Most of our guest always look for good tips on where to visit which is a little under the radar and could give them a less obviously touristy feel for the city. I always recommend Observatory and Woodstock, especially as an ex-loft owner in that area and as developers increasingly buy up property, the tightly knit multi-racial community who once called this Cape Town area home are being driven away by the rising cost of living.

Hipsters and tourists flock to the market at the Old Biscuit Mill to enjoy the pricey gourmet foods on offer.Hipsters and tourists flock to the market at the Old Biscuit Mill to enjoy the pricey gourmet foods on offer. Photograph: Justin Sholk

As the taxi pulls up outside the imposing red-brick building, an unofficial “car guard” rushes up to guide the driver into a parking space in the hope of earning a tip. Nearby, a young mother sits on the cold, damp pavement with her tiny infant swaddled in a blanket, begging from passersby. Across the road, two young boys perform for small change, pounding out a rhythm on paint tin drums.

Around them, a steady stream of trendily dressed locals and sleek, well-fed tourists head for the entrance of Cape Town’s trendy Old Biscuit Mill, drawn by its eclectic mix of designer boutiques, art galleries, antique shops and world-class restaurants – including the Test Kitchen, which this year was ranked 48th in a list of the world’s best restaurants.

At the entrance, security officers in military-style uniforms scrutinise the people entering Cape Town’s so-called “hipster heaven”, which is a world away from the shabby, down-at-heel streets surrounding it. Unlike the multi-racial community living and working in Woodstock, Cape Town’s oldest suburb, the vast majority of the Old Biscuit Mill’s patrons are white, while many of those serving in the food market and other businesses are black, as are the car guards and beggars outside.

Diagonally opposite the entrance, Lorna Thompson sits outside her house-cum-shop front, from where she sells the picture frames her husband Eddie makes from old wood bought from the people who eke out a living on Woodstock’s streets. Thompson and her husband, who grew up in the house, have lived here ever since they were married 35 years ago; their children are the fourth generation of Eddie’s family to grow up in the house.

Lorna Thompson, outside the frame shop she and her husband run from the front of their house, opposite The Old Biscuit Mill.
Lorna Thompson, outside the frame shop she and her husband run from the front of their house, opposite The Old Biscuit Mill. Photograph: Justin Sholk

“About five years ago, after the Biscuit Mill was sold and they started renovating it, I went to inquire about getting a place to sell our frames,” she says. “It looked very white, but I put my name down for a place anyway. We heard nothing more. That place is not for people like us and few, if any, of the goods sold there are from around here.”

Thompson adds that the neighbourhood has changed a lot since the Biscuit Mill opened its doors, with new businesses “owned by outsiders”. “Rich people have been buying up buildings, shops and houses in the area and rents have gone up. Businesses that were here for years have closed and many people have been forced to move out of Woodstock, because they can’t afford to stay here anymore. We were always a close community, we looked out for one another, but that has all changed.”

Once a small fishing hamlet, Woodstock began life as Papendorp in the mid-1800s, before land reclamation in the 1950s destroyed the magnificent Woodstock Beach. With the increasing English influence after the British occupation of the Cape, the name was changed to the more Anglicised New Brighton before finally becoming Woodstock. But the British influence remains strong in the road names, such as Victoria and Albert, and the rows of brick terraced and semi-detached houses that would not be out of place in an English town.

From the beginning, Woodstock in its various iterations has been a mixed community, both from a race and a religious point of view, a place where white, black and mixed race people, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived harmoniously side-by-side. Unlike District Six, its equally multi-racial neighbour, Woodstock survived forced removal under apartheid rule. When District Six, a community of 60,000 people on the slopes of Table Mountain, was flattened by bulldozers in the mid-1970s, Woodstock was left untouched.

Woodstock Beach was destroyed by land reclamation in the 1940s.
Woodstock Beach in the 1940s, before it was destroyed by land reclamation that extended Cape Town’s foreshore

“As racial segregation and institutional inequalities became locked in to the country’s urban landscapes through the formalisation of the apartheid legal codes, Woodstock crucially fell outside of the large-scale implementation of the Group Areas Act,” wrote Andrew Fleming in his 2011 dissertation Making a Place for the Rich? Urban Poor Evictions and Gentrification in Woodstock, submitted to the London School of Economics. “Through this legal ‘exemption’, Woodstock developed into one of the few urban ‘grey areas’ across the country and avoided many of the large-scale, racially-motivated removals characteristic of the apartheid government’s urban planning system seen in places such as neighbouring District Six.”

