Make Way For The Branded Overlayby Brandon Edmonds / 25.08.2011
If you’re a regular at Vida e Caffé and addicted to 2 Oceans Vibe, you’re probably aware of the Name Your Hood (NYH) venture currently naming micro-hoods in the Cape Town city bowl until December. Given the fraught ideological back-ground of naming public spaces (to take but one of multiple symbolic excesses throughout the land, Tshwane-Bela Bela-Nelson Mandela Boulevard, the streets of Durban, my soporifically skeezy hometown, where I first got stoned and finger-banged willing grunge moppets at the Rift, have been unilaterally re-titled with Struggle Heroes as fanciful as Che Guevara – and it just feels Stalinist and wrong), this cross-sector entrepreneurial venture is certainly chancy. It explains the overweening politeness of NYH Facebook protocol: every post is met with: “Thanks for the comment.” Try it. And why the organizers tell any media willing to listen that the consultation process runs deep, years in the making (“300 meetings over a 3-year period”), bread broken with countless “stakeholders”, relevant professionals, organisations and government departments suitably caressed and cajoled. MD Bruce Good, along with Nic Lamond, both bring-home-to-mama MBA grads from UCT Business School, came up with the notion of naming hoods while living in New York and London. Imagine him letting loose a discreet latte’ fart in Chelsea or stopping to watch a Honduran transvestite eat a summer peach in Soho thinking “ka ching!” Why not the underdeveloped little pockets of Cape Town?
As Bruce told Elle magazine: “The campaign will ignite community spirit and creativity to produce user-friendly cities through an inclusive, democratic process.” Now I love buzz bands and baguettes as much as the next bandwidth huffing young urbanite willing to drop everything to swap Big Lebowski quotes (“Don’t be fatuous, Jeffrey!”), but this uurgh hip young “creative” demographic nursing not so secret Phillippe Starck dreams of empire if they could only secure idea-incubator start-up space in the Fringe (Cape Town’s Design & Innovation District) is by no means “inclusive”. There are a few street-level voting booths in the designated neighborhoods to be named and voting stations inside key sponsor Pam Golding offices (a Death Star-like real-estate agency presence we’ll get to shortly) but accessing the campaign is largely online or sms.
We’re currently 110th in the world in internet reach “with a 9% penetration” (according to World Wide Worx) behind Egypt and the fucking Seychelles. Maybe radio would have been the way to go for genuine inclusivity? And I’m not sure young black kids give enough of a fuck, without dedicated informative campaigning, to waste an sms on naming a neighborhood in the city bowl for a pair of ambitious MBA grads? They certainly don’t give enough of a fuck to sms Idols and save that show from coughing up a series of telegenic caucasian performers headed for a slow death on cruise ships and regional casino circuits. But young black kids don’t own property. Yet. They don’t matter. They’re still plugged into the apartheid spatial economy of far-flung townships way out of Wi-fi range. So who cares what they think? MD Bruce Good is blowing PR smoke rings. This is not an “inclusive, democratic process.” It’s just something you have to say repeatedly in this country to get anything done. And that kind of empty repetition of inclusivity without substance is the essence of the new South Africa.
The first wave of neighborhood naming is rumoured to have garnered as few as 145 votes for the winner. The PR position is “450 submissions and thousands of votes”. No doubt the numbers will improve as the venture gains traction. But if the former is true it certainly rams home the incestuous Kloof street ‘creatives’ coterie thesis. How apt that the winning neighborhood name for this area is “The Loop”. A loop in music is self-enclosed replication. A thing on repeat. It perfectly evokes the worst qualities of this hipper-than-thou design community. A suspicion only deepened by listening to that voice-over in the NYH promotional video. The kind of voice you overhear at &Union, at the Biscuit Mill, at gallery openings, and ordering Eggs Benedict (with a willowy slip of a girl channeling glassy Marianne Faithful come-down chic) on a Sunday at a super chill eatery with James Blake playing. It represents a particular end-user of the city bowl, the employed creative, with disposable income, going places, and loving every second of the city. Make it all about them then and don’t rhetorically prestik the rest of us onto the hide of the campaign to make it seem more inclusive than it is.
So what’s the real capitalizing logic behind the NYH venture? The answer springs fully-formed from MD Bruce Good’s own lips: “We’re simply creating a branded overlay for the city.” This is where things get subjective. Language like that makes me see Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak creased over the city, erasing the contradictions, the inequalities, the antagonisms, the reality of public space, so brand messages can circulate more freely. I remember T.S. Eliot’s “Let’s go then, you and I / When evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”. I see branding as a BAD thing. Especially the branding of shared public space because it “etherizes” alternative communal values (co-operation, solidarity) other than profit-making and consumption. NYH calls areas of the city “nameless and faceless” instilling an urgency to create a problem where there wasn’t one. And I’m against any venture that makes mega-companies like Pam Golding, the first local real estate agency to bank R18 billion in a single year, this delighted: “Property for sale in the city bowl will be more accessible than ever before. Buyers will be able to take a virtual tour of any neighborhood in Cape Town and ‘window shop’ for Pam Golding properties while they’re at it. Browsing for property has never been this interactive or this easy!”
Bruce Good didn’t like my “accusatory tone” in an email interview – admittedly filthy with slanted questions pushing the isn’t this all about making the city safe for Pam Golding’s bottom line agenda. “Like many other businesses, big or small, our sponsors stand to gain from the benefits we hope NYH will assist in creating.” He assured me, “we are not our sponsors” and asked: “Would you rather see three flats in the City Bowl and possibly land up next to Mavericks? Or would like to view three flats in Little Camissa?” Little Camissa is another of the winning names. Fair enough. There are potential upsides and spinoffs and knock-on effects for local businesses and communities in these neighborhoods. Whether that happens (look how much all that World Cup construction is doing for us) or not, the fact remains, that under the cloak of inclusivity NYH has, however inadvertently, crowd-sourced a segment of the public (who love and use the city bowl religiously) into a chain of value-creation that may well end up pricing them out of their own city.