Pretoria “Town”: Empty Buildings and More Nostalgia

As a person who grew up in the leafy suburbs of Pretoria, I’ve always been intrigued by “town”. And also a bit scared of it.

It probably has something to do with one of my earliest childhood memories. One of driving to the State Theatre with my mom and having a hand reach into the driver’s window and pull the gold chain off her neck while we were stopped at a light.

I’ll never forget the colour of the shirt he was wearing, beige with colourful stripes. I never saw his face, and the chain fell into the footwell below the driver’s seat at about the same time that I think the robot changed colour. So we drove on (relatively unscathed apart from the obvious shock and discomfort that comes with having something ripped off your neck).

It’s such a vivid memory, and one that I think tainted my experience of a place that I would later drive into everyday while working as an editor at South African History Online, and love.

While working right next to Church Square on Bosman Street, “town” started to feel like just another part of my city, and not a place that I had to be scared of being in. (Even if I’ll always be a bit cautious there, like I would be anywhere else in the world).

But that was eight years ago, and things feel a little bit different now that I don’t spend so much time in the city anymore.

(Pretty Much) Empty Pretoria Buildings: Arcadia Centre

After not having spent much time in “town” since 2010, I went to two events there last week, one night after the other. And it’s amazing how much my perspective has changed.

Before, just being in town was exciting enough for me, with all of the high rises, historic architecture and all the busy-ness and bustle. So different to the suburban bubble where I did, and still do, spend most of my time.

The first event was last Wednesday night, when I went to an event hosted by Invest in Future Currency, which was held at the Arcadia Hotel on Johannes Ramakoase Street. It took me a while to realise that this used to be called Proes Street (the most important “r” in Pretoria as my dad used to say). Well, actually, it was next door to the Arcadia Hotel, in a room on the top floor of the Arcadia Centre.

Which is empty.

Killing Time Before an Event in an Empty Pretoria Mall

It was hard not to feel nostalgic and a little bit depressed while walking around a mall where most of the store spaces are vacant. Except for a Portuguese restaurant with no power, a beauty salon, some union/church offices, a doctor’s rooms, an internet cafe, a small technical college and a tiny cafe with a few packets of Rizla on a cigarette shelf and a plate of boiled eggs on the counter.

I thought about how this used to be a really busy place. A place where both my aunts (who used to live in the area) would probably do their shopping, and where a good friend of my mother’s met one of her lifelong friends while working at the Gift Horse. It also felt sad to look at the artwork on the wall (Ernst de Jongh ’72) and think that not much had probably been updated since the artist’s tagline. What really killed me was the climbing wall, with nothing to climb on.

Of course, it was after hours, and I knew I was definitely romanticising a very segregated past. But the centre just felt so lonely, and kind of abandoned. I feel like I got just an inkling of how people might feel when they drive through Detroit and see all of the derelict houses and factories, where there once was a thriving motor economy.

The Cryptocurrency event was interesting (and impressively well run from a marketing perspective), but I left feeling confused. First of all, how does the centre continue to operate at about 20% tenant capacity? Secondly, why there’s no one there? (Economic downturn probably being the main reason).

(I’m also still wondering what that guy was looking at on that projector screen in the dark in the internet cafe on the second level, but that’s just me being nosy).

021 Central: A Different Pretoria Perspective

And then I went to the corner of Stanza Bobape (Church) and Sisulu (Prinsloo) Streets last Thursday night, and got a completely different appreciation of the potential of under-utilised buildings in Pretoria.

I’d been wanting to go to my primary school friend Alex’s Molo Mollo Cinema Club events for a long time. So I decided that even though an outdoor cinema screening probably wouldn’t be ideal in 10 degree winter weather, that I was going to do it anyway.

So I dragged my hairdresser friend along, and even though we initially struggled to find the place (being sidetracked by a couple who was going to watch a band play at 021 Central next door), we eventually found the sign, and the number to call. And were quickly welcomed by Tsepang and a few other friendly people on the floor above the parking lot. Where we bought popcorn (and other things).

All set with our camping chairs, we chose a spot to the right of the screen in the courtyard outside and started to ready ourselves for the cold. It wasn’t that bad at all, especially because we were initially distracted by the brilliant intro screening (a compilation of the last scene of a variety of films, all set to quotes and emotive music).

Looking up at the massive building above me, and at all the lights of the State Theatre across from us and the city around me, I felt very at home (and none of the depressing feelings that I’d felt the night before).

And Then My Pretoria Nostalgia Got A Different Edge

After the screening of The Other Final (which deserves it’s own blog post), I spoke to Alex about the building and what a great space it is (mostly because I wanted to find out more about the co-working space that he mentioned he’s setting up there, as part of his digital agency Phlogiston).

He said he liked my last post about plants (yay), and that he’s also wanting to create a totally green entrance to his part of the building. One that makes people feel like they’re walking into a jungle (sold). He also mentioned that the entire surrounding building that they’re based in is completely empty. That’s three tall concrete buildings worth of office space with no one in it, purely because the property owners prefer single tenants.

I mentioned to him how sad I was to see Arcadia Centre so empty the night before, and he said something really interesting. Something along the lines of “yes, it’s sad, but it’s also an opportunity to start something new”.

Given how I’d been feeling the day before, that was exactly what I needed to hear: a solid reminder that not everything stays the same forever (and that’s actually a really good thing).

4 thoughts on “Pretoria “Town”: Empty Buildings and More Nostalgia”

  1. I drove through Pretoria downtown about 5 years ago and I was shocked – there were burned out buildings and a general sense of decay almost everywhere you looked. It made me upset to think this was our capital city.

    The amount of incredible creativity that exists in PTA will hopefully create something really amazing out of these empty shells but seeing that little has changed since I visited years ago leaves me a little sad.

    1. Totally hear you Ivan. I do feel like there is a lot of potential to change things for the better, and we’re actually the people who need to make it happen!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *