Today the picture looks very different. In the past ten years, Central has increasingly gained a reputation for crime and dilapidated buildings.
Nearly two centuries ago the area above Govan Mbeki Avenue, known as Central Hill, was the most sought after residential area in Port Elizabeth. The wealthiest residents lived there in the largest and grandest homes.
Margaret Harradine, historian and author of several books about PE, says the old buildings in Central differentiate the city. “Old buildings give character to a city,” she explains.
“Without buildings like the famous Donkin Row, PE will look like any other city. Although the architecture is reminiscent of building styles in Cape Town, it is actually different and unique to PE.”
The area commonly known as Central encompasses three suburbs namely Central Hill, Richmond Hill and St George’s Park.
She says ten years ago businesses enquired about old buildings that could be restored and used as offices. Young people were excited about houses that they bought and often researched their history.
However, crime and anti-social behaviour gradually drove people away. “Many residents moved away or are letting their properties,” says Harradine. “As a result, buildings are not being maintained properly.”
Harradine says it is gratifying to see that some buildings are being restored to their former glory.
Dr Otto Terblanche, history lecturer at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, says Central’s historical importance is undeniable. “It showcases the unique character of the Settlers’ era and the architecture of the 19th century,” he says.
No 7 Castle Hill (oldest house dating from the 1830’s), Fort Frederick (oldest brick building in the Eastern Cape) and St George’s Park (oldest park) are all located in Central.
From a tourist point of view, Central is the heart of PE, but unfortunately it is experiencing heart failure,” says Terblanche. “If we don’t preserve this area, what will remain of our historical centre?”
Terblanche is also a fierce advocate for the preservation of the names of buildings and streets in Central.
“Every layer of civilisation has its own character that gives it identity and this is defined by names. The names in Central are logically 19th century and to change them, will rob the suburb of its character.”
In recent years, several attempts were made to straighten out Central, but without long-term success.
The latest campaign, Operation Harmony, was launched recently. John Preller, chairman of the Humewood community-policing forum, believes they now have a recipe for success.
He believes a lack of communication hampered the previous forums and prevented the establishment of a comprehensive safety and security strategy. Operation Harmony follows a different approach.
“It brings together the community-policing forum, police and the owners of pubs and nightclubs,” he explains. “Although our needs seem different on the surface, we found common ground and we have a shared goal.
Preller says they are already achieving success, but the challenge now is to put a plan in place to police the area once the situation is under control to prevent lawlessness from creeping back.
Kobie Potgieter, principal of Re/Max Independent Properties in PE, says initiatives like Operation Harmony will boost the property market in the whole area.
“There is magnificent old houses and buildings whose value is not reflected in their prices because of Central’s poor reputation,” she says. “People are hesitant to buy in the area for investment purposes, but increased safety will restore their faith.”
Jaco Rademeyer, of Jaco Rademeyer Estates in PE, believes the efforts to restore Central will not only be reflected in higher property prices, but will also make Port Elizabethans proud and positive about their city and heritage.
He warns, however, that safety and security is just one aspect to consider. “The restoration of buildings is vital before we will see significant economic growth. Investors are cautious about buildings that require a lot of maintenance.”