Danny Glenwright
Danny Glenwright

When things fall apart

By Danny Glenwright

I have a tiny place in my heart for decay. Well, rather a bit larger than tiny.

There’s something about dilapidation and dereliction that make me feel comfortable and ensure a place feels special. If I’m travelling it’s usually what entices my camera from my pocket.

Most people like shiny and new. My partner wants his cars with air conditioning and electric gadgets, his homes with modern furniture and fittings and his local haunts to feel anything but haunted.

I’m all about the crumbling, the antique and the broken.

On a recent trip to Mozambique I’m sure I was the only person to get off my plane disappointed that Maputo had a new airport. Airport workers were efficient and I had my visa in no time. It was also tidy and sparkling and, I was told, had only been open one day when I arrived. Shame, I thought to myself, I’ll miss the old one.

After a previous trip to Maputo in 2006 I had written fondly about my experience:

“After checking in at the airport with agents whose computers didn’t work, we put our bags through a metal detector that didn’t appear to be turned on and waited on plastic chairs beside the runway. When the time came to board the plane, we were ushered onto the runway and presented with rows of luggage sitting against the departure area of the airport. As we walked to the plane, we had to find our luggage and point it out to a porter who marked it with a chalk X so it could be loaded onto our plane. No tags, no stickers, no metal detectors, just a white X-mark. I was reminded yet again how differently things are done in this corner of the world and how delightfully refreshing it can sometimes be.”

But once I was out again in the streets of Maputo, it didn’t disappoint. I rapaciously inhaled the nautical scent of the bossy ocean breezes as they elbowed their way off the waves and into the busy streets.

Dilapidated colonial buildings form a sometimes cheerless skyline. Many of the people look as bedraggled as the buildings. For four days I walked by a large, dead crow in the middle of the sidewalk on a main street; nobody bothered to get rid of it. The city, like so many in Africa, has been neglected for too long and allowed to miserably deteriorate. It was wonderful.

For me there is nothing more tantalising than a crowded, dirty, malodorous city.

One of my favourite websites is derelictlondon.com, which has hundreds of pictures of deserted buildings, pubs, toilets and cemeteries in the British capital. Sadly, this is the only record of many of these gorgeous ruins; most have been demolished to make way for new developments, the kind my partner would covet. Meanwhile, I look at the pictures and yearn for a long lost Camden toilet with no stall doors, no toilet seats, vomit carpeting and graffiti that might keep me busy for hours.

The famous American novelist Henry Miller once said “I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth”.

Miller was writing in Paris in the 1930s, a city that was at the time a hotbed of artistic fervour. Everyone from Gertrude Stein to Picasso to Hemingway was creating something in the Paris of that era, which was also a hectic, filthy, crowded place.

In his book Metrostop Paris: History from the City’s Heart, Gregor Dallas wrote that, despite the fact they were making “big money”, Miller and French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre stayed in the Rue de Seine’s Louisiane Hotel, what he called a “pimp-and-prostitute” place.

I think I would too. I find uniformity and gloss tedious. The world’s real interesting stuff is found in its gutters and dank hotel rooms.

I lived for a year in Freetown and fell madly in love with the city’s crumbling facade. Mossy colonial-era structures eaten by sea water, war and humidity, crumbling administrative buildings that, in their ramshackle state, tell as compelling a story as the manicured government house in Pretoria.

A New Jerusalem isn’t always better than what was there. And modern Jerusalem is another perfect example of development gone wrong: illegal Israeli settlements as architecturally exciting as homes and hotels from a Monopoly board have invaded spaces which were once sacred and beautiful in their historic decay. It’s not called the “old” city for no reason. The Jewish quarter and much of West Jerusalem now feels more like a tourist amusement park than one of the world’s most historic sites.

I hope cities like Freetown and Maputo are never discovered by the tourist masses. Their charm and appeal would fade. Gentrification happens, “development” happens, classic, crumbling buildings are demolished and cookie-cutter structures go up overnight with little thought in the way of architecture, history, staying power or aesthetics. Prices rise and the poor are pushed closer to the margins.

Just look at today’s Olympics-ready East London or most of Johannesburg, where I now live. Modern Jozi’s been slapped together in the most hideous, unplanned, sprawling fashion. Nobody cares, everyone exists behind stone walls and electric fences, but there’s not much here for posterity’s sake. I’d choose an afternoon drive in the central business district over Sandton any day — at least it tells a story.

Of course this is controversial, especially if it means denying growth and “development” to those who’ve suffered. I get it.

Yes, the people of Mozambique should have their own brand new shiny airport, I won’t refuse them that. Development is good, development is good, development is good, chant with me. Even Monocle, Britain’s highbrow current-affairs magazine, recently ran a feature on Maputo, referring to its “renaissance” and finding that it was a city of juxtapositions: old-new, rich-poor and beautiful-ugly.

Good for Maputo, but it’s probably the beginning of the end. Those juxtapositions won’t last long; soon it will be new, rich and “beautiful”.

While I was there I met a businessman who runs a car rental chain. He was raving about bringing a beach buggy business to Maputo and the beach towns along the Mozambican coastline. I couldn’t even pretend to act as if I thought it was a good idea; I can actually think of nothing more horrible for the country’s charming beaches. What next, jet skis, cruise ships and rows of symmetrical, bland, expensive hotel chains?

Globalisation is unforgiving in its homogeneity. Maputo will have a McDonald’s before you can say Vasco da Gama. Tourist buses will replace dead crows and sterile buildings will replace history. It’s already happening.

“We just don’t make ‘em the way we used to” is the way of the future. But having seen ‘em the way we make ‘em now, I’m not convinced the future is very bright.

Danny Glenwright is a Canadian journalist and human rights do-gooder currently based in Johannesburg. For several years he has lived and worked in Africa and the Middle East, writing about human rights, gender issues and various other topics that get him worked up.