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Notes on the Geography of Zimbabwe: Harare

By 2010, hyperinflation had brought Zimbabwe to its knees. The solution was simple: toss out the currency and move to U.S. dollars. Soon the country was awash with one- and two-dollar bills, passed from hand to hand, pocket to pocket, until each was soft as cloth and tinged with dust from a hundred roads. Stores had no change, so they issued chits for however many cents were due as change. It was a good way to build customer loyalty.

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The country was as beautiful as ever, "the Jewel of Africa", as it had been called on the eve of independence.

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On the other hand, the vegetation ten miles south of the capital hinted at abandoned cropland.

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Masvingo Road, or Fort Victoria Road as it was called until 1982, was four lanes in need of repaving.

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The deserted railway station. The track arrived in Harare, then called Salisbury, in 1899. It came from Beira, on the coast of Mozambique, via Umtali, now Mutare. Until the track's arrival, the freight charges on a ton of cargo from England had been £42, of which three were the cost as far as Beira. "Simply ludicrous," exclaimed a correspondent in 1894 (Quoted in George Kay and Michael Smout, Salisbury: A Geographical Survey of the Capital of Rhodesia (1977), p. 94).

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A neat railway emblem survives in a deserted waiting room.

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Three years after independence, this Freedom Arch was plunked over the airport road. Its girth hints at plans for a wider road yet to be needed.

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Looking west along the chief east-west avenue, the old Jameson Avenue, now Samora Machel, with the Reserve Bank's tower in the distance.

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Unimpressive, but at least it's hard to get lost. Salisbury was laid out with a grid, its core mostly surveyed by T.A. Ross, who personally supervised the demarcation of about 2,500 lots. By 1897, even though the railway was two years away, the town had been declared a municipality. The European population grew steadily for 80 years: 1,725 people in 1904, 5,700 in 1921, 10,000 in 1931, 20,000 in 1941, 46,000 in 1951, 94,000 in 1961, and 112,000 in 1980. Since then, the European population has collapsed to about 12,000. As for Africans, they were not even counted until 1962. They then numbered 216,000, compared to about 1.6 million today. The two groups were historically segregated, with blacks crowded south of the tracks and toward the west, particularly in the townships of Highfield and Harari. Oddly enough, the white areas, north of the tracks and toward the east, were a third or more black, because almost every house had one or more black servants living in tiny, backyard shacks.

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Many downtown streets were renamed after 1982, when the heroes of the Europeans were scrapped in favor of revolutionary Africans. As Jameson became Samora Machel, so Baker became Mandela, Gordon became Silundika, and Kingsway became Julius Nyerere. A couple of the old names managed to survive, including Speke Avenue, named for one of the discoverers of the source of the White Nile.

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Early on, a Town Garden was created. Its gate carries the name of the man who of course was instrumental in the development of what, until 1980, was Southern Rhodesia. Two years later, Salisbury became Harare. The Town Garden became Harare Garden.

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Another park, Cecil Square, was renamed. It was a simple matter of swapping plaques.

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Both parks are very popular.

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The downtown core has kept a remarkable lineup of first-generation buildings erected soon after the railroad's completion. Here, the Broadway House of 1904 once carried a big bright sign reading "American Dentist." It had a cupola, too. It's been removed, but the wrought iron remains. It was supplied by MacFarlane's of Glasgow.

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The Old Yorkshire House was built in 1911 for the Meikle Brothers, later famous for their department store and hotel. The gables suggest the presence of Boers.

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A lineup of the Arnold building and the twinned Store Brothers and Adams Building, the latter once a "gents outfitter."

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A closer view of the Arnold Building, built in 1910. Arnold used only the left half and lived upstairs. The ironwork came from Durban.

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Store Brothers, from 1911. The four brothers were drapers and milliners who occupied the premises until 1933, when they sold the building to Isaac Mizrahi, whose family owned the building for several more decades. The ironwork once again was from MacFarlane's in Glasgow.

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Fereday was a gunsmith who opened this shop in 1910. Now it sells clothing but hasn't bothered to paint over the old sign.

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Originally, this building housed McCullough and Whitehead, drapers and outfitters.

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Another view. Manica Road is now Mugabe.

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The veranda is yet another product from MacFarlane's.

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None of the shopkeepers are white now, and whites are far and few between on the streets.

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A former downtown jeweler, now an internet cafe.

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Several blocks to the north, a residential neighborhood developed. Here, in that neighborhood, is the Cecil House, built in 1901 and immediately bought by De Beers, who leased it in 1903 to the British South Africa Company. Later it was the headquarters of the BSA police. Then it became a rooming house. In 1975 it was refurbished and taken over by the Mining Industry's Pension Fund. When the Fund left, the building became vacant.

