November 15, 2004
MY biggest frustration in writing this 2004 overview of what's happening in the inner city, is that there are at least six major, really major, projects that I know of that are about to break but I am unable, in turn, to break confidences and write about them until the developers themselves release the information.
At least two of these are in the geographic area I want to cover this week so watch for some exciting announcements.
Last week was an overview of what was happening in Inner City North this week we move to the west end of the inner city to look at progress in Vrededorp and Pageview, Fordsburg, Ferreirasdorp and Newtown.
The very north-western corner of the Inner City is made up of two small suburbs that tend to merge with one another, Pageview and Vrededorp, known nostalgically as Fietas.
Very early suburbs they both have incredibly wretched histories. Vrededorp (village of peace) was thus named in 1895 as a result of poor people being given squatter rights that interestingly could be passed on to heirs of those that had been granted such rights.
The British did away with this arrangement after the Anglo Boer War, another of their arrogant and unfeeling, colonial decisions! Pageview, marked on early maps as the Native Location was renamed after a city councilor of the early 1900s.
It was declared a white area by the apartheid government in 1962 and the tragic and callous demolition of dozens of homes is something that we must forever be ashamed of.
Recently, I attended the Johannesburg Trust for the Homeless AGM and the key-note speaker was poet and author, Don 'Bra Don' Mattera. He told the gut-wrenching story of the destruction of what had been this vibrant suburb but, more poignantly, of what had been his home. He described the loss of home as the very loss of life itself, the stripping away of human dignity, the loss of hope. To be homeless he said, is to be left only with self - no dignity, no family, no neighbours, no hope. What a strong and painful reminder of the current plight of our thousands of urban poor.
Today, the area remains an unsightly blot on the city fabric, the areas where the houses were demolished now weed infested and overgrown, but with half demolished buildings also scarring the landscape. The council refuse removal service clearly doesn't visit the area too often.
There was a development framework adopted by the Council in 1997/8 but I gather that any progress in implementing it has been held up by land restitution claims.
On the positive side, for the past few years there has been a Fietas Festival organised by members of the community that once lived there. Earlier this year, in September, the Fietas Community Quilt Exhibition was held at Museum Africa. Historian Sue Krige wrote at the time that the quilt, made up from many individual squares of memory and testimony, was produced by the community and represents the coming together of a community long fragmented by the Group Areas Act of apartheid and other racial legislation before then.
South of Pageview is another of the earliest residential areas, Fordsburg. It is described amongst several suburbs as the best developed of these suburbs especially the core around the square which included a market building. Many original buildings remain giving Fordsburg great character, but not the market building!
On January 2nd 1922 the Rand Revolt started when a miners strike resulted in fierce clashes between strikers and the police. One record says that people went in terror of their lives as armed bands raged through the streets, shooting at police and civilians indiscriminately, looting shops and starting fires.
The revolt ultimately turned into a minor civil war and the show-down came on the 14th March when the inhabitants of Fordsburg were warned to evacuate their homes.
The rebel headquarters had been discovered in the suburb and the suburb was to be attacked by the Government forces every house was alive with people who had disregarded the evacuation order and now stared from the windows or perched on the roofs, indifferent alike to the bullets that screamed through the air or the dull thud of bombs that were dropped from the planes overhead. By March 19 the revolt was over but one of the casualties was the market building that had been so badly damaged that it had to be demolished.
Today the area boasts many shops, restaurants and of course the Oriental Plaza. Conceived as a 'Showpiece of Apartheid' the Oriental Plaza was little more than a ploy to enable a racist government to arrogantly declare that it had fulfilled its obligations in terms of the law.
The Law required that alternative trading opportunities for shopkeepers had to be provided when such shopkeepers were dispossessed of their properties. So The Plaza was developed in order that Indian traders could be decanted from their shops and homes in order for the geographic area that they had occupied, some since the early 1900s, to be declared for Whites only. The Plazas success is not because of but in spite of Apartheid and it is a living tribute to the determination of a large and varied group of persons who overcame the extreme hardships imposed on them.
Today it is a bustling and vibrant centre with some 360 stores its advertising blurb says no price is fixed, bartering or haggling is all a part of the experience. Nearby are some of the best curry restaurants in the city as well as some exceptional confectioneries such as the Divine Confectionery and Coffee Shop, Home Made Delights and Shalimar Delights you can read of these on the Joburg website.
