I was born at the Florence Nightingale Maternity Hospital when Hillbrow was probably at the peak of her existence. My parents had recently arrived from Cape Town and were living in an apartment in Yeoville with their two young children, and the Florence Nightingale was the perfect choice of place to deliver their third born. There are shots of my early childhood of the family swimming at the public pool in Yeoville and my parents speak about how vibrant and cosmopolitan the areas were. There was a sense of safety (however misplaced) and a definite air of fun and creativity.
When I was not even two my family moved out to the suburbs of the West Rand, but from the moment I could make decisions about places to visit, my early home turf became a regular playground again. As a teenager/young adult, I haunted the streets of Hillbrow by sneaking out to party at Bella Napoli followed by munchies from Fontana’s. Hillbrow Records stocked music that we couldn’t find anywhere on the West Rand, and a bunch of us camped out there overnight to buy from their closing down sale. We frequented Mama’s Italian restaurant and many of the late night bars and music venues in Yeoville.
Hillbrow’s demise co-incided with my transition to adulthood and the real world of work as a school teacher in the 1990s, so I watched from a sad distance as she became a “no-go” area (and I wasn’t playing that much). She remained the chosen stopping point for immigrants to the city, but the face of the immigrants became decidedly more African than it had been in the 70s and 80s and post-Apartheid nerves ensured that all white South Africans who had wealth invested in those areas and who could withdraw further north to the suburbs did exactly that. Opportunist criminals preyed on bewildered newcomers by offering them rooms (or beds) in apartments that didn’t belong to them, and the “hijacking” of buildings in Joburg’s inner city began.
I have watched with increasing hope and happiness over the past decade as my city has started to turn around again, with numerous investors and organisations working hard to reduce the lawlessness and sense of abandonment that had been so apparent to all. I made a conscious decision at the start of this year to take back my city, tired of people’s refusal to notice the improvements and insistence on spreading negativity about Joburg’s inner city. I’ve done a walking tour from Newtown to the Mabongeng precinct with Joburg Places and Spaces, caught the Joburg Sightseeing Bus with my best friend and our children, made numerous trips to Newtown, and taken part in many expeditions to Braamfontein’s Neighbourhood Goods Market or Kitcheners Bar, so when I saw that Nicholaus Bauer of Dlala Nje was offering a visit to The Ponte and a walk through Hillbrow, I couldn’t resist.
Bauer is a journalist who was sent to The Ponte to investigate a story, and came away with a one year lease to live in the building. He is personable and passionate about Joburg and he’s working hard to rebrand the inner city. He established Dlala Nje – a shop in The Ponte – as a place for children from the building and the area to be empowered and entertained. They have arcade games, foozball and regular art workshops etc. Anyone who would like to “give back” with the skills that they have should get in touch with Bauer to arrange a workshop.
I’ve driven through Hillbrow enough times not to feel nervous, but I do understand that people find it a little daunting – it’s busy, there are hundreds of people on the streets and taxis and other drivers appear to follow a different road code to the rest of us. I must admit that I did feel relieved that I could park my brother’s fancy car inside the building, which is very secure. I met with the rest of the tour group (a couple of journalists and a bunch of physicist; three South Africans and 5 foreigners here on long assignments) and Bauer graciously took us through the strict security and up the lift to the 52nd floor to his apartment.
The windows that open to the inner core of the building have unfortunately been welded shut after a tragic accident with a young child, but even a look through the closed window gave me a terrible sense of vertigo (interestingly, I didn’t get it looking, even hanging out of the outer window to take a photo). Bauer quipped that it’s like looking at the Death Star, which was a very apt description.
Inside his apartment (which was originally the bottom floor of a three story apartment – the height of luxury living!) he told us the history of the building – from its heyday in the 70s and 80s to its severe decline in the 90s. At its worst, the building’s owners had fallen on bad debt and given the building away to a debtor who didn’t know about running a building. The same bad debt meant that the power and water to the building had been cut off and the thousands of occupants (not the wealthy, previous occupants, but poor, vulnerable ones) lived in absolute squalor. Waste of all sorts was thrown into the core, and pimps and drug dealers ruled over the iconic building. The Ponte was a vertical urban slum. There was talk of turning The Ponte into a prison, with serious discussion taking place between the owners and the Department of Correctional Services. Thankfully it didn’t progress beyond talk.
In 2003, a former member of the security branch was employed to establish who was living in the building and who was paying rent. He systematically visited all 472 apartments to establish who was paying rent and some semblance of order began to return to The Ponte. A massive clean up and renovation began. 14 stories of rubbish (including unspeakable things) were removed from the core, but in 3 years, a major turnaround had taken place. The building suffered yet another setback in 2008 with a bad sale and the xenophobic attacks that strangled South Africa, but by 2009 new landlords had been established who rule with an iron fist.
Now The Ponte has a waiting list to rent an apartment. Most of the lawlessness has been combatted (although some residents still throw rubbish from the windows both in the core and outside. This is, however, cleaned away regularly. The views are spectacular and there is a real sense of safe inner-city living. A shopping centre is being established on the ground floor – a cafe, coffee shop, salon and internet cafe already established. I would seriously consider living there if I didn’t have a dog.
From The Ponte, we walked through Berea to Hillbrow, stopping to talk about some landmarks along the way. There is a strange mix of dereliction alongside buildings working very hard to maintain a sense of order and safety (with high security to ensure it). We passed a large, opulent funeral, walked through a park where children played, grown men gambled, women waited and the smell of raw sewage chased us through swiftly. We stood underneath the Hillbrow Tower (which I still can’t call the Telkom Tower, even though that’s it’s official name at the moment).
Bauer greeted people along the way, stopping to chat in Zulu to taxi drivers and ordinary people on the street. I think this is the best way to be part of a community. He constantly explains to residents his purpose for bringing people into their space, and they respect that. He knows the streets of Hillbrow well, and it felt great to walk the streets of my birthplace again. We passed the Summit Club, Joburg’s oldest strip club, and probably the safest, cleanest place to practise as a prostitute.
Walking down Pretoria Street was an eye-opener. Bauer wasn’t joking when he said you could buy anything there – I was offered hard-core porn (“Look, it’s my heritage”, said the vendor, showing me a close-up of a very excited black man!), vegetables, cheap Chinese cell phone accessories and more. We ended up at Sonnyboy’s Tavern for a well-earned beer with the locals, who found it mildly amusing that we had entered their space. Bauer struck up a conversation with a young man with strong opinions about how to unite South Africans, while an older patron took pictures of the whiteys on his cellphone.
I thoroughly enjoyed my morning in Hillbrow, and would strongly recommend that others take a tour with Dlala Nje into the city. It’s nice to have someone to lead you gently and tentatively back into the city, so that your can feel confident about taking it back yourself.