First Thursdays is returning to Cape Town in September after a six month absence. The return of the monthly event, happening on September 3, hopes to accelerate the recovery of the CBD economy.

The cultural programme around the September event will feature fewer participating venues, with the intention to test out the format and ensure a safe experience for everyone. If September goes smoothly, the coordinators of the initiative aim to expand the number of participating art galleries, retail stores and restaurants from October.

First Thursdays is a coordinated programme of galleries, restaurants, bars and shops that extend their opening hours to the public on a monthly basis, with the aim of creating the right conditions for a vibrant after-hours economy in the central city. After engaging with the businesses that regularly participate in First Thursdays, it was clear that most of them were interested in restarting the programme.

A collective responsibility for safety

Individual businesses are responsible for following safety protocols in their spaces, including limiting the number of people inside at any one time. Galleries are generally spacious and can accommodate a safe flow of people by controlling access. Restaurants and bars are encouraged to follow the national guidelines as per the gazetted level 2 lockdown regulations.

Most importantly, the public is asked to act responsibly, and to be considerate of those around them. Everyone attending First Thursdays needs to practice social distancing, to wear a mask, and to avoid gathering in crowds. If every individual acts responsibly, everyone can enjoy First Thursdays collectively.

Reviving the central city economy

Even before the pandemic, many businesses relied on the injection of income that First Thursdays brings. With lockdown restrictions, fewer people working in town, and no tourism revenue, the central city economy has taken a massive knock. Many businesses have already closed down, and more will follow unless there’s an injection of people and spending. As long as First Thursdays can take place safely, it has the potential to help accelerate the rejuvenation of the central city economy, extending a lifeline to those businesses that are still hanging on.

“If the city centre continues to lose retail and hospitality businesses, it’s going to be very difficult for it to bounce back,” says First Thursdays co-founder Gareth Pearson. “We’re extremely fortunate to have a CBD like we do, not just as a commercial centre but as a safe space for public social life. First Thursdays is as popular as it is because we don’t have those kinds of convivial urban spaces in South Africa. If the alternative is the mall, I think we need to double down and do whatever we can to keep the CBD alive.”

Making space for new ideas

Thursdays Projects, as the founders and coordinators of First Thursdays, have recently launched a new project called Qiosk. It’s a platform for listing and renting short-term activation spaces – pop-up stores, exhibitions, brand activations, etc. It’s a response to the way that retail is changing in general, but more specifically it’s a response to the abundance of vacant retail spaces in and around Cape Town’s CBD and other shopping districts.

Much like the intention in starting First Thursdays back in 2012, the objective with Qiosk is to inject life and creativity into the urban economy. If there was ever an upside to the pandemic, it’s that there’s now plenty of well-located space available for people to try new things. The first activation that Qiosk has facilitated is a pop-up bookstore called Hot Days Cool Books, occupying a vacant shop space at 66 Wale Street. Hot Days Cool Books focuses on rare art and design books, previously selling directly through Instagram until opening their physical pop-up store in August. They’ll be open for First Thursdays on September 3.

Image: Cape Town Etc Gallery

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