In the latest post in Urban Joburg’s “Joburg streets” series, they take a walk down the rather schizophrenic high street on one of Joburg’s oldest suburbs
Several of Joburg’s more established suburbs boast a ‘high street’ of sorts – a central, often formerly residential, thoroughfare boasting shops, restaurants and filling stations. While some of these (such as those in Melville, Greenside and Parkhurst) have become well-known focal points of Joburg’s scattered, suburban social scene, others have settled into lowest-common-denominator retail nodes whereas yet others serve niche interests or retain a village-like, small town community feel.
The interesting thing about walking down Kensington’s Queens street is that it calls to mind all three of these (fairly radically) different models of suburban ‘high streets’, without ever really capitulating to (or, some would say, entirely succeeding at) either.
Walking South from its intersection with Albertina Sisulu drive (the former Broadway), fairly large commercial premises (including one occupied by the well-known and celebrated Optimo pizzeria) give way to a fairly quaint diverse commercial strip around Cumberland road, where a Lebanese barber and Italian supermarket lend an out-of place Mediterranean feel to a strip of somewhat forlorn 1950s-style shopfronts.
Then, suddenly, there is nothing. Or what feels like nothing. A cluster of large premises selling automobile parts and offering cash loans (from a building which, titillatingly, was once briefly but –alas – unsuccessfully prepared to host a transvestite club) attract light and sporadic traffic during business hours but are a deserted island (in the least flattering sense possible) outside thereof, evoking the kind of empty-parking-lot-under-the-weatherness more readily associated with the industrial ring around forlorn West Rand towns.
This, mercifully, lasts but a block and a half, before quirkily renovated formerly residential homes on both sides of the road present some of Joburg’s most celebrated antique shops, scattered among leisurely coffee shops, scrumptious breakfast-type restaurants and the occasional vendor of knickknacks that no one could possibly have any use for. This is the Queen street that crops up in middle-class-intoned recommendations of ways to spend a Sunday morning: a pleasant, frivolous and leisurely place, partial to strolling rather than walking.
And, just as suddenly as it arrived, the Victorian-lite cottage-y feel evaporates into something almost entirely its opposite, as one nears the busy intersection with Langermann Drive. Here, somewhat run-down and unattractive commercial premises boast a truly eclectic mix of goods and services. Butcheries, supermarkets, a sex shop, an authentic German pub, a video store, an Ethiopian church and restaurant, an Egyptian-run tobacco and pipe shop, a tailor and mainstream fast-food joints all clutter together in what must surely struggle to be contained by the letter of zoning regulations.
Yet it is this latter part of Queen street that, in our opinion, works best. It buzzes, day and night. People of all colours, classes and creeds pass through constantly, satisfying diverse needs of varying levels of sophistication (or not) along the way. Long after the cutesy antique shops lower down have closed their wrought-iron security gates and the pavements at their front have assumed a true suburban sleepiness (that blends somewhat too well with the semi-industrial wasteland in the block adjacent), the sounds of cynical laughter, foreign tongues and cash registers continue around the scruffy southern corner. Ethnically, linguistically and class-wise, this is one of the most diverse, and interesting, corners of suburban Joburg.
That this corner finds itself at the end of a street which displays such different characteristics further up would be surprising if this wasn’t Johannesburg – city of contrasts and extremes. As it is, though, Queen street is just another feather in our city’s cap: slightly worn, perhaps in need of a wash, but certain to draw attention.
This article originally appeared on Urban Joburg on 15 November 2013.