Where has High Street gone? Where have all the little shops gone where the proprietors knew your name?
Where have the landmark churches gone that used to stand at one end of High Street and the little parks with benches?
If you were born after 1970 you’ll probably not know what I am talking about because the main road through town “always” was the way it is today – wall-to-wall traffic and perfectly horrible.
Bryant Simon, historian at the University of California, in a book titled Everything But the Coffee, writes of a similar trend in America. He calls it the “homogenisation of America”.
He quotes Thomas L Robinson – Houston urban landscape authority – who lamented how chain stores “have homogenised the downtown landscape so that there are few remaining external clues to where you are”.
It’s the same in South Africa. Look how Middelburg in Mpumalanga looks like Middelburg, Cape and they both look like Bethal. The landmarks are now Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets or the BP garage.
Local shopping centres are going the same way. Shopping is now done at regional shopping malls incorporating vast stores which, inside, offer sterile, soulless industrial-style shopping.
It is killing neighbourliness because no longer do neighbours come across each other in High Street or Main Street and stop for a chat or coffee.
Canadian environmental writer Naomi Klein calls those enterprises that have taken over town centres “new age chains” – in our case they are Pick n Pay, Checkers, KFC, Clicks, etc.
They have forced upon each little South African town a boring commercial strip.
As Bryant Simon put it: “It is more like there is one single, low-slung, set-back Main Street of branded stores (in America) and it gets repeated over and over again like a film trailer in a loop.”
Simon sees hope but only just. He says: “Too much sameness alarms rather than reassures.” He writes of “bobos” (bourgeois bohemians – a term coined by David Brooks to describe the offspring of the yuppies) “who want to be safely different and to be viewed as socially conscious and creative” – hopefully a new generation that will demand sensitive planning be reintroduced.
I am not sure if it’s possible.
Few towns today employ real town planners. The town clerk fills in. They were terrible during the apartheid years. They’re worse now.
The demise of High Street has done as much to extinguish neighbourliness as have suburbia’s high walls. It’s so bad that in some Joburg suburbs neighbours don’t know each other. Even should they recognise one another, they don’t stop to chat. It’s just not done.
You can, under certain circumstances, say “Hi” or even “Good morning” but neighbourliness is dead.
When I lived in a walled suburb (now I am in a stockade), if I were to see my neighbour’s house on fire I would have felt duty bound to call out: “Coo-eee! Your house in on fire!” But that’s all. If he didn’t hear the first time one wasn’t expected to go on calling “coo-eee” and making an exhibition of oneself.
I recall during a Highveld storm peering over the wall and seeing my neighbour and his wife frantically bashing out the back wall of their garage to release flood water building up against the house.
What could I say? We’d never spoken before. But I had to say something. “Having a spot of trouble, are we?” I said.
He said: “Yes.” That’s all.
That’s what urban living is doing to us. In the old days he would have at least paused to ask how I was.