Search for Newtown's official website and the home page is blank, save for a banner saying "under construction". Visit the Johannesburg precinct and you realise it is a message to be taken literally.
In the area bounded by Miriam Makeba and Carr streets, next to the historic Market Theatre, multiple cranes (rare and precious birds in a stretched economy) tower over a massive building site, a 70 000m2 commercial and retail development called Newtown Junction, set to open in October next year.
Nearby, the small complex of shops facing the theatre's entrance is boarded with signs indicating the construction of the Majestic, a boutique hotel complex. A few blocks west, towards Fordsburg, the old grain silos are being converted into student accommodation, with railway containers stacked atop them like Lego blocks awaiting conversion into living spaces.
It all makes you want to broadcast the second (or fifth or sixth) coming of Newtown, but history is a cruel teacher. Newtown's past is the story of a cultural precinct that has endured many headlines foretelling its rise. Each new development, and there have been many, has been greeted as a sign of a turnaround.
But despite the success of singular institutions such as the Sci-Bono science museum, the Market Theatre, Museum Africa, the SAB World of Beer – a top-rated tourist stop – and the impressive remaking of Turbine Hall, each operates as an island, the spaces between carrying the whiff of broken promises of the area's sustained life as Johannesburg's cultural precinct.
On an average day you can barely discern Newtown's pulse. Mary Fitzgerald Square – a historic and contemporary site for public gatherings and labour disputes named after trade unionist Mary "Pick Handle" Fitzgerald, who was also deputy mayor of Johannesburg in 1920 – stands bleakly empty, while construction dust swirls about. The streets are quiet.
? Newtown Junction, a commercial and retail development currently under construction.
Ironically, the most enlivening aspect of Newtown's streets is the graffiti and street art that washes over the walls. Usually interpreted as a sign of urban degeneration, like many things in Johannesburg, what you see is not necessarily what you get as the graffiti is proving to be a popular attraction. Urban walking tour company Past Experiences even offers guided tours.
Then there's the growing list of former Newtown tenants – among them Khaya FM, the French Institute of South Africa and Xarra Books, which have moved to other parts of the city. And the less frequent sightings of the area's most famous denizen, Prince Twala, known as "the Prince of Newtown", who, going one up on Uri Geller, fashions antique spoons into covetable jewellery.
On an average day a headline would simly read, "Newtown More like ghost town", but Newtown doesn't only have average days. It has exceptional days when events like the Joy of Jazz, Bloc Party and the Hansa Festival of Legends, draw thousands of people to the only area in the city designed for the convergence of such high human traffic.
It's a phenomenon that Denis Charles Courdent, deputy director of the French Institute and cultural attaché, remarks on, comparing the space to the Roman forum in which people of the ancient world once gathered.
He is quick to emphasise that the institute only left Newtown for neighbouring Braamfontein because the building it had occupied was to be renovated. "We loved being in Newtown and consider it one of the best places for culture in Johannesburg. I really think it of it as the heart of the city," Courdent says, adding that the institute still supports many Newtown events and collaborates frequently with the Market Theatre and Museum Africa.
So what's the real Newtown story? Built close to a century ago on a stretch of land from which the Brickfields community was forcibly removed following a reported outbreak of the plague – the area was then torched to prevent the spread of the disease – Newtown rose out of the ashes. In The Joburg Book, Nechama Brodie writes that Newtown was "perhaps the first example of urban regeneration in Joburg". With 100 years behind it, Newtown is still working on getting it right.
Sharon Lewis, head of planning and strategy at the Johannesburg Development Agency, lists some of the issues that have thwarted lift-off. In the early 2000s Newtown was declared a heritage district. Then, the city authorities, that predated the city's development agency, thought of the new demarcation as a handy way to market the area, but the heritage appellation also brought strict building limits. So what was designed to protect the historic district has worked against its modernisation. Meanwhile, the high ownership of property in the area by the city and province, initially thought to be an asset, has also carried a penalty.
Sharon Lewis, head of planning and strategy at the Johannesburg Development Agency.
"On the upside, there are sites that the public sector controls and can develop, but on the downside there's very little money for it," says Lewis.
Braamfontein has thrived because of significant private property ownership, which has enabled it to be defined as a city improvement district and to draw sustained contributions from property owners for upkeep and services. A balance of residential and commercial interests – which Braamfontein has got right – is also key to a sustainable city life.
In Newtown there was once a vision for a residential mix, but Brickfields, on Ntemi Piliso and Gwigwi Mrwebi streets – rental residential accommodation for the upper working class – has been the only major residential development, and the city's first major greenfield [on previously unused land] residential development in 30 years. Phase two is, however, said to be imminent.
Until now, Newtown has also been the victim of the financial downturn and bureaucratic delays as well as the lack of streamlined decision-making by various local and provincial authorities. A report last year in this paper about the imminent finalisation of Newtown's city improvement district plans has yet to be borne out. Without that, says Lewis, the precinct must survive on voluntary rather than compulsory contributions from property owners. Right now, Newtown has no operating funding – this means no budget for marketing and programming and a website that continues to say "under construction".
