Timelessness on Florida Road

Florida Road – a strip in Durban with charm and history. Whispers of yesteryear mix with bright sparks of the future. In the second of our Regeneration Series, we take a look at what is being done to reshape this iconic area. . .

I grew up in Durban, and my memories are pretty foggy at best. But one place you can’t forget is Florida Road – if nothing else, you will remember the vibe of the strip even if you only visit once. It is iconic, undoubtedly, an institution in greater Durban that has stood whatever tests time has bandied about.

Admittedly in recent years, Florida Road began to degenerate. The decay was not only physical but seemingly moral, with uncontrolled nightlife and alleged underhanded dealings becoming commonplace. But – and here is one of the reasons I truly love the spirit of Durban – it is beginning to turn around. Through the tenacity of a core group, Florida Road is slowly starting to reinvent itself; the olde world charm is filtering in again and history begins to peek through the cracks that had begun to show. The resurgence in Florida Road thus far has been remarkable: when I drove down to research this piece I was pleasantly surprised at how much the street has changed. It’s clean and bright, warm and inviting. Shop fronts are looking sharper, greenery is beginning to sprout and it is evident that pride is being poured back into Florida Road.

The beauty of Florida Road lies in the blend: like an expertly made mocha the sidewalk cafés mix with trendy eateries and older buildings, creating a gorgeous synthesis. The tree-lined streets would tell stories, if they could, of the history of Florida Road (did you know that the first municipal tramline in South Africa was laid in Florida Road around 1892 – when horses provided the motive power?).

The Edwardian-era structures – think the Quarters Hotel – bring an air of nostalgia you would be hard-pressed
to find anywhere else in Durban; some are more than a century old. The distinguishing urban hum of Florida Road, combined with the ongoing rejuvenation, has turned the stretch between Sandile Thusi and Innes Road into a fashionable spot. Places like ci gusta! – an Italian ice cream parlour, lend a fun element to Florida Road: aiming to satisfy a quirky element for the younger, creative crowd.

One of the main tenets behind Florida Road’s resurgence is the area’s Urban Improvement Precinct (UIP). Urban Regeneration MGT’s Cara Reilly said the role of the UIP is to manage the symptoms of urban decay and
in so doing become the champions for the revitalization of Florida Road. “This is a landmark location, truly the heart of the Berea and a key Durban neighbourhood. Property owners and residents have invested deeply into Florida Road and we want to protect the area from degrading. The baseline approach to this urban management are physical interventions, making visible changes with cleaning, maintenance and security services, that start to change perception and work towards slowly improving investor confidence. As we progress, these changes will increase until
we get to the pinnacle of urban management and that is creating exceptional experiences of the place – remembering of course that our cleaning and security base level is never lost.” The UIP has established a firm relationship with the Ethekwini Municipality and residents, which has yielded positive results thus far. Challenges still exist, though, in the form of car guards, vagrants and nightlife, which becomes uncontrolled at times. “But we are here to listen. To give the residents a voice and gain trust, building confidence and pride in Florida Road. It’s a restoration, really. I’d like to think that once Florida Road regains its former glory it will have a knock-on effect. We’ve got to give Durban a reason to be proud of Florida Road again.”

Derek Kemp has lived in the area for 21 years and remembers it as much quieter, with many properties only occupied by residents, some of whom lived and worked from home. Kemp, who is on the Community Policing Forum, believes efforts like the UIP have brought about a tangible improvement. “Without it, I’m sure the area would have deteriorated instead of looking clean and free of graffiti. They have tried to rid the road of car guards,
who are not controlled and sell drugs openly. I hope there will be success in that regard as it detracts from the experience of visiting Florida Road. I sincerely hope that the UIP is supported in its efforts to create a tourist friendly space that is safe and is an area that families will feel comfortable to visit for meals and entertainment.”

Steve McCarroll from the Beekman Group has been on Florida Road for almost a decade. “To be honest, we rarely visit our building as we have had great tenants. I enjoy Florida Road, though, from two aspects: the restaurants and investment growth.” He expressed pleasure at the regeneration of the area and hoped it would continue. “A cleaner
and more secure Florida Road will emerge, but not without effort!” Europa is one of many eateries on Florida Road, opened in October 2002 in a new building that was previously occupied by a small residence. Owner Mike Holland
said the ‘fabric’ of Florida Road was characterised by an even split between residences and businesses, mainly restaurants, attracting trendy residents and customers. He believes the urban regeneration is absolutely critical. “The fabric of the precinct is unique, largely through its quaint architecture that speaks of the journey of our city. I envisage a time in the very near future where derelict old buildings will be returned to their former glory and where the greedy perpetrators of this wanton decay will find it uneconomical to continue participating in this gratuitous
destruction of our heritage.”

Zorka Lounge, co-owned by Futhi Maluleka and Siya Majozi, is one of the new kids on the block, but already feels part of the Florida Road fabric. “Florida Road has become a hub of entertainment in Durban. I believe this has changed the way business is done in this area; it’s no longer the conservative restaurants, fine dining, and the
likes, but more the vibey hang out spots. I would like to see more transformation in terms of business, the unreasonable red tape imposed by some unethical officials and territorial business owners.”

Another popular spot is Spiga D’oro, which has been around since 2001. When they opened, owner Marco Santoniccolo recalls Florida Road being a “suburban type high street”. “Tea rooms, no clubs. There was us, Yorgo’s Greek Taverna, a Gruta Portuguese Restaurant and Butcher Boys. The rest is history, as they say. The impact of the UIP is visible in the maintenance of public spaces, and I commend the body engagement to realise some of the long standing dreams with the municipality to become a “must go” place if you are a local or a tourist.” He hopes that the future will see Florida Road earning its own street identity.

And the list of intriguing businesses does not end: Mojo Cairo is the ultimate in ‘chill spots’. They have a list of hot drinks including chai tea and a gorgeous hot chocolate, and an intimate smoke lounge where relaxation is non-negotiable. Owner Adam Noaman is pleased with the betterment of noise levels and safety conditions.

Derryck Myers of Butcher Boys – which opened in 1999 – has been on Florida Road since 1990. “All in all we have
traded there for 25 years and have seen Florida Road go from a “white” destination to a more cosmopolitan
feel which has had a positive spin off on most businesses. The road has gone through some ups and downs over the
past 25 years but I feel that since the involvement of the UIP there have been some positive changes and the area
has improved. We have also undergone quite a big renovation of Butcher Boys. I’d like to see this become an
‘Umhlanga style’ strip where tourists and local feel welcome and safe to visit, particularly in the evenings.”

When Joy Reynolds of Elizabeth Gordon Gallery first arrived on Florida Road 14 years ago it was less populated, with more offices and shops. “There have been great strides on the re generation of Florida Road with the introduction of the Florida UIP.” She acknowledged the efforts of the UIP to introduce uniformed car guards to the area, but noted this has not gone as planned and the self-appointed guards are now back. “I’d like to see decent, well-appointed car
guards and early morning clean ups after the weekend littering.”

Florida Road is so much a part of the Durban fabric; we look forward to witnessing its continuing restoration.

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