What can an archive of news articles tell us about the urban development of a neighbourhood. A student projects asks how mapping media history can unpack the development and social history of an area.
Words: Brittany Morris, Rebecca Looringh van Beeck, Christine Dalle-Vedove
In Cape Town’s National Library folders and folders of cut-out newspaper articles about Sea Point from as early as 1950 were found. They were then meticulously categorized taking note of entertaining headlines. From this a historical understanding of Sea Point grew and what had at the outset been assumptions and rumours were coming to life via newspaper articles and images.
“The “dip” began in the late 1990’s when a series of violent crimes occurred” says Rebecca Looringh van Beeck, an architecture student at the University of Cape Town (UCT). “These crimes reached a peak in 2003 with ‘Massage Massacre’ when 9 men were brutally shot in a gay massage parlour in Graham Road” adds Looringh van Beeck . “The event, a possible hate crime, was tagged as being drug related. Related reports dominated the media and Sea Point was branded as a dangerous and violent no-go area. However, it was followed by articles about upgrading, cleaning litter, and infrastructural improvements, paving the way for the Sea Point we know today”.
6,910 cut-outs read revealed a media history of the area that also reflected the change in perception of that area
What began as an architecture mapping assignment became a pedagogical journey towards understanding Sea Point’s urban development, and poses questions on how mapping new stories over time, can unpack the development and social history of an area. Rebecca Looringh van Beeck and her project partner, Ashleigh Killa sought to uncover Sea Point’s development over the last decades, and understand the changes of the neighbourhood within a historical context using media as the mapping medium.
Flipping through folders of archived newspaper headlines spanning from 1950 – 2011, the 6,910 cut-outs read revealed a media history of the area that also reflected the change in perception of that area. “The public’s perception of Sea Point has been significantly affected by media trends and it was interesting to understand the area through this same lens.” says Looringh van Beeck.
Each newspaper article was categorised according to key themes that identified via the research process, namely: crime/patrol, disturbances, pollution/degredation, racial, upliftment, commerical, beach/open space/recreational, apartments/flats, parking/transport, public buildings/civic development, hotels/tourism, entertainment/local news.
From this thematic information two graphics were drawn. The first, entitled ‘Categorical Media Concerns’ (See Figure 1.) used varying shades of colour (red) to represent the intensity of concerns in relation to time. The darker the colour, the more articles were recorded within that specific time bracket. Each categorical strip is self-relative and cannot necessarily be cross compared in regards to the number of articles per category – for example, the darkest red may represent 20 articles in one category but 5 articles in another but both express peaks in media trends/ concerns. The second one, entitled ‘Positive versus Negative’ represent the proportion of favorable news against negative ones (See Figure 2.).
This third graphic was drawn as a consolidation of the best (and worst!) newspaper headlines. Selected headlines are chronologically ordered along a map of Regent Road, Sea Point with negative titles on the left and positive titles on the right (See Figure 3.)
Looringh van Beeck reflects on how the headlines that illustrated Sea Point’s hotel and apartment block boom in the 1960s and shopping malls in the 70s “shed light on how architectural interventions influence an area’s image”, with headlines such as: “More big flats for Sea Point”, “The Ugly Towers again”, “300 Objections to Tower Block”, “Architects defend tower scheme” and “My lovely view is gone”, telling the story.
“With the onset of Apartheid propaganda, press (related to Sea Point) in the early to mid 60s was predominantly about “vagrants”, “drunks” and “night gangs”, one article even called Sea Point the “new District Six”. Racially related news peaked in 1973 and ‘74, with a significant number of articles about “undesirables”, “beach invasions” and police raids of domestic’s quarters. This dominated the media until 1980[,]” when the decade’s headlines such as Cape Tourism boosted by R50m hotel and Flatly extravagant boasted the area’s affluence.”
Violence and crime related articles with headlines such as “Children see mothers gunned down” and “83 year old throttled and robbed” took over the news after the massacre. However, after the mid-2000s the headlines shifted and articles reported news stories of upgrading, cleaning litter, and infrastructural improvements, with headlines reading “Democratic Spaces Putting Things Right” and “Slowly but surely putting things right”, ultimately paving the way for the Sea Point we know today”.
“While it’s important to be media literate and understand how media can be biased, exaggerated and influenced, media was an effective way of gaining an in depth understanding of a neighbourhood’s past, and illustrating how a neighbourhood can drastically change over time – that change is always a possibility. ”
The fourth graphic, entitled ‘Chronological Media Concerns’ (or ‘peaks’ drawing) represents how the media prioritises reporting on crime or other negative news rather than on upliftment, community events or more positive news. The research of Looringh van Beeck and Killa sheds light on how one is able to ” understand how an area’s culture has changed, how media has influenced developers’ attitudes, how (and why) buildings were built or torn down and to an extent how the past can inform future perspectives of similar urban development and influence current policy and development priorities”.
While the research conducted proved media as a beneficial method of mapping a neighbourhood’s development narrative, one could imagine what the media mapping of a different neighbourhood would look like? Given the influence of social media and the proliferation and reach of the web, how will media continue to inform urban development decision making and perspectives in Cape Town, for better or for worse?
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All graphics were provided by Rebecca Looringh van Beeck and her project partner, Ashleigh Killa.