Big city life

2013-12-12 11:00

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Jozi is having a golden moment, with the very heart of the city being reinvented – and the ongoing transformation is not without a sprinkling of glitter. Just ask Somizi Mhlongo...

‘All the cute boys are gay’ reads the slogan stretched across Somizi Mhlongo’s vest.

The actor, choreographer and socialite doesn’t shy away from making statements, which is why he’s among a new breed of Joburgers setting up home downtown, embracing the vertical life of the city in restored commercial or once-abandoned buildings.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but there’s good reason for the song and dance. Johannesburg’s stop-start urban revival over the past decade looks like it has finally taken root.

These days there’s even an open-top double-decker tourist bus winding its way through parts of town many (including suburban locals) would have snubbed or been too scared to venture into a few years ago.

Somizi moved into a pad in the old Barclays Bank building, a sandstone beauty built in the 1940s which boasts beautiful Art Deco features. Situated on Commissioner Street, this main artery is serviced by Rea Vaya buses that are boosting public transport in the city.

‘I just lurrrve living there,’ Somizi drawls. The heritage building has a triple-volume foyer, which certainly makes for a grand first impression. Apartments are built over two floors joined by a modern spiral staircase.

‘My main door is the original, heavy old bank door – it still has a sign with the bank hours on it,’ says Somizi, taking a break between rehearsals in a Sandton dance studio to chat. He’s currently filming a new reality show called Raising the Bar that follows the fate and fortunes of a group of local dancers.

Having grown up in Soweto, he moved to the suburbs and lived in Lonehill for years. After a trip to New York earlier this year, he realised how attractive living in the heart of a city can be.

Now, although the silence of night collides with the pulse of tense gridlock traffic as soon as the sun rises, it’s the drama and contrast Somizi can’t resist.

‘When I wake up on weekdays it feels like I’m in Manhattan, surrounded by beautiful old buildings and a pumping city,’ he says. ‘Sundays are the best. It’s so quiet – you can chill and relax.’

And things couldn’t get more convenient. Woolies is just a few blocks away and his fave hangout of the moment, the Darkie Café, is within walking distance – where he orders his favourite soul food, tripe and samp.

‘I don’t walk around much but if I have to, the place is safe. They have done a good job with the inner city. Some people can’t believe my new address because they think it’s all crime, noise and vendors, but when they visit they get why so many high-profile people are investing here and living here,’ he says.

From hell to heaven

This tale of rejuvenation is not unlike the story of Ponte Tower, the architectural cylinder statement on Jozi’s skyline.

Once a sought-after address for apartheid’s privileged, by 2000 it had fallen into a state of sad neglect and got press for all the wrong reasons. The tower was tagged as a suicide hotspot and a hotbed of crime, drugs and violence.

In 2006, filmmaker Ingrid Martens started the legwork for her award-winning documentary Africa Shafted, featuring interviews conducted entirely in the lifts of the 53-storey building.

At 173m high, the Hillbrow skyscraper is still the tallest residential building in Africa.

Sultan Ndabagobetse, a Burudian father of three, has lived in Ponte since 1999. ‘In the early days Ponte was bad.

It was very dirty, there was no maintenance, no electricity and no security. People could rob you from inside the building.

Now I see everyone wants to live in Ponte. In the whole of Hillbrow and Berea, this is the best building to live in,’ Sultan says of its fresh new attractions.

There was a time Sultan would never have walked around after dark in Hillbrow. ‘Now I can walk around and you can see that people care – before, people didn’t care about this place.’

The irony is there is no need to walk too far. The building boasts its own grocery store, hairdresser, laundromat, bar, restaurant and internet café.

Whites are moving back into Ponte now. Many live on the top floors, where the bigger units have the best views and the highest rentals. But everyone must share the lifts – the shaft that connects in Ingrid’s film.

Ponte is a winning example of how Hillbrow is shrugging of its ‘no-go zone’ identity.

These days there are walking tours, Critical Mass cycling routes, a thriving recreation centre where children play safely; buildings are run by property managers who voluntarily join the eKhaya Neighbourhood Association.

The city’s celebrated maternity and child health facility, the Shandukani Centre, is in the heart of Hillbrow in Esselen Street. Jozi is full of these conduits of opportunity, promise and connection – you just need to know where to look.

See and be seen

In truth, it’s the vibe and energy of Jozi that’s got everyone talking, including the Wall Street Journal in America and Britain’s The Telegraph.

Both publications recently ran articles raving about the city of gold, which Laurice Taitz, local publisher of the Germany-based In Your Pocket guides, sees as timeous. Johannesburg is the first city in Africa to feature in the series (available in February next year).

Her blog titled ‘Nothing to Do in Joburg Besides…’ is crammed with everything from night-time cycle rides through the inner city to walking tours at about R300 a pop, with food stops through suburbs such as Hillbrow and Yeoville that just a few years ago were considered too tatty and unsafe for a visit.

‘I love Newtown at the moment, with its graffiti art and the building of the Newtown Junction Mall. I’m not a mall person but this building will be servicing the people who live in the inner city,’ Laurice says.

And judging by the recent ‘Night of a 1 000 Drawings’ that bought Joburgers out in droves on a school night to buy doodle art for charity and to party long after sunset, it seems they’re reclaiming the city centre after dark too.

Everyone’s welcome

Maboneng Precinct, east of the CBD, has become a hub of creative energy for Joburg’s urban artists.

With a mix of art galleries and retail and studio space on offer, the area draws the inner-city public as well as the chic, art-going crowd of the city’s northern suburbs, bringing life back into downtown.

Market on Main extends its Sunday trading to the first Thursday evening of every month, and even at night crowds flock.

Maboneng Precinct

Hayleigh Evans, Maboneng’s brand manager, lives in the precinct in a 47m2 former juice factory in Revolution House. She’s also owner of Pop Art, the precinct’s theatre. Maboneng is home to Africa’s first Museum of African Design (MOAD), too, opened last month.

Hayleigh outlines plans for an affordable housing project that’s meant to make Maboneng more responsive to South African realities. ‘We have a very flexible vision that tries to be as collaborative and inclusive as possible,’ she says.

Spaces like Maboneng and the reinvented Braamfontein that include the Neighbourgoods market, the Wits Art Museum (WAM), new bars and restaurants have to work hard to dodge the gentrification trap of becoming enclaves for hipsters-only, moneyed-only, or becoming spaces accessed only by boom gates and sign-in registers.

‘We want to achieve a sense of community living, creativity and urban design without being alienating,’ says Hayleigh, who believes that as new developments are added to the Maboneng mix, residents’ profiles will become more diverse.

Artist Hannelie Coetzee, whose public murals feature here and across the city, says working under flyovers has forced her to think about issues of ‘contested space and inclusivity’. She doesn’t mind that her work is ephemeral or that it gets drawn over or erased.

After all, that’s the spirit of reinvention.

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