“Be careful” – the two words always uttered when you tell someone who has never been there before that you are going to Jo’Burg. Yet there is more light than dark in this city than many know…
A grey, overcast sky hung above as we drove cautiously through the Central business district of Johannesburg, South Africa. From dark, derelict buildings people emerged with sunken faces, crowding around flame-licked rubbish cans for scraps or warmth before retreating back out of sight.
Johannesburg’s central business district has for years been home not to giant gleaming skyscrapers housing growth-inducing businesses, but to abandoned buildings filled with impoverished former township-dwellers. The residents sought refuge here after international anti-apartheid sanctions crippled Johannesburg’s economy in the 1980’s. It is still a shocking sight to behold.
However, in one area of town these once-forgotten areas are enjoying a sense of revival, thanks to the Maboneng precinct project.
A success story of urban regeneration, Maboneng, meaning ‘Place of Light’, is a privately developed urban neighbourhood on the east side of Johannesburg’s CBD and home to a thriving community of creative factory spaces, trendy loft apartments, restaurants and more.
On my trip to the capital last year, I visited a popular addition to the neighbourhood: the Arts on Main Sunday market. According to the South Africa tourism board, “The Arts on Main development is as much about paying homage to Johannesburg’s history as it is a vote of confidence in the future of the city and its vibrant community of artists”.
The harsh juxtaposition of empty, derelict office blocks next to the grimy coolness of the renovated 1911 warehouse where Arts on Main is held is a defiant statement by the founders: we can breathe life and community that is diverse, arty and modern back into our city.
Jam-packed full of world foods, art, fashion and reclaimed vintagy-goods, the atmosphere at the market was buzzy and friendly. In the leafy courtyard, diners enjoy the temperate Jo’Burg climate, sitting under olive trees and taking advantage of the full breakfast menu and homemade lemonade from Canteen restaurant. Inside, a collection of some of the best South African contemporary art galleries reside, including the Goodman Gallery, the Seippel Gallery and Bailey’s African History Archives, which holds more than 40 years’ of South African photographic history.
Around the corner is Main Street Life, the younger of Maboneng’s two developments, which opened in 2010. The top floor is taken up by the 12 Decades Johannesburg Art Hotel, where each individually designed room represents one of the past 12 decades of Johannesburg’s history. Main Street Life also includes a rooftop events venue and shops. On the ground floor, Johannesburg’s independent cinema, the Bioscope, screens local, international and classic films.
Johannesburg is changing. Proud to be a country that has overcome monstrosity with immense positivity, respect and strength, there is a sense of ambition among Jo’Burgers to turn their city around. The Maboneng precinct is proof that Jo’Burg’s citizens have the gumption to take darkness and turn it into light: something positive, exciting and collaborative. The results are inspiring.