Derelict space now a refuge

The chess tournament at the old circus grounds in Observatory.

Yanna Romano, Observatory

On Sunday August 2, the sun shone brightly at number 2 Willow Road, Observatory. Children did somersaults on an inflatable trampoline, enjoying time together outdoors after a long, strange winter of lockdown.

Some distance away, a couple sat on the grass with impressive mushroom burgers from Daniel and Josh’s outdoor food stall.

I marvelled at the organic vegetable garden before them. Although it was started a year ago, it has nearly doubled in size since the lockdown began.

A few Observatory residents were working in the garden, planting out seedlings that had just been gifted to the Willow Arts Collective.

At the other side of the property, 16 chess contestants were working their way across a string of sanitised trestles within a palpable atmosphere of calm focus.

Later in the day, a giant cement chessboard, freshly built by one of the residents staged the finale.

Thabang Bhili was crowned Best of Obs.

Many of the attendees were from Observatory, and there was a sense of joy and celebration in gathering together after so many months apart.

I volunteered time at the gate, to spray hands with sanitiser and have guests fill out an attendance register with the usual questions to screen Covid-19 symptoms.

All attendees were required to wear masks and observe strict physical distancing protocols on entry, which the outdoor setting made easy.

This much-needed reprieve from the heaviness of pandemic was the first ever Willow Arts Collective Chess Tournament and Open Market, spearheaded by the residents of the property formerly known as the South African National Circus.

Two years ago, when the circus business fell apart, the circus owner rented out the clubhouse to former employees and other desperate individuals. When his slumlord tendencies were discovered, he left – never to return. This interregnum was a fraught time in the Observatory community, with accusations that unwanted activity was taking place on the property. However, over the past year, the residents of what has become the Willow Arts Collective have worked swiftly and creatively to regenerate the property. It began in the garden, which Shayne, Moyo, Emilio, Bester, Jon, and friends from the neighbourhood have turned into a productive organic farm that offers promise during this worrying, food-insecure time.

Next, rubbish was cleared, leaking taps fixed, and the shack in the front yard area taken down.

By the time lockdown began, this artist-led, urban-gardening community had become an inspiring refuge for residents and visitors alike.

As a woman, I have found few other places where I can feel both liberated and safe in equal measure, meet interesting people, discover new ways of being and doing, and live into a dream of a more beautiful, free-thinking and integrated community.

This place is not perfect and the residents are still struggling to fulfil their basic needs. However, I recognise the potential for healing and transformation on multiple levels through the vision and work of Willow Arts Collective.

I am sure many residents would be equally moved by this grassroots development – an active expression of hope in our turbulent, uncertain world.