Hope for Hillbrow????

2014-09-14 15:00

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“Ponte is like our child,” says Ria Breedt, a bespectacled woman with manners of a stern schoolteacher. She and her husband, a towering and grave-looking Jaap Breedt, run one of Johannesburg’s most notorious landmarks.

Every morning on weekdays, they leave their apartment, zoom down in a lift and head past a burly guard to their office behind an iron-barred door. Through large windows, they can monitor the flow of visitors to the premises.

Five years ago, the owners of Ponte hired the pair to give the building a “face-lift”, as Ria puts it. But ‘resuscitation’ would be a better word.

Ponte City, the tallest residential tower in Africa, was built during the height of a rental boom in Hillbrow and Berea. Developers competed with each other, putting up gigantic blocks of flats on the ridge to meet the demand.

It culminated in the construction of this 54-storey cylinder of concrete and steel. The first residents moved in exactly 40 years ago.

The market took a downturn after the Soweto uprising in the 1970s and middle class tenants began to relocate. Ponte, advertised as the “pulsating, prestigious landmark”, was suddenly not so prestigious any more.

By the mid-1990s, Ponte was populated mostly by illegal immigrants from French-speaking African countries. Once the surrounding area turned into a dangerous slum, gangs took over the building. Drug dealing and prostitution thrived behind its grey walls.

Most South Africans have come to regard Ponte as an ungodly Tower of Babel, with scenes of degeneration and decay straight from the grim Sin City comics.

The building changed hands. Managers came and went. Outrageous projects of regeneration were conceived, publicised and abandoned. At one stage, it was nearly transformed into a privately run jail for 5?000 inmates.

By 2009, the new owners realised that it would be possible to make Ponte a clean, decent place to live. The Breedts, with their background in the construction and hospitality industries, were the right people for the job.

“On two floors, walls and partitions had been demolished,” remembers Ria. “My husband had to rezone the area and build the flats from scratch.”

They also had to repaint all the flats, lay kilometres of wiring and piping, and install new lifts.

The original Ponte City was almost self-sufficient. It had restaurants, banking facilities and more than 50 shops. But by the time the new managers entered the building, the commercial area was deserted. A couple of shops have been opened since then.

Ponte once boasted “the country’s most exciting penthouses”, complete with saunas, a private braai patio and a roof garden. These luxurious three-level dwellings had to go. They’ve been converted into three- and four-bedroom apartments.

There were times when the flashing, 50-ton, six-storey-high advertising sign on the roof earned Ponte more than all the rents combined. Not any more.

Jason Kruger of Kempston Group, the company that owns Ponte, says: “We have strong rental income from the residential and the commercial sections, which exceeds the signage income.”

The 482 flats, from tiny studios to the big ones right at the top, are all occupied. “We have no vacancies at the moment,” Ria says proudly.

Rent starts at R2?300 a month for a bachelor pad. To stay in one of the biggest flats, you’ll have to part with R5?600 a month.

The managers’ concern with safety borders on fixation. Cameras monitor the goings-on all over the building. Guards patrol the floors every hour.

The managers have a database of 3?500 fingerprints, which allows for the identification of tenants at the entrance. This helps to control access to the building and prevent overcrowding of flats. In the past, up to 10 people would cram into a one-bedroom unit.

If you’re a guest, you have to sign a register and leave your ID with the guards downstairs. Then you pass through the massive turnstiles.

“We need this also to stop people from disappearing in this gigantic building,” explains Ria. “They’ll just hide somewhere, and we won’t be able to find them.”

Malcolm Rees, a financial journalist for Sunday Times, resides in a two-bedroom penthouse in Ponte. He believes that this building is far more secure than the neighbouring, rather “dodgy” area. “Ironically, Ponte is one of the safest places to be in Johannesburg – once you’re inside. We’ve been staying here for almost three years, and nothing has ever happened.”

Victoria Schneider, a German-born tenant, rents a studio. She came to live in South Africa last year and settled in Ponte because she didn’t want to “lock herself away in the suburbs”.

“I feel very safe,” she says. “There’s 24-hour security in Ponte. And when you’re on the premises, it’s 100% safe.”

The official website of the City of Johannesburg enthuses that Ponte has become a “sought-after address”. But although the building is run at full capacity, and married couples with children comprise a large share of tenants, their incomes are comparatively low.

There is a social gap between the majority of residents and the middle class residents of Ponte’s penthouses.

One of the few places where they come into contact is in the lift cars, where the walls are covered with heavy-duty fabric to deter vandals.

A more dangerous kind of menace in Ponte is falling objects. A notice at the entrance is meant to discharge the management from responsibility for “the damage from things thrown out of the windows by residents”.

If you pass the sealed lifts that used to go to the defunct shopping centre and walk down a smelly iron staircase, you reach the most impressive part of Ponte – the core.

Ponte is hollow inside. It’s an enormous upright tube with 54 rows of windows going up into the sky. The open core is nearly 30m in diameter. From the inside, the core looks like a futuristic colosseum. When you step on to the rough rocky floor, you find yourself in the arena.

In the bad old days, a heap of rubbish and debris piled up at the bottom. It was cleaned during the renovation.

“I’m not very popular among a quarter of the tenants,” says Ria.

My conversations with Ponte residents show that she probably underestimates the number of her critics.

“The management runs the building strictly, which is good,” says Schneider. “But the way they treat some of the tenants is inappropriate. It seems that they speak to white residents differently. I don’t think that if I broke a rule, they would treat me like that.”

Many residents resent the monthly inspections of their flats or the fact that the managers exercise such control over their lives. They concede these harsh measures were justified in Ponte’s inglorious days. But the heavy-handed approach is outdated, they believe.

“There’s definitely a need for tight regulations here,” says Rees. “But the rules can be quite oppressive. You can’t have guests in your flat after 9pm, for example. On the other hand, I suppose it’s one of the things you have to accept in this area.”

There is even talk of unfair evictions. Godfrey Tshivase says he was forced to leave in the middle of the month. “They didn’t give me a proper warning. I never got a chance to talk to them, to say something for myself. Tenants are not happy with the management’s attitude, but they have no choice.”

Ria says: “I do have many very strict rules. And if tenants don’t want to stick to them, they have to leave.”

In the Hillbrow area, Ponte is an anomaly – a safe, well-maintained block of flats. For all that, its regeneration has made an impact on its surroundings. Several buildings are being renovated. And, reportedly, the police patrol the streets more regularly than before.

“Ponte is a beacon of hope for residents of Hillbrow,” says Michal Luptak, former business development and strategy consultant for Ernst & Young.

With journalist Nickolaus Bauer, also a tenant in this building, Luptak opened Dlala Nje, a community centre, on Ponte’s ground floor.

Schneider says: “I agree that Ponte represents hope. It shows the direction in which the other buildings in Hillbrow can develop. But I don’t think that Ponte has uplifted the area. In fact, I think Hillbrow is not ready for a big change yet. There’s a very harsh reality here.”

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