WEST BANK is, as the name suggests, on the west side of the Buffalo River and overlooks the old harbour. The city of East London was established here in 1835 when the British were looking for a landing/docking place for a supply ship to provide ammunition and food to their troops in the Sixth Frontier War.
Port Rex was a military trading post for only a short time because the British soon abandoned the Queen Adelaide province. But in 1847, they annexed an area around the mouth of the Buffalo River that could also serve as a harbour town and named it the Port of East London.
Today, the west bank is known for the large Mercedes Benz factories that have been built there. It remains the city's original working-class residential neighbourhood.
Old ‘seaside’ architecture
The Protea Hotel is the older of two hotels and originated as the Brills Union Hotel in 1874. It had a dingy, dimly lit bar. The Oceanic is a residential hotel where people can rent rooms. According to the manager, it is more “upmarket" than the Protea.
The houses are small and modest. The neighbourhood is laid out in a traditional grid around a central market square.
Aunty Merle was born in the cottage with the red gate. Her children held a “lovely 85th birthday bash" for her in the Presbyterian church hall.
She says she loves her street. Everyone knows each other. Two old men stop across the street. Fishing rods stick out of the Datsun's windows. Merle waves. “We look out for each other here," she says.
Sandy lives in a more modern 50s-style house. Her family rents it. She was born in West Bank but only recently came “home". There's a caravan parked on bricks in front of the house. She lives here with her two sons and five grandchildren. Her husband works in Port Alfred. He comes home only on some weekends. She takes care of the children.
I ask if the neighbourhood has changed in the past 30 years. “A lot," she says. But she enjoys all the new people. What's not enjoyable is the litter that's everywhere and the municipality that doesn't clean up. And she misses the old man who owned the Tea Room. “But the Bangladeshi guy is nice with the people."
Junk Junkies Pawn Shop is an institution in East London. It sells everything from old mattresses to books. “One man's junk is another man's treasure," says the sign at the front door.
West Bank has the slightly nostalgic feeling of a place that endures a lot of wind. It reminds me of the desolate atmosphere of Irish coastal villages. The old buildings also have the same austere architectural lines, and the same Victorian houses and salt- and sun-bleached walls. When the southwesterly sweeps in from the ocean, says the woman from the Oceanic Hotel, then you want to be indoors.
♦ VWB ♦
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