Whilst this is supposed to be a year end review, its turning into a bit of a history lesson, but the truth is that nothing is happening in these areas although they are greatly in need of regeneration. Maybe nothing is happening is a bit harsh given that much of the pavement/public environment of Fordsburg has been upgraded but in truth this is another area under stress yet is being bypassed. Even the inner city distribution system appears to be ignoring the area.
Ferreirasdorp was named after Colonel Ignatius Philip Ferreira who set up a prospectors camp roughly where Diagonal Street is today and which originally gave rise to the name Ferreiras Camp.
On the 18th January 2002, I wrote in Citichat 2/2002, Many locals may be quite unaware of the relatively small Chinese precinct that exists on the western edge of the city. Historically this area in Ferreirastown, bounded by Commissioner, Marshall, Fox and Bezuidenhout Streets, was known as the Cantonese Quarter. At its Western end is Johannesburg Central Police Station better known in its ignominious past as John Vorster Square whilst Newtown proper is to its North-West.
For reasons unknown to me, the street grid to the north/north-west of the precinct is a real mess and one of the issues that must be on the agenda of any local regeneration initiative. The precinct is one of the oldest in Johannesburg and contains one of the oldest buildings, the Chinese Club Building. Adjacent to it is the United Chinese Club building designed by German architect, Pabst, which still attracts great interest from architectural students and others.
Walk around the area and you find an import and wholesale business Sui Hing Hong; Ho Sui - Chinese Provisions and Gifts; the Yung Chen Noodle Den; Canton Take Away and Potters Chinese Take Away; Chon Hing Chinese Restaurant; the Chinese Deli in Wolhuter Street; Lucky's Caf; Jade Tours; and the well known Tong Lok and Swallows Chinese Restaurants. The precinct was the traditional centre of all Chinese activity, business, retail, restaurants, (gambling dare we say!) and was also the information hub (through the Chinese Club established in 1909) about what was happening back in China. Over the past few decades, as with other parts of the city, crime and general degradation led to many of the Chinese traders leaving the area and setting up businesses elsewhere such as in Cyrildene and Edenvale.
There has also been a downturn in business at night in the precinct. Now, with the city's urban regeneration programme becoming more and more visible and attracting more people into the city and into areas such as the adjacent Newtown, the stakeholders in the area are mobilising to be part of the action. The precinct has never formally been demarcated as Chinatown which is a great pity when one sees how such areas have added to the attractions and vibrancy of many great Western cities: New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver and many others.
Architect Heather Dodd has been working on the Chinatown project for some time and I quoted her in January 2002 as saying: The idea of a gateway of traditional symbolic design, is proposed to mark the entrances to Chinatown. This would give identity to Chinatown as a precinct. The proposed positions of the gateway would be at Commissioner and West and at the Johannesburg Central Police Station end of Commissioner Street. She went on to succinctly summarise the larger project philosophy;
The idea of Chinatown as a distinct cultural precinct within the city is an important one. It reaffirms a sense of identity of the Chinese Community in the post-Apartheid city. It assumes an identity that can be more effectively marketed in terms of the tourist market. It allows the idea of a safe and secure precinct to be marketed with an upsurge in night-time activity.
A call to Heather this morning confirmed that a group of businessmen are anxious to pursue the precinct upgrade and hopefully this couls happen during the next twelve months.
Still in Ferreirasdorp, just east of Chinatown is another project that is well and truly stuck. An offer made to purchase Chancellor House, the original law offices of Mandela & Tambo, in December 2003 was subsequently accepted early in 2004 but has yet to be consummated due to the large number of illegal squatters who refuse to move until they are provided with alternative accommodation.
But another area of Ferreirastown is, hopefully, about to have regeneration life breathed into it. This is the area east of Chinatown and north of Chancellor House. This precinct has two entirely different characteristics.
Firstly, a number of smaller buildings, many in a run down state, but of great heritage value and representing a substantial historic Indian trader presence.
Secondly, the more modern buildings of Diagonal Street including the so called Diamond building designed by Chicago based architect Helmut Jahn, in my opinion quite inappropriate for an African highveld city; the last of the inner city Stock Exchanges and the old Ernst & Young building, now being redeveloped as up-market residential units by Urban Ocean under the name The Franklin. Discussions amongst the majority of the owners of both these sectors have confirmed a desire to see the public environment upgraded and this work will start next year.
Newtown has of course been one of the major focuses for inner city revitalization over the past few years. Following years of waffle it finally has been driven by the vision for the area becoming the city's and the country's creative capital.
