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Maboneng Precint: ‘I am an island’

Alone, gazing from my window to the darkened streets below I saw a man, terror stricken and maddened, jumping wildly and howling, as he tried to escape from the warden and his ungodly mechanical screech and the rat-ta-ta-ta-ta of his handheld lightening.

This unfortunate Jeppestown community member had most likely stumbled from Foxes Den, the shebeen across the road and onto the small strip of Fox Street which forms the main artery of the Maboneng precinct.

He was now rapidly and aggressively being escorted from the "place of light" and back to the surrounding darkness from whence he emerged.  

In my flat I was safe but this, one of my more poignant memories as a former Main Street Life resident, was not one that brought with it a sense of the warm fuzziness of communal belonging promised in the campaign slogan.

The message seemed clear: you are welcome as you are but only when you fit in.

How honest has Maboneng been?
Indeed, when creating a residential offering catered to those a little better-off and used to the relative tranquillity of Johannesburg's sprawling suburbs, there is a need to provide a sense of security, an aura of cleanliness and order.

But with its efforts to control and monitor its "rejuvenated" spaces, experiences such as this seemed to point towards a subtle exclusion of those from across the tracks.

Just how honest has Maboneng been regarding the paradoxical challenges involved when seeking integration across income brackets, while providing a residential and commercial offering to the arty elite in an impoverished area?

Critics wonder whether Maboneng truly achieved its claim of becoming an "enlightened", and "integrated" urban neighbourhood.

In contrast to Jonathan Liebmann's grand and laudable ideal to "create a community" for all people, has Maboneng, in fact, served to alienate the pre-existing Jeppestown community?

As one critic remarked, the Jeppestown community "has been here for a long time … what they have done is come in and ostracise the real community".

The ambition
Through the Maboneng 2.0 development, Liebmann, the oft quoted "visionary" behind Johannesburg's most infamous urban rejuvenation project, has developed what he calls the "counter-theory to the apartheid era segregation".

As the second phase of development gets underway, he has set his sights on the "transformation of the entire area around Arts on Main" from an impoverished residential and light industrial neighbourhood into a "fully integrated, mixed-use community and a comprehensive and mixed-income residential offering".

Building on the feverish up-take of the studio and gallery spaces at Arts on Main, the residential spaces at Main Street Life and Revolution House and the scores of high-end fashion boutiques and restaurants in the area, 2.0 will expand the precinct to include an additional 25 buildings.

These new spaces, says Liebmann, will extend the Maboneng offering beyond the arty niche which funded phase one, to incorporate the near full cross section of Jo'burg's diverse people.

"The more we grow, the more I realise there are actually lots of people that want to be part of a well-managed, integrated and well-designed neighbourhood … so what we at first thought would be targeted just to the creatives, we now realise includes people working in a wide sector of society."

Notably, the development also seeks to offer residential space to the low-income market.

"By the end of this year, we would have offered accommodation for people earning from R3k a month up to R100k a month," says Liebmann.

By providing an offering suitable for everyone, the hope is that rich and poor, black and white, square and cool will finally have a space where they can come together, living side-by-side in one harmonious space. This then would form a microcosm of South Africa's utopian rainbow nation dream.

A vibrant community
There is no denying that Maboneng as it stands is, internally, a vibrant and thriving community.

"It's like two worlds coming together … it's the mixture of people and great people as well. There is no discrimination, you get everyone, gay and lesbian, but they are all cool, they all talk to each other, it's great," says Thanda Mungubane,a barista working at one of Maboneng's coffee shops.

"It's like university where people are just like kids, having fun and living life, living large and working hard as well."

The areas around the Maboneng portion of Fox Street are alive with a constant buzz, which amplifies tenfold on the weekends when Market on Main is open and the infamous Sunday parties on various rooftops around the area take place.

And accompanying the art exhibitions, events, restaurants and stores, one of the most remarked upon and ideologically pleasing "side shows" at Maboneng comes by way of the Nollie Faith initiative.

These are the scores of Jeppestown community children seen riding on weekends, glee-eyed and jovial, up and down Fox Street on donated skateboards and under the watchful eye of older volunteers from the northern and eastern suburbs.

Seeing economically disadvantaged kids so spontaneously enjoying the environment provided for them, free of charge and of fear, goes a long way to create the impression that this is a place for all to enjoy.

"The tourists dig it," says Zean Ferreira, former Main Street Life resident and the Nollie Faith programme "volunteer" who is responsible for the birth of the organisation.

But Maboneng's most poignant symbol of integration also serves as an interesting inflection point around which to debate Maboneng's inherent paradox.

A conflicted desire
While Nollie Faith grew organically through Ferreira's desire to connect with his wider community, and ironically from his sense of detachment from the Maboneng community, the initiative grew into something at once wanted and undesired by the Maboneng "corporation".

The conflict that ensued, with Maboneng desiring to "use" Nollie Faith as one of its outreach initiatives but not keen on having the kids loitering around and begging when not on their boards, highlights a difficulty faced by the corporation which they don't appear to have dealt with in any of their public narratives.

"It's a difficult balance because yes they want to 'use them' and they want to feel that they are socially responsible but they … don't want people from the community hanging around," he says.

"They want the street culture but they only want the good. They want the graffiti but it must be controlled."

Personally, I used to love spending a Saturday morning skateboarding down our privatised street alongside the laughing, eager children of Nollie Faith.

But the pang of loneliness, of otherness, would return when my friends with those same bright smiling faces came to greet me by the Chalkboard Café, only to be shooed away with the stern, unforgiving grimace of our guards.

'Polluted' ambitions
One of Nollie's participants, 11-year-old David*, explains that the guards will chase them from the streets if they are found loitering or begging and that no community children are allowed in the area after 7pm.

While applauding some of the genuine efforts of the likes of Maboneng's project manager, Hayleigh Evans, to find a compromise with Nollie Faith, Ferreira believes some of the best intentions of Maboneng's employees have become "polluted" by the ambitions of the company.

The integration narrative, he says, is nothing more than "smoke and mirrors".

Accordingly, in stark contrast to Liebmann's counter-apartheid urban management imagery, Ferreira has criticised Maboneng for becoming an "economic apartheid".

You will not be excluded "because of the colour of your skin but because of your culture, your class".

A fortress deep and mighty
Zackara Raitt did her thesis on gentrification and has created performance art pieces specifically concerned with the nature of the Maboneng space.

She sees the same clear division between Maboneng and the wider community, an economic divide which has resulted from the manner in which the precinct has developed.

In contrast to examples of gentrification elsewhere in the world, where poorer neighbourhoods have been transformed by the spontaneous migration of the young and trendy into areas where they are able to find cheap accommodation, Maboneng has been an entirely top-down initiative.

The precinct was "sparked by institutional investors coming in and seeing an opportunity and a market for trendy living and exploiting it", says Raitt.

This preformulated construction of the space has meant that on one level the pre-existing community is naturally excluded from the development as it simply cannot afford to indulge in the up-market offering.

On a second level, through its efforts to control the nature of the space, Maboneng has, perhaps unwittingly, created a form of psychological otherness, a subtle unwelcoming.

"It's a double-edged sword where on the one hand Maboneng has needed to provide safety and security and has needed to monitor the area" and "on the other hand how people who live in Jeppestown, even though the people who work here will absolutely deny it, are alienated from the space because of that," says Raitt.

"They have not literally built walls around the precinct but with the security guards and these figures of authority, a sense of authorised entry is very strongly in place." As an outsider "you are more than welcome but don't stop in the area. If you are not the calibre of people they are looking for you will be ushered out right away."

"People use the term 'reclaiming the city', but you have to ask: who are you reclaiming the city for?" she said.

Patrons of the precinct
While the company is very candidly open about these contradictions, critics of the development worry that the patrons of the precinct have not also been subtly duped into buying an idea of integration, and of what town is, that is somewhat removed from fact.

Mungubane too, while praising the Maboneng culture and with the view that the development has been beneficial to the wider area, questions the level of awareness and of integration the Maboneng community has regarding its surroundings.

"I don't think people here care about those from outside. They just live their own life, they don't care about how you are living your life. It's like survival of the fittest you know," he said.

Mandla "Street Boss" Mazibuko, who worked for the urban youth festival, Street Cred in Maboneng, says: "Maboneng is a false tooth in a whole set of teeth at this stage. If you think of a veneer it looks just like the other teeth, Jeppestown, downtown Johannesburg, Doorfontein, it's not real."

"It's saying that yes we are all about creating a place for creative people but the creative people they are engaging with are not from the community."

A recognition of the contradiction
This sense of Maboneng, very subtly, existing in contradiction to its marketing line is something I couldn't shake when living there.

In truth, after living at Main Street Life for 15 months I hardly felt like I had left Killarney and what disturbed me the most was the sense that my neighbours thought they had.

And so, over half a year ago, I moved to join the slower, more organic, bottom-up, rejuvenation of Ponte City.

But things at Maboneng change at an unprecedented rate and as the precinct moves into its second phase of development, there does now seem to be some recognition of its contradiction.

"It would be nice to offer a solution [that overcomes the dilemma, but] it is a condition of this kind of thing all over the world," says Evans.

According to Evans: "There is recognition of the paradox," and while admitting that many of Maboneng's residents and visitors may not be actively engaged with the wider Johannesburg, "at least Maboneng can provide a gateway for the more adventurous to explore the city".

"I don't deny that there is a challenge in integrating various communities … all I can do is create an environment that is best positioned to engage with that challenge," says Liebmann.

"What I like about being in the neighbourhood is that it is connected … I don't feel that it is perfect but I think that we have done a better part of it than our counterparts in the northern suburbs".

Moving forward
Spain's Marta Postigo is an urban designer currently on contract in South Africa for the City of Tshwane's urban regeneration master plan.

Disconcerted by Liebmann's idea of "creating a community" as it implies that he is "rejecting the existing one," she is of the view that the Maboneng is far from integrated.

However, she does see it as a potential "first step" towards a more social representative space.

"It's closer to an environment where the different income groups can see each other and realise that they are just the same, they are just people who sleep and work and eat and socialise," says Postigo.

"I think they have just started a transformation at Maboneng, bringing into town, an area typically populated by the poor, people with money. It seems like a barrier is starting to fall."

As a co-owner of the Dlala Nje cultural centre, Mike Luptak has been keenly involved with the gradual integration happening at Ponte. He may have some pointers for Maboneng as it moves forwards.

"You cannot force integration," he said. "It'll happen by the cooperation of all people that compose that society," he says.

 "If you want organic transformation, it is so important to do the project from inside out … there is only one way an urban integration community can work and that is if you become a part of it.

"The only way to do that is to include them and to become part of the community in a way that they will respect you. People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it," he said.

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