The story of Joubert Park

2014-10-19 15:00

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Once the epicentre of genteel Joburg, but now a public space alive with activities both healthy and unhealthy, Joubert Park is the ­story of the clash of modern Africa and colonial structure. Cathryn Christy, Mike Drewe and Jacobus Uys visit the park

By 1910, Joubert Park was so busy and loved that it was a controversial decision to build a grand public art gallery there. It opened in 1915 with a collection that was the envy of the world. But today, the Johannesburg Art Gallery is struggling to prove its relevance to the users of the park, who would rather sell food, mind children, grow vegetables and attend the clinic in the park.
Picture: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press

About 20?000 people use Joburg’s Joubert Park every day. ­Commuters, street photographers, chess players, clinic ­workers, drug dealers, church groups, vendors, gardeners, ­children, parents, lovers – anyone, everyone.

This park, with its bustle and noise and sun, surrounded by dilapidated buildings, newly evicted families and Joburg’s biggest phallic symbol in the near distance, was once the epicentre of the city. In a sense, it still is.

It’s a hybrid space; the offspring of two very different breeds.

The colonial construct

We visit the park at noon. It’s early spring and the trees are a fever of green. There are hundreds and hundreds of people using the space. It has been this way – a hive of activity – for more than a century. But the activities have changed.

In 1887, during Joburg’s rapid, mining-fuelled expansion, then minister of mines CJ Joubert suggested a residential park just north of the city. By 1898, a fully formalised colonial botanical garden, complete with fountains, trimmed hedges, a conservatory and cuddling couples had been established.

The old colonial quadrant planning (four parts divided by walkways) as well as the odd surviving rosebush and defunct fountains hint at the colonial past – when the grand, structured greenery was an “escape” from the city – a reminder of a ­European “home”, perhaps.

The park was to be one of seclusion and segregation, and its facilities were unashamedly aimed at white culture. In 1953, “whites only” signs were affixed to its benches. They would only be removed in 1974, when Joubert Park became the first park to desegregate in the city.

Today’s “African park” is far removed from that of the ­European and apartheid variety. The idea of lace-clad, parasol-wielding white folk traipsing around gossiping about daily ­trivialities has long since dissipated.

The African park

The colonial bandstand is now a pay-what-you-can crèche, where working mums with limited means can safely leave their children for the workday – a precious commodity in our city.

The urban garden thrives with big, healthy marog and other vegetables that will no doubt help keep families healthier this spring than the lawn that might have been there instead. Sharply dressed gents still frown in concentration as they consider their next move on the giant chessboards, which have been here since the beginning.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” asks a player in a sports jacket. His elderly opponent sticks by his move. He is obliterated, to the wry amusement of the dozens of enthusiasts who sit, watch and analyse every move as they wait their turn.

Street photographers – who were co-opted by the police to help transform the park from being an environment seeped in crime to one that is acceptably safe for mothers with their toddlers – advertise their services.

They say they are suffering at the hands of irrelevance due to the recent popularity of selfies.

Couples laze on the grass, holding hands. Patients queue for medical attention at the clinic. Hawkers offer their goods.

All of them are players in this space of relevance.

Today’s use of the park is easy to understand when looking firstly at the use of community space in African tribal structures – the significance of the central meeting space plus a tree as a focal point of free speech, for example – and secondly, the theft of space when apartheid took hold.

With space at a premium, many residential activities in the townships took place in public – washing, cooking and the like.

In a 2000 essay, architecture Professor Lindsay Bremner talks of this redefining of public space as a “shift from a high-profile, leisure industry-driven public-private regeneration strategy, to one focusing on people’s living and working environment, employment creation and social equity”. And this is evident in Joubert Park today.

A gallery In the park

“Art this way” shouts a large, handmade sign at the other end of the park. It advertises the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Jag), a magnificent and ­imposing structure facing the park that is today irrelevant to its residents.

Actually, the building’s rear-end faces Joubert Park. The ­rumour that the gallery was mistakenly built facing that direction is just that – an unfounded rumour.

The building was part of a much larger scheme to have a park behind Jag and a massive public plaza in front of it.

That plaza would span over what are now railway lines and abut the existing Drill Hall.

Jag would marry both of these public spaces. But these plans ended when funds dried up.

Inside the gallery, the affable and very busy gallery curator, Antoinette Murdoch, is overseeing the hanging of the Foundation Collection. It’s the original work shown here in 1915. As we chat, paintings move past. There’s a terribly important Monet, many grand portraits, a majestic lion.

Inside the lofty space, we feel like we’ve entered a time warp. When the collection was first shown, according to Jag’s librarian Jo Burger, it was the envy of the world.

She has worked in this position for 20 years, and she’s bursting with energy, delighted to help with our research, pulling out articles and showing us the guest book of famous signatures.

Murdoch is also chipper. The gallery – famous for a lack of investment by the city – has just been granted R24?million to maintain the building and protect its prized collection.

