Art and Design

Not everyone sees the light

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

The recent launch of expansion plans for the Maboneng precinct raises the question: Just who will be left out of the inner-city plan?

Balancing act: People will be able to live, work and play in Maboneng.

Guests at last week’s launch of Maboneng’s ambitious new downtown expansion project and exhibition braved a cool night and swayed to DJs playing house, hip-hop and Congolese dance music beneath moon-shaped lights and in the smoke of a boerewors braai.

Maboneng, Jo’burg’s post-industrial arts, commerce and residential precinct in the southeast of the city, means “place of light” in Sesotho. Light is an essential part of the  branding of the project, which aims  to develop a neighbourhood in which people of mixed backgrounds and incomes can live, work and play.

Maboneng includes Arts on Main and Main Street Life in the City and Suburban area, cradled by the Joe Slovo highway off-ramp and the Mai Mai traditional healers’ market.

The first phase of the expansion that will kick off next year is residential and will extend into Jeppestown and New Doornfontein.

Apartments in the high-end Artisan Lofts will cost between R310 000 and nearly R2-million, although rooms will be rented for as little as R1 200 a month for relatively low-income people in the red brick TSE building opposite the graffiti-scrawled recycling depot in Fox Street. A garden is planned for the pavements outside the depot.

The goal, says Jonathan Liebmann, project founder and chief executive of Propertuity, the primary investment company behind the Maboneng precinct, is for the growth of an “enlightened community”. These are “people who define themselves as being alternative on some level or not fitting squarely into the ­mainstream”.

The idea is to draw them to “a neighbourhood that offers accommodation — whether it’s shops, offices or residential — to people of varying income groups”.

The Maboneng expansion will also include parks and a tree nursery. Skateboarding events are already organised for children in the area and one of the aims of a local community centre will be to support local schools.

The “made in Maboneng” philosophy displayed by the exhibition is to promote “the collaborative creation process of urban forms”. This involves inviting the views of ­surrounding communities, not destroying existing architecture, recycling — using materials from the neighbourhood such as cargo containers — and encouraging residents to support local retailers and service providers such as Sharp Braai in Kruger Street and a bicycle welder who lives in the district.

The expansion will also take account of the challenging urban terrain. For instance, the project will encompass one of the city’s most destitute districts in Doornfontein.

Room for everyone?
Thousands of the city’s poor live here in dire conditions, many in unlawfully appropriated buildings known as the “dark buildings”, which refers both to the absence of electricity and the misfortune and despair of their inhabitants.  

So, if the language of light is to become a motif for the move towards a meaningful city life that cuts across classes, to what extent can the aspirations of those living and working in the informal sector under precarious conditions be reconciled with the ideals of the Maboneng project?

“One must be very careful about developing a downtown or inner city that only caters for the needs of the poor,” says Liebmann. To make a good city, he says, “the middle income and the rich must also be looked after in addition to the poor”.

Controversially, Liebmann questions whether the emerging neighbourhoods of the inner city are the right place for everyone. “Maybe some people should be in the inner city and others should be on the outskirts of the city.”

Margot Rubin, a lecturer at the school of architecture and planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, is concerned about the gap between what Maboneng offers and the means of its surrounding communities.

“I worry about it being taunting and tantalising and out of reach,” she says. “If you are going to say this is an aspiration, what channels are being offered? It’s full of light but who is being included?’

In addition, research among informal recyclers led by Sarah Charlton of the architectural department shows that many of them congregate in the inner city without access to adequate housing because of the lack of economic opportunities on the urban peripheries.

Shereza Sibanda of the Inner City Resource Centre, an organisation that assists communities with housing and legal issues, is concerned that expanding private sector development and rising property prices will place greater pressure on “invisible communities” — those working in the informal sector and those who cannot access decent formal ­accommodation.

But Liebmann says that the expansion will have a minimal impact on the affordable accommodation market because there is an oversupply of available buildings in the inner city.

Maboneng’s policy is not to buy existing residential space or evict people from their homes: the spaces targeted are largely vacant or converted from industrial use. He also believes the Maboneng development will create employment and support local entrepreneurs.

Salym Fayad, a Colombian journalist and a Main Street Life resident, raises some key questions: “What drove me here was wanting to interact with people living in the city. But I’ve realised I’m interacting with the same people as in Melville” — referring to the relatively prosperous suburb northwest of the inner city.

“I was speaking to some of the shop owners who say they used to have people working in these buildings which were their clients, but now they say they are losing them. They say many of the people here prefer to shop at Spar and they can drive elsewhere.”

Out of reach
The exhibition Maboneng 2.0: Shifting Urbanism, curated by Bronwyn Kotzen and managed by Alice Cabaret, outlines the history and the hoped-for future of the precinct. The interactive exhibition is elegantly presented: vinyl panels frame the evolution of the spaces — from derelict industrial warehouses to their present incarnation.

Old machinery found in the area adorns the exhibition space. It closes with a section titled “Your Maboneng” that allows viewers to give feedback on a chalk board or in a box about their own ideas for the precinct.

But the exhibition lacks a sense of the broader urban issues that swirl around Johannesburg — gentrification, security, eviction and urban inequality, among others. Although free, it may also have failed to attract something even more significant — the attention of poorer local ­residents.

I ask a group of women living in the neighbourhood whether they have visited the exhibition. “No,” says one, who doesn’t want to be named. “I don’t go there. It’s too expensive.”

It seems the test of Maboneng’s project of collaboration and inclusivity will be whether it can genuinely reach out to populations that may feel excluded from it.

Marcus Neustetter’s performance on the opening night seems to capture competing visions of inner-city Johannesburg at work. Dressed in a lab coat, Neustetter sweeps broken light sticks into piles, scattering and gathering them as he moves with a translucent bin into a dark corner near the Joe Slovo off-ramp.

The image can be viewed as the productive process of recycling and creation — or the sweeping up of broken light sticks can be a metaphor for the discarded aspirations of many in the city.

I wonder whether there is really a shared meaning in these lights — brushed across the streets, threading the highway, glowing from the cold bellies of appropriated buildings — or whether they are merely ciphers sparking in the city’s heart.  

The Maboneng 2.0: Shifting Urbanism exhibition will run until 2013 at Main Street Life on Fox Street. Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a researcher on inner-city Johannesburg based at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand

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