Global Observer

Joburg's like a rolling stone

Joburg's like a rolling stone

Posting in Cities

Johannesburg, once a bastion of white privilege under apartheid, fell to poverty and crime in the aftermath of democracy. But there are signs it's poised for its next transformation.

A few decades ago, many of the new tenants that live on Arts on Main would have been arrested for even walking here. Actually, they wouldn't have existed. Young black professionals were not only uncommon in downtown Johannesburg, they were illegal. Even after apartheid was struck down, young people with money rarely ventured into what became one of the most dangerous parts of South Africa.

The center of Johannesburg-"Town" to the locals-is undergoing one of the most remarkable changes in its history. Once a bastion of white privilege under apartheid, it was quickly overrun by poverty and crime in the aftermath of democracy. But in the past few years there have been signs of life within downtown Johannesburg, and the city that's seen itself change so remarkably in the last two decades seems poised for its next transformation.

It's not full-on gentrification, not yet. Think of it as Johannesburg's answer to Brooklyn 15 years ago. Many of the parks in town here have yet to be overrun by families, and clothing boutiques are still sparse around these bubbles of urban renewal. But what does exist here is a kind of mixing between communities that's rare in any city, especially one in South Africa.

Shortly after the end of apartheid and the age of democracy, wealthy whites and the businesses they ran fled north, away from the city center, staking claim to suburbs that inched their way farther and farther away from what was traditionally Johannesburg. The white flight of the mid-90s mirrored the migrations that took place in cities throughout the states. A tax base left, city services went unpaid for, and the city itself began to fall apart.

Town didn't die, it just became much more dangerous. Slumlords took over what were once luxury flats. Squatters invaded buildings that were left abandoned. Warehouses were emptied and sat idle, and Johannesburg grew up around Town, neglecting the once-vibrant city center.

Yet not everyone gave up on Town. Jonathan Liebmann, a 29-year-old South African developer, saw promise in a section of eastern downtown that's been dubbed the Maboneng Precinct. Five years ago he bought his first warehouse in the rundown industrial district.

Since then Maboneng, meaning "place of light" in Sotho, has become one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the country. Sporting a mix of office and residential space, museums and a movie theater, the area is courting young creative professionals from around the continent.

"A lot of developers just build for the short term," Liebmann told the Mail and Guardian's Eric Axelrod. "But this is a place where people are progressing with their careers and passions for long-term growth."

The developments have led to a uniquely South African incongruity. Hipsters mull around outside of art galleries here, alongside slums and all-day, all-night bars known as shabeens. But for some, its this incongruity that attracted them here in the first place.

In a piece for W Magazine, Tim Murphy notes:

Johannesburg right now-a place of about 4  million-feels like a hectic, history-scarred city full of hustle and optimism that's brashly shouldering its way into the global arena. At the same time, it's remaining intensely African, bursting with immigrants from all over the continent in a way that Cape Town, South Africa's post-colonial tourism darling, simply is not.

So Joburgers deal with what they have and attempt to massage it into a city with smoother edges. Maboneng boasts a once-monthly night market that spills out of its warehouses and into the downtown streets. Last year a one-time night race across town was such a success, with 10,000 runners crossing the Mandela bridge, that the city has partnered with Nike to do it again next month. The First Wednesday Film Club brings together the young, multiracial crowd of the burgeoning South African film industry in the shadow of an old gas works near the city center.

That's not to say that Johannesburg has completely shed its image as a tumultuous city. Many people here still live in fear. One in seven new jobs is in private security. Late at night locals roll through red lights rather than be a potential victim of a "smash and grab." A house without a gate or electric fencing turns heads and seems out of place in a city that at times looks more medieval fortress than cosmopolitan hub.

But like all of South Africa, Joburg's changing.

Photo: Flickr/JoziGreg and Nike Run Jozi

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Dave Mayers

Correspondent, Johannesburg

Correspondent, Johannesburg Dave Mayers has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the World Picture Network. He has taught multimedia journalism at Wits University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He holds degrees from St. John's University and Columbia. He is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure