Flo Bird: First Lady of Heritage Preservation

We have re-published this article about Flo Bird, an honorary life member of the Transvaal Scottish Regimental Association
This article is republished from: Daily Maverick ~ Ufrieda Ho
The original article can be found here: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za

Bulldog, street fighter – whatever label you have for Flo Bird she’ll own it, and she may even take a few of them as compliments.

After nearly half a century of being a heritage preservation activist, some name-calling comes with the territory. She’s used to hearing it from unscrupulous developers whom she’s got to back down, also from politicians she’s challenged to grow a pair to act in the interest of the city and its citizens rather than in self-interest.

Bird, a history major and one-time teacher, was an accidental heritage activist. It was in 1972 that she and other residents in Parktown got wind of the city’s plans to build a freeway system for Joburg. The proposed loops of tar and concrete would have carved up their suburb and, Bird says, would have seen the present-day M1 and M2 extend well beyond an M10.

It would also have come with the demolition of iconic old homes in Parktown. Neighbours and communities would have been cut off from each other and Bird argued that it would change the identity of the city forever.

The city council tried to force down property prices and to make residents jittery enough to capitulate and sell their properties cheaply. Bird, though, did not baulk.

“When I’m angry I will fight and I won’t drop it; sometimes you have to take a stand,” she says.

She says that her cause simply turned out to be history and heritage. But she believes unequivocally that it is an important pillar on which to build a city; it provides texture, character and gives a sense of place and belonging for its citizens. It’s knowing exactly where the Ponte building, Brixton Tower or the Nelson Mandela Bridge fit in on the urban horizon, right through to knowing that a city is its communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.

Fighting the freeway project would stretch on for nearly 20 years until the council finally abandoned its proposal for good. The residents, standing firm and standing together, won. Their victory saved the likes of the sports fields at St John’s College, The View and Hazeldene Hall – all more than 100 years old – and now recognised heritage landmarks.

The long fight taught Bird about persistence and staying the course. It also taught her about organising, building networks and relationships and about doing the homework to understand bylaws, regulations and rights. It showed Joburgers what they stood to lose if they didn’t fight and this sparked tours to the iconic houses in Parktown and Westcliff and led to the formation of the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust in 1980.

It would be another 20-odd years before the organisation changed its name to the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF), but for years before that it had already moved beyond being focused on the heritage and history preservation of these elite Joburg suburbs.

The JHF has been something of a soft landing for people stuck in suburbia to venture out to places like Dube, Fietas and old Chinatown. Through these tours JHF has put more obscure places and more invisible people on the Greater Joburg map while highlighting issues like the marginalisation of migrants in the city, as well as the outstanding land claims in areas like Vrededorp and the need to change people’s perceptions of “the other” even as the realities of the divides of race, class, wealth and culture are ever-present.

For Bird, the evolution of the tours, of the foundation and even the changing idea of collective heritage in Joburg is a natural part of adapting. Every generation has to choose what is worth fighting for, she says. For her, having stuck to history and heritage has meant she’s pulled a thread through the past to the present and offered a reminder that we are more bound together than we realise.

“You can’t teach somebody to be an activist, and people will find their own causes, but you can show them the results and what can be achieved when they fight for something and that inspires people,” she says.

“We must also remember the value of being able to take a stand because we have a history of a brutal government when violence and intimidation against people was very real,” she says of the apartheid era.

She understands too that in a divided world there are outsiders and insiders, which means there are bridges still to be built – it cannot be gawking from a tour bus at the expense of forgetting that heritage and history is intimate, personal and resides in the core of identity.

Bird is now in her retirement years but she’s as busy as ever. There are developers to fight, also the ongoing JHF Blue Plaque project to oversee. This project involves researching sites and places that are noteworthy and remarkable and deserve a round blue heritage marker to tell its story. She also works on cataloguing old building plans of heritage buildings and houses in the city.

Joburg is in her blood, so much so that she says she itches to get back to the urban throb after a maximum of 24 hours in a game reserve.

“I love nature, but then I start to miss the city,” she says, from her Parktown home. Home means being able to explore Joburg’s cemeteries, to head to the theatres or to plot a tour to another lesser-known part of the city. It’s also where she can connect remotely with her gin and tonic club. They do word puzzles, read and share humorous passages from their favourite books.

She packs her work in during the morning hours. Then she may check her watch and if it’s a decent enough hour, she may just have a gin and tonic because, well dammit, she deserves it! DM/MC

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