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This house is from 1903. It was built by an architect, Le Roux, for his own use. Originally, the walls were red brick between the decorative quoins.

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Another view, highlighting the veranda. The building is now part of Berea House, operated by Faith Ministries.

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Lo Kia House was built in 1902 by one of the city's two most prominent architects, James Alfred Cope-Christie, for his own use. It lacks an ornamental gable but keeps the fake quoins and slaps on some stucco wreaths.

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Another house, big but still with a corrugated-iron roof.

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Another example, with both a practical roof and a status-asserting gable. The house was built by the gunsmith Fereday for his own use.

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And yet another.

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And another. It's a rare house that isn't of a single-story, set back as though in a patch of veld.

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The territorial-style ironwork of the commercial district eventually fell from fashion. The gable kangaroo is a puzzle.

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Vestiges of the past still in good condition? Here's one: the Bronte Hotel.

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A view from the hotel back to the front lawn.

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The Standard Bank building of 1899 was an exceptionally early departure from the wrought-iron norm. It was sold in 1911 to the BSA Company. It became the Charter House and in 1926 was enlarged for the Lands Department by another prominent architect, William D'Arcy Cathcart. Known as the Chaplin Building from 1926 to 1985, it is now called the Mashonganyika Building, recalling one of the leaders of a rebellion in 1896.

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The Union Buildings, from 1910, were used for a time by the African Bank Corporation.

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Most massive of all, the Standard Bank was designed by Cope-Christie, built in 1911, and extensively remodelled in 1939 by his rival Cathcart.

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The Lonrho Building of 1910 was another Cope-Christie project. The company was founded in 1909; it still operates, though not from these quarters.

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Modern architecture arrived in the 1930s.

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Another example, though the name is another puzzle.

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The town's most up-market department store, still in business but with very bare shelves.

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Perhaps the most startling of these buildings is Bradlow's, from 1938. The architect was Lynn Driver-Jowett.

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Another angle.

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The 1930s also saw some fairly dreary public buildings, including the Town House or city hall, built in 1933 to a design by Cathcart. (Thanks to Eveart Boniface for pointing out that it replaced a much smaller neoclassical building destroyed by fire.) Cathcart doesn't deserve all the blame: his design was simplified to save money.

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Speaking of money in the 1930s, across the street from the city hall is the lottery hall, with its own logo, the superimposed letters standing for Rhodesian State Lottery.

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A mile away, construction of the Cathedral of St. Mary and All Saints proceeded slowly from 1913 to 1964.

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This was another Herbert Baker project. His hand was evident in Pretoria, of course, as well as New Delhi and London.

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A few much larger houses appeared. This two-story one, built by E. A. Maund, was leased on completion to the BSA Company and used by officials including Rhodes until 1923, when it became the official home of resident commissioners. Eventually it housed ministers of the Crown; now it provides accommodation for officers of the Zimbabwe Air Force.

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The architect Cathcart was behind the prestigious Highlands Township established a few miles east of town in the 1930s. Cathcart's own house, Chinanga, stands at the most prominent corner in the place.

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Far and away the grandest building in the neighborhood is this, now the Public Services Training Center. It was built in 1929 for Ernest Howard, the local manager of Imperial Tobacco. He was an American from Virginia, and he recreated a version of an antebellum mansion. He called it Limbe Lodge. He died soon after its completion, and in 1938 the building became a maternity home. In 1959, renamed Downing House, it became the official residence of Southern Rhodesia's prime minister. Later still, during the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, it became the Governor's Lodge.

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Many of the houses in Highlands are much simpler, almost like pioneer homes in the bush.

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Back in town, the government of Southern Rhodesia went through a grimly modernist period. Here are its two main government office buildings, now called Mukwati and Kaguvi for Glory Mukwati and Sekuru Kaguvi.

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The Meikles Hotel of 1916 was demolished to make way for this place in 1976.

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Streetscapes evolved to match.

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Multistory blocks of flats were added during the 1960s and 70s as planners encouraged greater residential density.

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Another block, its name drawing on British nostalgia.

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Rhodes would be appalled.

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Europeans in the city were at their greatest density in the city's large cemetery.

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Once again, as in South Africa and even Namibia, Southern Rhodesia had a prominent stream of Jewish immigrants, here clustered.

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A young victim of violence in 1916.

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A captain in the BSA police.

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A mining engineer.

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Parts of the city are almost as crowded and a lot more lively. Here, minivans leave for surrounding villages; one turns into a moving van for a roll of foam mattress.

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Washing in a gutter.

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