Another watershed moment came in 1986, when South Africa’s then-prime minister PW Botha called for Woodstock to be declared a ‘coloured’ area, arguing that they had been wronged “during the colonial era”. Botha’s call sparked the formation of the Open Woodstock Movement, with almost 700 residents of all races and religions signing a petition opposing any attempt to remove white residents and segregate the suburb along racial lines.

“A total of 674 people signed the petition, not merely to resist the government’s move, but to press for a de jure ‘open’ Woodstock,” wrote Jayne Garside in her 1993 doctoral thesis Gentrification in South Africa: the case of Woodstock, Cape Town. “Support was overwhelming from all races, namely that Group Areas were no solution as the Act was both disruptive and divisive.” Any plan to segregate the area was dropped “like a hot potato”, even though the government did not officially condone a mixed Woodstock suburb.

Former Woodstock resident Sarah Jones outside her new home in Blikkiesdorp. She was displaced when an investor bought her home of 30 years and then evicted her and her neighbours when they couldn’t pay the higher rent he demanded.
Former Woodstock resident Sarah Jones outside her new home in Blikkiesdorp. She was displaced when an investor bought her home of 30 years and then evicted her and her neighbours when they couldn’t pay the higher rent he demanded. Photograph: Justin Sholk

And yet, 20 years into South Africa’s new democracy, the traditional, mixed makeup of Woodstock is again under threat. Already, rising prices have forced many residents to leave. Sarah Jones stands in the middle of a rutted sand road on the outskirts of Cape Town, 30km away from Woodstock, oblivious to the stream of foul smelling sewage water running down its middle. Pointing to a block of corrugated iron shacks where people are gathered on the pavement, squabbling over bags of second-hand clothes and food a good samaritan has just dropped off, the former Woodstock resident says: “Look at what we have been reduced to; we fight over other people’s cast-offs.”

Jones, 52, and her family are part of a community of down-and-out people who call Blikkiesdorp – Tin Town – home. The settlement is, in official jargon, a Temporary Resettlement Area (TRA), but critics have described it as a human dumping ground ravaged by poverty, illness and drug-induced crime. The vast majority of the more than 20,000 people living here are black or mixed race, with just a handful of whites sprinkled among them.

“That’s Block P; it’s where the Woodstock people stay,” Jones says. “We were a community, we had lives, we could walk to the park and the shops, and the clinic was close by. Then a rich man bought our house and we were thrown out like dogs.”

Five years ago, Jones and her family lived in Gympie Street, one of Cape Town’s most infamous streets in a part of Woodstock riddled with crack houses, prostitution and crime. But in the run-up to the football World Cup in 2010, a wealthy doctor from Johannesburg bought the rundown building in which Jones and her family and about 60 other people lived, entire families crowded into a single room and sharing toilet and cooking facilities. His plan was to renovate the building and rent out accommodation to the hordes of foreign tourists who were expected to descend on the city for the football showcase.

All over Woodstock there are premises for sale or to rent, with many once housing local businesses unable to afford the increased rents. In the background is one of the new, upmarket blocks of flats that have sprung up to accommodate people moving into the area, a sign of the growing gentrification taking place. For Cities: gentrification of Woodstock. Cape Town, South Africa
All over Woodstock there are empty premises. Many local businesses have been unable to afford the increased rents. Photograph: Justin Sholk

The new owner put up the rent and when his tenants fell into arrears, he obtained a court order and had them evicted in the middle of the Cape’s harsh, wet winter, dumping them and their furniture on the pavement. For weeks they held out, camping out on the street, huddling around braziers to keep warm – but in the end, when it became clear that they would not be allowed back in, they opted to move to Blikkiesdorp. Their decision was sweetened by an offer from the landlord of ZAR10,000 (currently about £600) a household for them to leave.

“We did not realise how little it was, although at the time we thought it was a lot of money,” says Jones. “It was [used] up in no time and now we are stuck out here, where there is no work and we battle to put food on the table.”

A current Woodstock resident, 51-year-old Leslie Stoffberg, is also facing an uncertain future. He fears he will soon be forced to move from the Page Street rented house in which he was born and where he and his six siblings grew up.

