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Johannesburg's Gandhi Square, a major transportation hub in the downtown core, has been transformed in recent years from a crime-ridden area that was considered one of the most dangerous in the city to a safe public space ringed by small shops and restaurants. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith For The Globe and Mail)
Johannesburg's Gandhi Square, a major transportation hub in the downtown core, has been transformed in recent years from a crime-ridden area that was considered one of the most dangerous in the city to a safe public space ringed by small shops and restaurants. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith For The Globe and Mail)

Johannesburg's inner city makes an amazing revival Add to ...

Sandton will be a popular haunt for the World Cup visitors, but Mr. Olitzki hates it with a passion: "It's obscene. It's fake Italian, fake French, fake English. They created this European enclave, to retain the whiteness, to try to keep out Africa."

Mr. Olitzki bought his first building in the downtown core in 1989, but it took him nearly a decade to get permission for the ambitious project that he had in mind.

He wanted to redevelop Gandhi Square, the main bus-loading zone in the downtown core - and the former site of the courthouse where another young lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, began his fight for human rights in the early 1900s.

In the twilight of apartheid, Gandhi Square was a no-go zone.



I remember the ladies of our law practice. If they walked through the square with earrings or necklaces, they would be relieved of them before they got to the other side. Gerald Olitzki


Over the next 20 years, he acquired dozens of decaying buildings on the streets surrounding the square, many of which had been hijacked. He evicted the criminals, gutted the buildings and turned them into arcades and offices. Today, Gandhi Square is lined with shops, cafés, restaurants, offices and even a jazz club.

"I've tamed it," Mr. Olitzki says. "Bit by bit, I consumed the elephant."

Now, he's making the elephant bigger, developing new projects in the downtown core and turning once-decrepit streets into pedestrian boulevards. His grand plan, scoffed at by cynics in the 1990s, is finally working.

The vacancy rate in his refurbished buildings is zero. There hasn't been a serious crime on Gandhi Square in the past five years - not even a bag-snatching or pickpocketing. More than 250,000 people pass through the square every day, heading to jobs at nearby banks and mining headquarters.

The downtown core, which used to empty out at 5 p.m. every day, now often stays lively into the evening as the office workers linger at cafés and restaurants. Art galleries and boutique hotels are due to open.

There's even a new downtown branch of Woolworth's, the upscale grocery chain that symbolizes the affluent lifestyle of the white suburbs (no connection to the stodgy retailer that Canadians might remember).

"We're building confidence," Mr. Olitzki says. "It's a slow process of getting people used to the idea of using the streets again."

ARTS ON MAIN: CHANGING THE WAY JOBURGERS SEE THE INNER CITY

Elsewhere in the inner city, developers have converted dozens of abandoned buildings into affordable condos and apartments. Security guards, police patrols and closed-circuit cameras have made the downtown much safer.

A new rapid-transit bus system serves the downtown core (despite violent opposition from Johannesburg's powerful mini-bus taxi industry). Newtown, one of the most famous downtown neighbourhoods, has become a vibrant district of theatres, museums, cafés and open-air concerts.

Not everything has succeeded. Two of the biggest downtown hotels remain empty, a decade after their closing.

The iconic Ponte Tower, a distinctive 52-storey circular building that dominates the Johannesburg skyline, is shabby and derelict after the failure of a plan to convert it into upscale apartments. Many of the buildings near Ellis Park, one of the World Cup stadiums, are crumbling and decaying.

One of the most innovative downtown renewal projects is Arts on Main, a few kilometres east of Gandhi Square.

A young developer, 27-year-old Jonathan Liebmann, has taken a block of old industrial warehouses and turned them into a warren of art galleries, studios, clothing boutiques and advertising and architecture agencies. A trendy restaurant called Canteen stands in a courtyard filled with olive and lemon trees.

Since its opening last year, Arts on Main's visitor traffic has doubled almost every month.

Even on a weekday afternoon, Canteen is bustling with a lunch crowd of artists, designers and students.

"I had to change their whole perception of the inner city, which was a massive undertaking," Mr. Liebmann says. "If you talk to a young Joburger in the northern suburbs, he's probably never been downtown. They've grown up without it. But every city has a life cycle - cities die and reinvent themselves."

A girl marches with a South African flag in a parade during an Africa Day festival in Yeoville, an inner-city neighbourhood in Johannesburg.

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