I turned to Jonathan Liebmann, founder and chief executive of Propertuity, a company that has successfully turned around the inner-city precinct now known as Maboneng. The area, like Newtown, was also a commercial district with limited residential use. And yet, with no intervention from local authorities, one company has managed to create a cultural district in fewer than five years where once there was none.
While some will throw the gentrification argument at Maboneng, label it as exclusive and not a workable city solution, a walk along its streets tells you that it is coming closer to finding the right mix. Yes, there's cappuccino available on numerous corners, but there is also street access through the area that ensures that, on most afternoons, city kids are doing skateboard tricks up Main Street, small businesses are popping up all over the precinct, creating new jobs, and the streets around it still serve as a thoroughfare, linking Jeppe and Troyeville to the rest of the city.
The old grain silos
Mistaking regeneration for gentrification can be a tired argument, and it belies the complex nature of cities and the challenge of creating spaces that cater equally to the different needs of all economic classes.
I ask Liebmann what distinguishes the two neighbourhoods and he says: "Critical mass is required in order to make a significant impact on the built environment. In Newtown you have a number of stakeholders who own or control fragmented parts of the precinct, resulting in a disconnected neighbourhood. In Maboneng we have managed to acquire 35 buildings, allowing us to take a holistic view over the entire neighbourhood."
Liebmann points out that changing the public's perception to attract visitors, residents and business downtown was the first major challenge.
"Now that we have overcome that phase and the community numbers are growing daily we face issues around basic government services like security and cleaning, which is being paid for by our company rather than being provided by the government."
So what would he do if he was handed Newtown?
"Newtown has a great history and some beautiful heritage buildings. I would focus on ensuring that the mix between the new more commercial parts of the precinct are balanced with an authentic, character-driven approach in restoring and reactivating the old buildings."
Back amid the cranes, the shopping mall and Nedbank, Newtown Junction is rapidly taking shape. Lewis says the deal with the developer – Atterbury – was 10 years in the making. It first had to be advertised in a public, open-tender process and proposals had to be weighed up and negotiated while the developers had to sign up tenants successfully. Big anchor tenants are promised and the mall will include cinemas, an extensive food court and big-brand retailers.
Meanwhile, Atterbury also has to integrate the historic Potato Sheds – part of the city's first produce market – and a Victorian public toilet (formerly Kippies jazz club) into the design of the space; it's a cheeky irony that one of the city's most valuable heritage items is a former toilet.
The new shopping centre aims to attract the growing residential inner-city population. From 2007 to 2011 approximately 44 000 new apartments were added to the city's inventory – mostly through the conversion of empty office buildings into affordable family apartments and student accommodation, says Lewis.
The architects on the project and Lewis all talk about mindfulness and sensitivity with regard to the new development. Heritage elements will be preserved and emphasised, a pedestrian walkway will link the site with its surroundings, and basement parking for 2500 cars will make Newtown even more attractive for big events.
The lead architects, dhk, together with joint-venture partners Mashabane Rose, are responsible for the project's heritage elements. A third firm, LPA, is jointly responsible for the retail development.
John de Klerk, associate director of dhk's Johannesburg office, and Peter Fehrsen, director and founding partner, say the project is "an urban design intervention".
Building in Newtown is no blank canvas, says Fehrsen – there are lots of architectural and design constraints. Years of neglect have also meant that heritage structures have to be forensically restored, "melding the bits and pieces".
Photography by Delwyn Verasamy,M&G
To this end the mall has been designed so that it works with the streets, with attention paid to integrating the design, using materials and elements that are consistent with the area's original design, such as red brick, but also introducing more modern aspects.
"We have also chosen materials tough enough to stand up to the patina of time," Fehrsen says. "We didn't want a pastiche, a mimicry of what is there. It's important that you can read the historic elements and discern what is new."
Great effort has been made to put in place environmentally-friendly building practices and to make use of natural lighting. Another consideration was making sure that the new structure is gentle on the city grid and infrastructure, which includes utilising an air conditioning system that works with an ice storage system.
The development is set back from the M2 highway to ensure that the view of the city is unobstructed, but it is hoped that its high visibility from one of the city's busiest freeways will also contribute to it becoming a major attraction.
Architect Jeremy Rose of Mashabane Rose, says: "Generally I am anti-malls but we've got to embrace the future. Look at how people hated the Gautrain at first. [But] it is all part of modernising the city and that takes a few steps at a time. It's not instant."
There is mention of artefacts that were recovered during the Newtown Junction excavations. Museum Africa's curator of geology, Katherine James, confirmed that various animal husbandry tools, glassware, crockery and other general household goods that were recovered give insights into the daily lives of Newtown's early residents. Samples of the ash from the Brickfields fire of 1904 were also taken. These will be displayed at a later date, while the history of the area will be woven into wall spaces at Newtown Junction and the Majestic Hotel.
The past is critical – but an illustrious past without a glorious future is just an empty reminder of promises that went unfulfilled. Within months, the dust will settle in Newtown and the new development will literally rise from the ashes. Never before has a city district had so many willing it to live up to its name.
"We've got to embrace the future … people hated the Gautrain at first. [But] it is all part of modernising the city and that takes a few steps at a time. "