“The owner says I will have to move, as he wants to throw down my house and the ones he owns next to it, so that he can build new flats to rent. I have been searching for something else, but rents have become very, very high here and I cannot find anything that I can afford,” Stoffberg says. “I lay awake at night worrying what will happen to me and my wife and son. But it is not only us; it is happening to people all around here and it is sad that our community is being broken up like this.”

Gympie Street has mostly been renovated and is now painted in pastel colours.
Gympie Street has mostly been renovated and is now painted in pastel colours. Photograph: Justin Sholk

These days, many of the once-grimy homes in Gympie Street are painted in pretty pastel shades, while the building from which Jones and her neighbours were evicted has been divided into single-room accommodation that is let out to foreigners from Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries for rents far higher than Jones and her neighbours paid.

The story of Gympie Street is symptomatic of what has been happening in Woodstock since the early 1990s. Situated a convenient 3km from the central business district (CBD), this working-class suburb was ripe for rejuvenation with its solidly-built, century-old houses and relatively low rents and property prices. In recent years, the redevelopment and gentrification process has gathered apace.

Although property prices have been increasing since the late 1980s, the signs of advancing gentrification taking deep root have become more visible over the past few years, driving up both business and residential property values and rents. Some of the biggest increases in value have been along Albert Road – one of the main thoroughfares in Woodstock – where many of the refurbishments of old buildings and new developments have taken place in recent years.

An informal car guard dodges the traffic in front of Woodstock's uber-trendy Old Biscuit Mill.
An informal car guard dodges the traffic in front of Woodstock’s uber-trendy Old Biscuit Mill. Photograph: Justin Sholk

Many of these new businesses are situated check-by-jowl alongside older, small businesses, such as neighbourhood corner cafes, second-hand furniture shops, cheap clothing outlets and traditional craftsmen. For sale and to rent signs are in shops windows everywhere, as older businesses unable to afford increased rents demanded by existing and new landlords are forced to close their doors.

A significant turning point for Woodstock came in 2007 when the Cape Town council designated the area as a priority urban development zone (UDZ) for urban upgrades, a mechanism designed to support the growth of the CBD eastwards. With it came significant tax breaks, encouraging wealthy local and foreign developers and investors to snap up properties ripe for redevelopment.

One of the earliest – and ongoing – Woodstock property developers is Indigo Properties, owned by a group of four men who call themselves Daddy’s Dragons. Their developments include the Biscuit Mill and the nearby Woodstock Exchange, an art, design and tech hub stretching across two repurposed buildings.

Previously criticised for their “exclusionary” developments that ignore “the real Woodstock”, the Dragons ignored my repeated attempts to seek their views on the suburb’s gentrification and their role in it. However, in the wake of an outcry soon after Indigo bought the Biscuit Mill, one of the directors, Nick Ferguson, told a Mail & Guardian reporter: “If it [Woodstock] is being gentrified now, it’s all normal. It’s not a clandestine plot against poorer people, just natural economics that value can be created from neglected properties in good areas. It’s a positive thing that there is investment and improvements, or else we would spiral into a slum.”

Antique dealer Jason Delos in the chapel of the once derelict Catholic girls' school that he has painstakingly restored.
Antique dealer Jason Delos in the chapel of the once derelict Catholic girls’ school that he has painstakingly restored. Photograph: Justin Sholk

Other recent property developments along Woodstock’s Albert Road include the Bromwell Boutique Mall – once a seedy hotel that was painstakingly restored and now has a black doorman wearing a bowler hat and waistcoat greeting customers at the entrance. Down the road is Delos Antiques, an Aladdin’s Cave of antiques and collectable curiosities, housed inside a one-time Catholic girls’ school and its adjoining chapel. Its owner, Jason Delos, who bought the derelict property three years ago and then spent “a small fortune” restoring it, says the area was “very dodgy” then, adding that he was burgled three times in his first six months before he put up a high boundary wall, topped with electric fencing, and installed burglar alarms.

“The redevelopment of Woodstock is a good thing and buying property here is a good investment,” Delos says, “but it will take a few years before the area really becomes something.” On the traditional businesses and residents who are being displaced, he says simply: “That’s life.”

Woodstock is certainly changing, but it remains to be seen whether it is for the better. For now, the man hustling tips to park rich people’s cars, the young mother and those two young boys are entirely excluded from what’s happening. Only time will tell whether they will find a place in the new Woodstock – or find themselves on the dusty streets of Blikkiesdorp.

With thanks to Raymond Joseph in Cape Town