Prof. Ato Quayson’s new book Oxford Street: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism explores the history and dynamics of one of Accra’s most popular and globalized streets – the stretch of Oxford Street in the Osu district. Quayson is a professor of English and director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto; his book Oxford Street is based on more than 10 years on the streetspace, not only examining and researching the urban planning history, but also observing and dialoguing with its users on the street’s dynamic characteristics. The result is a detailed study of one of Accra’s most interesting streets, and a window into better understanding the city’s urban spaces and distinctive growth that blends local and wider transnational aspects.
In this interview with African Urbanism, Quayson shares insights from the book, his research and learning process of studying and writing on Oxford Street. Catch the Introduction to his book below.
AFRICAN URBANISM: In your more than a decade of studying Oxford Street, what are some of the fundamental changes you have seen in the streetscape?
ATO QUAYSON: I think the most significant changes have taken place firstly with respect to the speed at which new shops open and the range of renovations that various shops undertake to make themselves more attractive than their competitors. Thus within the ten or so years of my research, the place that is now Oxford Street Mall was previously MTN. Today’s Ramona was simply Kwatson’s and Barclays was a large supermarket called Afridom. Matumba nightclub was Black Caesar’s, Koala was decades previously called Cedar House, a secretarial school, and so on and so forth.
But perhaps most interesting is the range of banks that have located their offices on Oxford Street, from Liberty Bank, to Amal, to Barclays, etc. Only recently (July 2014), I noticed that some estate developers are building a high-rise condo building at Danquah Circle which is provisionally being called Oxford Street 1. This is further evidence of the concentration of finance capital along this barely mile-and-a-half mile stretch.
AFRICAN URBANISM: More and more, it seems that the businesses and services along Oxford Street exclusively (not including the side streets, or of the wider parts of Osu, Ringway Estates, or Nyaniba), while both local and transnational in supply, are thoroughly focused on local middle-class, local upper class, and foreign expatriate demand. It seems Oxford Street is undergoing a gradual transformation that we could compare to gentrification in the United States. Rental prices are rising; in the past six months, we see the new multistory Oxford Street Mall, a dozen casinos popping up, and now a luxury apartment complex under construction at Danquah Circle…. What do you see as the future of Oxford Street?
ATO QUAYSON: I think we should be careful of seeing the processes that are taking place along Oxford Street as a form of gentrification. Because in fact, there is much social inequality in the area…the bulk of the residential stock just behind Oxford Street on both sides is given over to high-density rental properties. People live 18 persons to one toilet; contrast with the Ringway Estates, where the density is four persons to one toilet and you can tell the difference. The point though is that Oxford Street masks these social inequalities by the intense vitality that is found on it.
AFRICAN URBANISM: In the Introduction, you write: “…all of Oxford Street may be taken as a geographically demarcated expressive fragment constituted by a number of common and distinct spatial and discursive features, some of which are nodal expressive fragments in and of themselves. To look at the evanescent sidewalk is to see a different vector of interpretative possibilities from what is implied in looking at the shopping to be had on the street, for instance. The two are not mutually exclusive, yet each starting point produces different emphases, the first a signal of urban planning crisis and the second a signifier of local entrepreneurial drive” (p. 21).
What are the opportunities or lessons for blending Accra’s local and international aspects that you think could be replicated in other parts of the city? In other words, what can we learn from a street such as Oxford Street about creating a vibrant streetspaces in the Accra context?
ATO QUAYSON: I don’t know whether it would be possible to look at Oxford Street for the creation of vibrant streetscapes in other parts of Accra. What I do know is that Oxford Street provides us with several useful units of analysis that we can then transpose for understanding other neighborhoods in the city. One simple example: as is well known, when householders make additions to their houses, it is rarely in order to expand residential capacity. Rather, it is often either to create rental space, or, more typically, to create a space that can be used for commerce. Thus we see most houses have a shop in the front courtyard facing onto the street, or a beer spot or chop bar, or even a vulcanizer’s and so on….This is what makes Oxford Street such an interesting place to study.
AFRICAN URBANISM: It’s quite interesting to see how you approach the many layers of urban space – documenting and explaining what exists physically, as well as how people navigate space, from the pedestrians, trotro drivers, and the information drawn from everyday interactions between these character types. What was the most interesting or fascinating thing that you learned about this space (Oxford Street) through your research? How, if at all, has it challenged your understanding of Accra?
ATO QUAYSON: The most interesting thing I learned from researching Oxford Street is how not to take anything for granted in trying to understand it. Nothing is banal or irrelevant, whether looking at the infrastructure of the street, the shops on it, or the interaction among people. In other words, the street educated me in a new form of attentiveness.