How the inner city got its groove back
A new Jo'burg initiative is bringing people back to the city's streets.
‘If cities had profiles on a dating website, Jo’burg would be the one with the really great personality,” says Josef Talotta. “That’s opposed to Cape Town — the gorgeous blonde wearing a bikini.”
Talotta is the head of precinct development for South Point Properties in Braamfontein, one of the city’s thriving neighbourhoods. The company’s portfolio includes Hotel Lamunu, 5 000 student accommodation units and Randlords, a spectacular party venue perched atop a 22-storey office block.
It was Randlords that the Jo’burg City Tourism Association, an alliance of hotel owners, property developers and other key people who make the city’s social and cultural heart beat, chose for its recent launch, where plans were announced for creating a united front to market the inner city as a tourist destination.
Democracy was unkind to the inner city. After 1994 big business made tracks to the suburbs and, as resources stretched to incorporate previously underfunded parts of Johannesburg, neglect set in. Despite that, thousands flocked here in search of work, desperate for accommodation, which came coupled with absent or greedy landlords and a spike in crime.
It created a toxic combination. Streets once highly valued on the Monopoly board became no-go areas.
Thinking back, Johannesburg’s inner city was never a tourist destination. Apartheid stunted its growth, creating a place where people came to work or shop by day. Besides, South Africa’s pariah status coincided with the emergence of modern tourism and so, at a time when foreign destinations became more accessible via air travel, Johannesburg was the city to boycott.
When South Africa did open up it was the natural attractions that were advertised to the world, leaving bikini-clad Cape Town in a more fortunate position. Added to that, the idea of “urban tourism” is relatively new. Jo’burg Tourism’s Laura Vercueil says a recent development is that the city is partnering with Cape Town and Durban to promote this aspect of tourism to the world.
Professor Keith Beavon, an urban geographer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Johannesburg’s past, says of a tourist city: “If you are going to want to make it attractive, you need a few gimmicky things that relate to the past, present and future … packaged in an interesting way. Things you could do over five days — that’s as much as any tourist spends in a foreign city.”
It is notable that much of the talk about the city’s tourism potential is centred on its contemporariness rather than its history; a good cappuccino can do wonders for a city’s image. It is also unsurprising, considering the city’s sensibility, or, as Beavon terms it, its “mining camp mentality” — it “doesn’t look backwards, only forward”. By comparison with the world’s major cities Johannesburg’s mere 125-year history makes it, he says, little more than an “embryo”.
Isaac Chalumbira, owner of Reef Hotel on Anderson Street, one of four four-star city hotels, spearheaded the move to create the new tourism association. “The city has done a fabulous job in building the hardware,” Chalumbira says. “We have the Johannesburg Development Agency to thank for major infrastructure that we see today — public transport in the Rea Vaya network, cleaner and safer streets and new districts.”
The challenge, he says, is to create the “software” — attractions that will draw people to stay and play in the city and stitch everyone’s efforts together so that it all makes sense to visitors.
It is a fresh beginning for the city after some false starts. A few years ago the marketing preceded the goods with luxury flats being sold at a time when the lack of city life amenities — transport, walkable streets, a grocery store and, yes, a coffee shop — meant you were buying an oasis but still needed a camel. This time it is palpably different.
“It’s a co-operative effort,” says Chalumbira — a coalescence of developments that include upgraded infrastructure, residential flats catering to various budgets, an inner-city transport network (the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system), conference facilities that are drawing business tourists, parks and pedestrian malls.
Major brands have also given the city the thumbs up, among them Puma, which has added to its street cred by opening a store in Braamfontein.
Another sign of endorsement is the planned January launch of the hop-on, hop-off bus with about 12 city stops (starting and finishing at Park Station so that it is accessible from any point on the Gautrain line).
Chalumbira recalls a couple he met in New York who told him: “We spent 48 hours at your airport.”
Absorbing the city
They are not the only ones who have been too fearful to venture beyond OR Tambo International. “Within 30 minutes they could have come into the city and visited the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, SAB World of Beer and Museum Africa, but they were told not to leave the airport. We need to work together to make the city more welcoming.”
For Chalumbira, Braamfontein on a Saturday afternoon is as good as it gets. “I’ve watched people at the Neighbourgoods Market just absorbing the city. They are doing absolutely nothing but socialising,” he says. “They are 25-year-olds who have been to New York City and see no difference.”
One of the challenges, he admits, will be creating consistency in the cycle of the city’s weekly life, transforming it from a working city into one that is appealing on any day or night with street life, night life and weekend attractions. This is already happening in Braamfontein and Maboneng.
