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Joburg’s Inner City Blues

Urban renewal, gentrification, inner city rejuvenation, call it what you will, awaits every ageing city. When done well, it is more than plastic surgery for the city, but almost a reinvention.
The decline of Johannesburg’s inner city coincided neatly with the arrival of democracy in South Africa. The reasons for the flight from the inner city were many, but some were just rumor and others no more than urban legend. Safety was cited as a major reason, but it is also likely that developers saw an opportunity to make a killing and they knocked on the doors of corporate bosses at a time when change was in the air. In any case instead of a trickle from the inner city, it became a flood.

Since its decline in the 90’s Joburg’s inner city has flirted with any number of ambitious plans to give it a face lift and attract hip urban dwellers. But these plans have all ended in despair as its once bustling streets are virtually deserted by the end of the Joburg rush hour. As they say, ‘kukhala ibhungange’ in the evenings when very little stirs in this iconic city

The iconic Mandela Bridge, named for Nelson Mandela

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No one will ever know for sure what precipitated this exodus from this once hallowed city, but overnight, once prestigious office blocks and gleaming restaurants were left vacant, haunted by their quick fall from glory. Parking spaces that had once been reserved for shiny chauffeur driven Rolls Royces were left to rot and decay as the offices were abandoned. The rush to flee the city led to a plethora of suburban office and residential developments in places like Sandton & Fourways.

The departure of the city’s business for the suburbs had a devastating effect on the inner city as rents collapsed and restaurants, fine shops and nightlife spots closed in quick succession. The departure of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange from its imposing building on Diagonal Street was probably the symbolic moment when the inner city became a ghost town. The city’s financial heart had been transplanted to the then largely residential hub of Sandton, something that would have been impossible to imagine even five years earlier. When the money men from the JSE left for Sandton, the really big money soon followed suit and the Sandton CBD was born.

But even as the business elite were departing for the barren safety of the suburbs, a few die-hard inner city loving businesses put up a regal fight against this hasty retreat from the once mighty city. The mining houses like Anglo, JCI, Amplats and some of the Banks like Standard created the first of what came to be known as the Inner City Business Improvement Districts, initially focusing on safety and cleanliness. Their first recruits, with distinctive yellow caps and green uniform, were to be found armed with a shiny baton, gleaming handcuffs and a broom. They certainly kept the designated precinct clean, startlingly at odds with the rest of the inner city that was yielding to dirt and decay almost without resistance.

Condemned building in Joubert Park
Condemned building in Joubert Park

But it was not enough and the sale of the Carlton Centre for the ridiculous bargain price of just over R30 million signaled the nadir to which Joburg’s inner city’s fortunes had sunk. By then whole office blocks stood deserted, once prestigious restaurants shuttered and hijacked buildings were a sign of the times. The captains of industry had made way for informal dwellers who moved in to make a new life for themselves in cheap but unsafe digs inside neglected buildings that had been condemned by the city officials. Building hijackers made a fortune as they packed desperate tenants in this twilight zone of abandoned buildings. But it wasn’t long before the madness of this hasty exit from the inner city became obvious. Then a a second wave of inner city rejuvenation was tabled.

But this time it was driven entirely by a bunch of dreamers who sold implausible tales of turning the Joburg inner city into the next Manhattan, complete with loft apartments and sexy bistros on crowded streets. Armed with computer generated impressions and killer smooth talking salesmen, they made a killing as greedy investors bought into the tantalizing possibility of buying penthouses on the heap and off-loading then for lottery scale profits. But it turned out that many of these developers overestimated their ability to act as a catalyst for the rejuvenation of Joburg’s CBD. In their wake they left many of their flagship projects half finished, and what had once been impressive show units now serve to highlight the improbability of the pitch that had been sold to gullible investors.

Developers like Urban Ocean once hosted the hippest parties in the inner city and even provided the 900 square metre penthouse for the production of the first Apprentice show in South Africa. But beneath the shiny brochures and aggressive sales pitches of a rejuvenated Joburg inner city to rival Upper West Side, the numbers did not add up and soon these projects were abandoned. Even some of the first flagship projects remain unfinished, but those investors who threw money at these extravagant dreams have had to brave it and live in half completed developments.

One of the biggest problems that faced the renewal of Joburg’s inner city were the completely unrealistic expectations of the developers. It is as if they expected to make their profits overnight, and they sold the same irrational exuberance to their investors. The idea of buying an empty shell on the cheap and ‘flipping’ it for a massive profit was part of the DNA of the rejuvenation. But the prices they were asking for were truly outlandish and so these developments foundered as economic reality dictated what rents owners could charge once resales dried up. In many instances all that remains of these lofty dreams are the tattered outsize posters that once promised an urban paradise, complete with names such as Shakespeare and other names that tapped into fantasy.

