Downtown Johannesburg is a dangerous place. In May 1999, not five years after the first democratic government was elected in South Africa, the Guardian published an article entitled: Johannesburg, the most dangerous city on earth? The chilling article gives personal accounts of death by car-jacking, muggings and rapes, and cites frightening statistics about the country’s daily murder and rape rates.
It presents Johannesburg as nothing short of a ‘rough, provisional kind of place’ that has ‘never quite shaken off its arbitrary, squatter-camp beginnings’. (ouch!) It is not a pretty picture.
Johannesburg’s downtown has attracted many illegal immigrants. The CBD, dense with skyscrapers, is also dense with people. If statistics are to be believed 217 000 inner city residents live in 37 000 dwelling units. The threat of vagrancy and crime keeps people away. But. Things are changing.
Fast forward to 2014 and news articles now convey Jo’burg’s downtown as ‘less dodgy’. They describe an urban renaissance transforming the city’s once-feared streets into welcoming urban spaces. One of the major contributors to this renaissance is the Maboneng Precinct.
Here are 10 Reasons Downtown Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct is the Place to Live, Eat and Visit…
ONE: MABONENG IS SERIOUSLY TRENDY
Maboneng is a regeneration of Johannesburg’s east end (what used to be Jeppestown and Troyeville). It is series of art galleries, collaborative work spaces, a theatre, cinema, markets, business people, students and artists. Here the streets are lit, security guards man restored pavements, and entrepreneurs are drawn by the vibrancy and urban chic of the place.
TWO: IT’S EVERYTHING THE NORTHERN SUBURBS ARE NOT
Maboneng’s neighbourhood is something completely different – a far cry from either the high-walled northern suburbs, or the no-go areas of the city. This is a community where people live, go downstairs to eat and watch a movie, walk or ride a bicycle everywhere (similar to the community for which we all long).
THREE: IT DISPELLS DOWNTOWN MYTHS
Maboneng dispels major myths about downtown Johannesburg – 1) that downtown Jo’burg is a thing of the past; 2) business cannot thrive there; 3) that it’s a no-go area.
FOUR: PEOPLE HAVE BEEN LIVING THERE SINCE 2010
The first resident moved into Maboneng, a place of Light, in May 2010. Grant Russell documented his first experiences in his apartment before going on to open Maboneng’s single-screen movie theatre, the Bioscope, in partnership with Darryl Els.
FIVE: IT HAS A LOT TO OFFER VISITORS
Within a two-block radius are restaurants (at least 10 of them, including my favourite – The Living Room– on the roof of the Main Change building with its own living wall and hanging gardens), themed boutique hotels, apartment blocks, an independent cinema, designer stores and a converted 1900s warehouse space that becomes Market on Main every Sunday (over 100 independent traders focus on food and design, but include locally designed furniture, clothing, accessories and craft).
SIX: ARTISTS SET THE TREND
Maboneng’s first project was Arts on Main – a collection of artists’ studios, creative office space and galleries. William Kentridge took up residence, and others followed. Find at least 14 galleries and private artist’s studios, as well as MOAD (the Museum of African Design) at Arts on Main.
SEVEN: EXPERIENCE AN ALTERNATIVE COMMUNITY
The second project, Main Street Life, is 194 apartments, a 12 room boutique hotel, a cinema, theatre and restaurants. Since then another 500 apartments have satisfied a big demand from those who want to live there. By the end of 2015 Maboneng anticipates 1 000 apartments. The projection: that by 2020, 20 000 people will live in Maboneng (apartments sell from R295 000).
EIGHT: IT DOES THINGS DIFFERENTLY
In May 2014 six artists lived and worked together for two weeks in Curiocity Backpackers, as part of a campaign by Absolut South Africa during which the artists were challenged to use Johannesburg as their inspiration around the theme ‘Transform today’; Chalkboard, the local craft beer and pizza spot with chalkboard walls and table tops – to inspire everyone to get creative – lies next door to the Bioscope; PopArt, the local theatre, is described as ‘bitesize’ and functions as the city’s only true fringe theatre. It hosts Stand Up comedy every Sunday at 7.30pm.
NINE: IT HAS ITS OWN BIOSCOPE
Russel Grant, the first resident of Maboneng, runs the Bioscope with his partner Darryl Els. It is an independent movie theatre providing a ‘stage’ for local and niche filmmakers. It grew out of popular monthly film screenings at Arts on Main (they have a healthy relationship with the Labia Theatre in Cape Town, if you were wondering).
TEN: THERE IS MORE…
Bheki Dube, who grew up in Troyville, is already regarded as the ‘minister of tourism’ for Maboneng (he is a partner in Mainstreet Walks that takes people on urban walks through the inner city) and now runs Curiocity Backpackers, developed for curious urbanites from all over the world and described by those who stay there as a place to ‘get a feeling for the ‘real’ Joburg and its people; a definite must’ (it gets rave reviews). It hosts inner city tours, and allows artists to stay for free in exchange for donations of their work (artist residencies).