Chalumbira says hotels and restaurants in the financial district plan to stay open until late on Saturdays for the next few months.
And Chalumbira is not just a talker — he is planning to move back into the city, having recently secured an apartment in the opulent The Franklin building in Pritchard Street. He says he lived in the Mapungubwe Hotel in Anderson Street (one of the first new city hotels and home to its sexiest bar — in the vault of what was once the French Bank) for three months with his two children and they still ask: When are we going back?
“They like walking outside, talking to people,” he says. “In the suburbs their feet don’t touch the ground.”
It is a view that Maboneng developer Jonathan Liebmann echoes. Liebmann returned to Johannesburg after travelling the world, took one look at suburban life and fled in search of the city. That was the start of Arts on Main, when, in 2008, Liebmann’s property company, Propertuity, bought the offices and warehouses on the city’s eastern side which had once belonged to DF Corlett, the city’s mayor in the early 1930s.
“Having been a tourist in many countries I thought: How do I create an environment that works for me? As a tourist I was looking for an authentic, multilayered experience.” It is this view that informed the development of Maboneng, a multi-use, integrated city neighbourhood.
Liebmann, who lives in Maboneng and is building a new rooftop home there, speaks fast and straight. “In any city, if you want to know what’s happening you talk to a local,” he says.
It is a cruel irony that in terms of Jo’burg being a tourist city, “it’s the global tourists leading the locals”.
“The tourists are far more fearless and not tainted by memory or perception. It’s all perception. Sandton has the highest crime rate in the city — for armed robberies.”
And where the global tourists have ventured, the world’s media have followed. A recent article in United States fashion bible W magazine billed Jo’burg as the “capital of cool”, “Africa’s hippest hub for art, music and fashion”. And the New York Times called Braamfontein “The South African version of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg or London’s East End”.
Liebmann estimates that Maboneng gets about 5 000 weekend visitors, which he ascribes to it offering “people the opportunity to walk the street”.
Maboneng is set for major expansion and the plans will be launched next month. With a cinema, theatre, food market and museum, it has already put together some shiny attractions. “People complain about the government, but there are major opportunities in the gaps,” says Liebmann.
In Ameshoff Street, Braamfontein, you will find Jamie Lorge, a poster child for this new spirit inhabiting the city. Her eatery, Love Food, has only been open for a few weeks but it is packed at lunchtime.
Originally from Knysna, the 24-year old has lived in Cape Town, where she trained as a chef at Silwood Kitchen, and in London. “I knew I always wanted a place [of my own],” says Lorge. “I nearly signed in Melrose Arch [in the northern suburbs], then Parkhurst. Then I came to the Neighbourgoods Market one Saturday and saw a ‘to let’ sign. I thought the place needed something like this.”
The “this” is an urban café, a bright spot in Braamfontein with delicious fresh food at reasonable prices.
“I want to give people a reason to come out of their offices,” she says. “Give this area two years and it will be like the city bowl in Cape Town. People don’t yet understand just how beautiful Jo’burg is.”
A few blocks down, Andrew Bannister’s Metro Hotel is undergoing a renovation. Soon to be renamed The Bannister, the hotel caters for cross-border traders. Johannesburg is a major shopping destination on the continent and Talotta calls it “the Dubai of Africa”, except with real cultural attractions. “The hotels and tourism infrastructure are cheaper and so are all the designer labels that you’ll find in Paris or London,” he adds.
For R250 a night you can get a backpacker style room (with wi-fi) and for R450 a bathroom en suite. “I want to keep it well priced while keeping occupancy high,” Bannister says. So far, so good. He says his average customers are business people from around Southern Africa. “I am quite well known in Zimbabwe, actually.”
Bannister has been in Braamfontein since 2002, so is no stranger to the shifts in its landscape. “It used to be that if I had a white person staying here it meant trouble — now Braamfontein is full of hipsters.”
From the deck of Randlords the city appears coherent and neatly arranged. As the sunset begins to fade, it is bathed in pinkish hues with a skyline good enough to wear on a T-shirt.
At opposite sides of the city, Braamfontein and the Maboneng district are two of Johannesburg’s rising stars, but there are other success stories — the financial district, the developments along Main Street, Gandhi Square, the fashion district, Constitution Hill and little Addis, the Ethiopian district.
The tourism association has its work cut out for it, but it is clear that for the first time in years Jo’burg as a tourist destination will rely more on the ability to connect the dots and tell people about them than it will on creating them.