But all may not be lost as the renewal of the Braamfontein seems to have hit on a formula that may work. Gone are the drams of outlandishly priced penthouse, but instead a more modest approach that develops accommodation for students and young professionals at prices they can afford. On the other side are developments like Randlords and the refurbished Alex Theatre that cater to Joburg’s need for spectacle. But neither Randlords nor the Alex Theatre expect their patrons to hang around the inner city at the end of the lavish events they host. In this sense then it looks as if Braamfontein may be about to give the city of Gold its first rrejuvenation success story.

There is no doubt that a new lease of life courses through the streets of Braamfontein. The streets are full of people well into the night, the theatres, clubs, salons, art galleries and restaurants are popping up all over the place. It is a remarkable achievement given that it has happened without the usual hype that surrounds urban regeneration as publicity hungry developers and city officials punt its potential to create new real estate millionaires.

It is well known that Joburg has always had its fair share of dreamers, visionaries and conmen, and from the first day it was mooted, urban renewal was presented as the new ‘gold rush’ it attracted all three in equal measure. Since the mid 90’s tidal wave of white flight to the surburbs left the downtown Joburg desolate, city officials have launched many ill-fated programs to rejuvenate the city. They each promised a return of the city to its golden age, but all that remained after the hype were dilapidated billboards and posters advertising this false dawn.

In each instance of a renewal project, the speeches were long, the fanfare sizeable and the hope tangible, but no amount of hyperbole could hide the fact that the renewal of Joburg remained an elusive dream. This fate befell the much hyped Newtown renewal which did revive the theatre arts complex around the Market Theatre and even brought new residents like Kaya FM into the precinct, but the buzz that accompanied the initial renewal has been replaced by a palpable indifference. Bars that had sprung up have closed, and the swanky lofts that sprung up near Newtown are exchanging hands for much less than their initial asking prices. Still there are remarkable success stories, like the low income housing not far from the Mandela Bridge. This was not fancy accommodation, but it was decent, solid and affordable and it was sold out immediately. Crucially people live in the development, unlike many of the developments that were bought by ‘investors’ with no intention of spending a night in the inner city.

Detail on a once beautiful inner city building
Detail on a once beautiful inner city building in Joubert Park

But the opening of 70 Juta Street in 2010 was different in that there were almost no officials but the ordinary people that can this precinct aims to attract. Since its opening this short street has retained most of the buzz that was evident during it’s Sunday opening, attracting visitors to the boutique shops, galleries and design shops that line it.

The problem with many of the previous attempts at renewing Joburg is that they wanted to import wholesale what had worked elsewhere. A lot of time and money was spent trying to turn downtown Joburg into the new Manhattan, but this was doomed from the start. They should have known that each city has its own unique history and that it is impossible to just import wholesale solutions that worked elsewhere. If you look at the first brochures that promised the renewal of the city, you would have believed that they had Wall Street salary earners in mind when you look at the inflated prices of the apartments and penthouses.

In the aftermath of these giddy launches, many front page stories in glossy magazines were written touting the inevitable rise of the hip urban dweller. Interestingly enough these stories mostly portrayed the sellers of this lifestyle, not the buyers, and even then the hype should have been evident.  But it was a tantalizing story and it created new heroes in a city that is always inventing them even as it discards its old ones.

Who can forget the hype that was first generated when the first swashbuckling renewal starlets captured the public imagination with their endless stories of ‘Manhattan style lofts’. We should have smelt trouble at the first mention of Manhattan because that model is not what Joburg needs.

Joburg’s renewal has to be home grown, but it also has to face head on the terrible legacy of the Apartheid city on the patterns of urban living and commuting. The terrible truth is that unlike in other cities in the world Apartheid banished the poorest workers to live furthest from their place of work. As a result they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on travelling to work and their homes. In many other cities such a cost, in effect a penalty, is passed on to those who choose to flee to distant middle class suburban enclaves, not those forced by history and circumstance to commute such long distances.

Thus any inner city renewal that is aimed at shutting out the ordinary workers and create yet another haven for the already well off is bound to fail. Braamfontein already had a head start in that it is a nucleus for student accommodation, but now it has extended its offering to include the young and the not so young but hip at heart. It has also created a multiple offering that includes the very rich but also the ordinary hair salon and supermarket worker.

In many ways it has been the absence of hype that has given Braamfontein’s renewal the opportunity to get right what earlier attempts to revive downtown Joburg had missed by a wide margin. The new precinct on 70 Juta Street is a small but significant step in the right direction. Perhaps now the officials can learn what actually works and implement it in other parts of the city minus the noisy hype they like to accompany their projects. It is also telling that many new corporate offices are being built in the Joburg CBD by the likes ABSA and the number of empty buildings has declined. Heavy morning traffic into the inner city is the clearest indication that Joburg’s inner city has once become a hub for business. This is what will provide the backbone for a credible rejuvenation programme, not the empty hype of publicity seeking mavericks.

You will know that these schemes to rejuvenate Joburg’s inner city have worked when the city has cafes, bars, libraries and music clubs that stay open in the evening which is when most cities come to life. Of course much has changed and the city may not rediscover the glory of its heyday, but it will once again become a city that does not become a ghost town in the evening.

View from Biccard Street
A view from Biccard Street, one of Braamfontein's busiest streets