Infrastructure and access have steadily been remodelled and improved and a great deal of investment has been and continues to be attracted to the area. An improved street grid some years ago was followed by the building of the Nelson Mandela Bridge (which has recently been recognised by the South African Institute of Civil Engineers through their Most Outstanding Civil Engineering Project Achievement award in the technical excellence category for 2003 as well as receiving the Award of the Century in the construction category) which, together with on-and-off ramps from he M1 motorway has transformed access to and from the area.
Incidentally, recent media reports of cars on the bridge being subject to constant smash and grab attacks have been a gross exaggeration by a press ever happy to distort the truth to sell its products irrespective of the damage it does to perceptions!
The building of the new Mary Fitzgerald Square, not without its critics, and the upgrading to the streetscape of the Mills and West Newtown precincts have dramatically improved the public environment. Together with the paving of the unused rail sidings in the Mills precinct thus converting them into parking areas, this public space improvement has all contributed in making the area of great interest to developers.
The refurbishment of the old Premier Milling buildings on the corner of Carr and Quinn Streets has attracted some unique tenants into the area such as the Songwriters Club (great music!) and the owner/developers Urban Solutions and their development partners have some really exciting plans for further development I hear of boutique hotels and grain silo loft apartments!
The total internal refurbishment of the old Electric Workshop building into the state-of-the-art Sci Bono Centre is being followed by a large new extension to its east as well as the refurbishment of the old Electricity offices and creation of new retail space on President Street. Currently under construction is Number One Central Place on the corner of Goch and Jeppe Streets.
It is a mixed-use development, commercial/retail, with a total of 3 850 square metres of offices and 850 square metres of retail space over basement parking. GTA will be taking up 1 870 square metres of office space from 1 May next year a substantial new tenant for Newtown. They will occupy three floors of the new development including a 60 seater auditorium. GTA will be relocating from their current premises in Rosebank to this far more appropriate location, a move that underscores Newtowns tourism potential.
The Bus Factory continues to attract a steady and growing number of visitors to view and buy from its extensive display of South African arts and crafts. Two of the bad buildings in Newtown, Transport House and Turbine Hall, have exciting futures planned for them.
Another private sector development announced during the year was the C-Max development on Nos 5 and 6 Central Place. No 5 is directly south of the Workers Museum over 1 551 square metres. No 6, directly to the East of No 5 and on the corner of Jeppe and Bezuidenhout Streets is 6 250 square metres in extent.
The development of these two sites will result in 20 000 square metres of mixed use, the first fully mixed use development in Newtown offering retail, commercial and residential space. C-Max Investments comprises the well-known developer, Zenprop, together with a black empowerment partner.
Their development will add to the changing skyline of Newtown, the residential component is likely to be upper-income and some seventeen storeys in height. There is also talk of a tourist hotel being developed on the north-east corner of Jeppe and Bezuidenhout Streets.
The large Brickfields development, ultimately 1200 mixed middle and lower income units, of the Johannesburg Housing Company, is currently changing the skyline of the north-east section of Newtown whilst the area just north of Brickfields is currently subject to a new development framework which should be passed by council by mid 2005.
This envisages development north of the historic Park Station structure up to the railway lines. Incidentally, talk of moving the historic Park Station structure appears to be unfounded. Apart from the huge cost implications, the hundred year plus structural steel construction will probably not be able to withstand a further move.
The Councils Arts Culture and Heritage Department under Steven Sack is planning substantial improvements to MuseuMAfricA and they will also be taking over the management of the various historic buildings to the south of Mary Fitzgerald Square currently housing the Workers Library and Museum.
The newly renovated Dance Factory is to be launched next week. Newtown continues to attract an eclectically named collection of clubs, eating and entertainment venues, including Kippies, Horror Caf, Carfax, Nikkis, Bass Line, Ministry of Sound, Politburo, Shivava, Gramadoelas, Moyos and Couch and Coffee.
Now, I've located a lot of sites by their historic road names but of course many of the streets in the precinct have recently been renamed and we must get used to the new and more appropriate naming. So, Goch Street becomes Henry Nxumalo Street; the lower, western section of President is now Dolly Rathebe Road, Bezuidenhout becomes Miriam Makeba Street; Pim becomes Gwigwi Mrwebi and West Street becomes Ntemi Piliso Street. Positive signs that change IS happening.
Summing up, Newtown continues to be driven and to attract investment but the older historic and sadly dilapidated areas to its south and west are being seriously neglected but plans are in process.