on the beach front. The best solution for these buildings to ensure their longevity is to convert them into some sort of accommodation. Moveover, to be able to claim that Port Elizabeth’s saviour is historical tourism is fallacious for PE to offer a “heritage experience”, much would have to be done to the central historical area but given municipal dysfunction and lack of money, this is pie-in-the-sky and unachievable.
Decay in action.
Photos by Alan Montgomery
Recent photographs which highlight aspects of this situation were taken by my brother Blaine and by my great friend and assistant in recording PE’s history, Alan Montgomery. The professionally taken main picture was the work of Anton Roland de Klerk.