Arts and Culture

The street is Long, with many a windy turn

Hilary Prendini Toffoli

Fights are spilling out into the gutters of central Cape Town, but patrons are unfazed – the commotion is driving investors - to Bree Street.

Long Street: It is popular for its clubs, restaurants, and slightly sleazy vibe, but incidents of drunkenness and violence have made some people nervous. (David Harrison, M&G)

Over the years Long Street has become as iconic a Cape Town landmark as Bleecker Street in New York. Through changing times, its layered ambience – built up over centuries – has remained intact, the sex once offered in upstairs brothels now replaced by drugs offered on every corner. That indefinably sleazy vibe is what pulls the tourists. But is Long Street's popularity in danger of imploding?  

Business Day columnist Sipho Hlongwane was the first to record, after a particularly violent evening last year, that Long Street's grungy fun is getting hardcore. He'd witnessed gangs of drunken underage youths from Nyanga attacking each other with knives and involving innocent bystanders, while a large group of policemen just stood by, watching. 

Long Street traders insist it was an isolated incident. "I remember the shouting and screaming but it doesn't happen often," says the owner of the Dim Sum Bar, Ed Hung. "Long Street will always be hot. It's an institution." Somalian Hassan Ali, whose trading store is open 24/7, says he's had no problems. 

But the Ghanaian manager of Long Street Liquors, Machada Ineh, says he's nervous. He's been attacked on the street. So has glamorous 24-year-old boutique manager Georgia Steytler. "It was nine in the morning. After I stamped on his foot with my platform shoes and punched him hard in the face with my big rings, he ran off. I didn't even spill my coffee. Look, if you grew up in Cape Town, you grew up on Long Street. I've been coming here since I was 14 but it's just not the same any more."

                         Deborah Polonsky,owner of a boutique in Bree Street.              

If anyone should be nervous it's Henrietta Dax of Clarke's Bookshop. She has been here for three decades. But she's unruffled. "Long Street was far more dangerous 20 years ago. Now there's so much security I can work here until midnight. Of course sometimes the street just goes mad and gets filled with drunken people. But that's Long Street. It has a life of its own." 

She says when there's a problem, the Central City Improvement District's safety and security manager Mo Hendricks can be relied on to respond instantly. He remains upbeat about Long Street. "We had a few isolated incidents a few months ago," he says, "which caused a negative perception, but the crime stats are actually very low for an area that is economically and socially vibrant with a 24-hour environment that draws people looking for entertainment, and where a market appears for the soliciting of drugs and for pickpocketing."

While Long Street might have hit a speed wobble, Bree Street is pressing forward. As broad and free-moving as one-way Long is narrow and clogged, Bree has two-way traffic that makes parking and shopping more convenient. Its lovely old spreading trees support a thriving pavement culture. 

With designer shops and eateries popping up everywhere, it has become the cool Capetonian's pavement paradise, particularly as it's away from the uncool tourist hordes.  

Even Johannesburg's 44 Stanley property developers Brian Green and Mark Batchelor have zeroed in on Bree Street's potential. They invested R20-million in what was a derelict garage next to the Chris Barnard Memorial Hospital and have turned it into a striking building with a sloping and faceted glass-topped roof that's home to the newest and busiest tapas bar in the city. Brainchild of Harbour House restaurateur Michael Townsend, La Parada opens on to the street and runs chock-a-block with men in ties and girls in havaianas happily munching croquetas and calamari.  

In the space below, Townsend is creating what he calls "a bar lounge where you can dance after you've eaten upstairs", and on the first floor is SAM (all strictly South African-made homeware and fashion).

                                Bree Street. Photography by David Harrison, M&G                

British fashion king Paul Smith – Royal Designer for Industry, knighted by Queen Elizabeth – is also in Bree now, in a royal blue building. He relocated downtown from his posh spot on the V&A Waterfront's platinum mile. Customers prefer the pop-in ease of Bree, says the manager. 

More global fashion items are on offer in a tranquil row of Georgian semis at the street's mountain end. Iracema's Deborah Polonsky, a former Londoner with an eye for the stunning one-off, says: "It was pretty dead here when I opened a few years ago." Now the cult designers have moved in: Durban's international jewellery dynamo Kirsten Goss, Missibaba's leather guru Chloe Townsend, Skinny laMinx aka Heather Moore, who sells her Africa-inspired fabrics all over the world, and Swedish Capetonian Alexandra Hojer, whose "elegant rock n roll" clothing is produced on the premises. 

With tattoos and takkies rampant, Cape Town's carefree café society has a wide choice of fare: Jason's artisanal breads. Clarke's trendy burgers. I Love My Laundry's dim sum and fondues. &Union's steaks and beer. Sababa's Mediterranean buffet.  Orphanage's mind-blowing cocktails. 

Yet Long Street still rolls on. Newest foreigner to buy in is Dutch businessman Raymond Hasselerharm, who has just acquired Long Street Hotel and plans to add another eight soundproofed rooms. 

He claims the upgraded hotel will be "a wonderfully cool oasis within the bustling cosmopolitan landscape." It opens in August.

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