Just a decade ago, there was a rumour the collection would be separated from the park that was, in essence, an elaborate extension of its pursuits.

Jag would move and the building, it was said, was to house the provincial premiere’s office. It was dubbed “Shilowa’s White House”.

Nothing came of that either, and the gallery is preparing to host a huge William Kentridge installation.

But Jag has had an increasingly African curation agenda for decades, yet it has failed to coax attendance by the park’s users.

They’ve tried taking performance into the park, they’ve worked with the street photographers, they’ve tried handing out flyers.

The park users’ main interaction with the art was to hang washing lines up between the outdoor sculptures.

That’s until the sculptures were stolen. A bronze piece was rediscovered in a scrapyard in Cape Town.

The story of Joubert Park is ultimately an ebb and flow of investment and regeneration. Back and forth periods of ­decline and investing define it.

The park as fringe

The City Parks workers we speak to – some working the same patch of green for 40 years now – complain about palm trees not being trimmed and rose bushes not being pruned due to lack of tools and resources, and yet the Joubert Park Clinic, which seems adequately funded, is full of women receiving free care for themselves and their children.

By contrast, in the shade of a tree, a scraggly group of men chase the nyaope dragon. Merchants eye us and the photographer warily.

Like many parks across the world, Joubert Park has an

interesting connection to sex and drugs – heightened by the apartheid state’s enforcement of “morality”.

The beginnings of this “fringe” activity are traced back to World War 2, when an army barracks brought soldiers in. They were followed by gay men, who used the park to proposition the young men in uniform.

Later, bars sprung up in the area, which, although officially straight, attracted a large gay clientele.

On one of our visits, we meet Johannes Musekwa, a handsome 71-year-old who shows us his “Madala style” magazine spread from the time he was a model. He also shows us photos of him in the 70s sporting an Afro and bell-bottoms. He reminisces about the disco clubs in the area, when apartheid existed outside its borders and people of all colours and orientations partied together – interrupted only by the odd police raid.

In the 80s, the area deteriorated. Middle class people moved out, property prices dropped and Hillbrow became a “grey ­area” – the Nats admitted defeat in the segregation battle.

Some of the stories of this time that play out around the park feature Brenda Fassie, Lionel Abrahams, Barney Simon and the like.

It was a time of sexual exploitation and drug abuse, but it was also a time when the “fringe dwellers” of an urban, cosmopolitan society found their voice and proclaimed their right to be themselves.

In the 90s, the area and the park deteriorated further. A lot of the colourful personalities left.

The white rave scene moved in for a period. On Sunday ­mornings in Joubert Park, one could spot a bunch of kids in bright rave gear looking to score drugs after peeling out of dance venues in abandoned buildings.

In the 2000s, Joubert Park became known for its mostly ­female prostitutes. The gay influence diminished but the sex remained.

And today when we visit, it’s a different place again after some investment and improvement, with the only outward sign of illegal activity being the nyaope addicts in the corner. The same is not true for the streets around the park.

The park at night

Hillbrow Police Station and its original 60s nationalist architecture is responsible for dealing with the most violent precinct in Joburg and also Joubert Park.

We’re here to meet with one of the station’s murder detectives. There are about 150 dockets piled on his desk.

Looking out of his office window as the sun sets, he points to the buildings and corners where these murders happened. Grabbing a police file, he tells us we are going to question someone related to one of them.

To be less confrontational in our company, he leaves his gun behind and we use our car.

“You’re too clean,” he laughs.

“You’re not the ‘dirty white’ we usually see on these streets.” The ones here to score drugs.

“If anyone asks, you’re cops, right?…?Although white cops are a lot angrier and more bitter than you.”

We get scolded for putting our seat belts on.

“This is Hillbrow, those northern [suburb] tendencies will attract ­unwanted attention.”

Parking our car outside a hijacked building, we make our way up 17 floors and into an apartment with one bedroom. We find the man smoking and listening to music in one of its six, curtain-divided “rooms”.

The 40m2 apartment houses 20 people. These are some of the 20?000 people who use the open space of the park every day.

We leave, driving past it. It is locked at night these days and is pitch black. A man, running, scales the gates with relative ease.

Joubert Park, says the cop, has a reputation at the station as an avoid-at-all-costs area after a series of police killings in 2012.

The residents of a freshly evicted building next to the park cause chaos on the street. The line of taxis and cars snake through thousands of people – lives and possessions laid bare on the pavement.

We put on our seat belts as we leave the area. We go back to our homes and gardens, and uncontested public spaces.

As outsiders visiting and researching the park, we discover a space of contention, sometimes hostile, but also a magical one that serves as a microcosm of the city as a whole.

We wonder whether it is this very deviance and hostility that creates those moments of magic throughout the park and the city. Would our city be as colourful and energetic as it is without this juxtaposition?

Christy, Drewe and Uys are honours students at the Wits School of Architecture and Planning

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