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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 ...

For his next project, Mr. Liebmann bought another nearby factory space and turned it into Main Street Life, an eight-storey, Bauhaus-influenced apartment and hotel complex that opens this month with exhibition spaces, shops, cafés, a rooftop pub and yoga studio, and an art-house cinema.

Each of the 12 rooms in the boutique hotel is designed by a different artist. Most of the 200 apartments are small and affordable, aimed at young artists or recent graduates in their first jobs.

As a gesture of his own commitment to downtown living, Mr. Liebmann has moved into a penthouse at Main Street Life and has got rid of his car - a radical move in a sprawling, automobile-ruled city.

But he predicts that a growing number of people will work and live downtown. He has already ordered a batch of bicycles for his tenants.

SAY HELLO TO YEOVILLE: PROUDLY PAN-AFRICAN, AND BURSTING WITH ENERGY

Another inner-city neighbourhood, still in the earliest stages of revival, is the Yeoville district. If the downtown core can be compared to Manhattan's Lower East Side in its early gentrification days, Yeoville is closer to Toronto's Kensington Market - a funky district of ethnic restaurants, immigrants, lower-rent shops, food markets and street vendors.

Yeoville was one of the city's earliest neighbourhoods, born in 1890, just four years after the gold discovery that led to Johannesburg's founding.

By the 1970s, it had become heavily Jewish and bohemian, filled with jazz clubs, book shops, artists, writers and musicians.

But it fell into sharp decline in the 1990s. Whites fled to the suburbs, the cafés and nightclubs shut down, and drug dealers moved in.

Because of its cheap rents, it attracted migrant workers from across Africa, and today about two-thirds of its 40,000 people are immigrants from all over the African continent.

Over the past year, Yeoville has been upgraded with new sidewalks, a library and recreation centre, closed-circuit security cameras, community patrols and a growing number of new shops and businesses.



Ten years ago, you'd hear a gunshot every night. Today, I can't think when I've last heard a gunshot. Maurice Smithers, development co-ordinator at the Yeoville Bellevue Community Development Trust.


But the key to its revitalization is its willingness to celebrate its African influences. Last week, Yeoville partied all day in its first outdoor carnival, featuring music and dancers from across Africa.

"It's a remarkable pan-African community," Mr. Smithers says. "We're trying to make it an African destination, so that people respect the diversity of cultures here.

"That's the future of Yeoville - to market it as a place for African restaurants and culture."

In the affluent northern suburbs, Johannesburg's middle-class whites shop for African arts and handicrafts at a weekly market at the upscale Rosebank shopping mall. Many of the artists and craftsmen live in Yeoville - but most whites still won't venture into the neighbourhood to buy directly from them.

If the community can change those perceptions, making Yeoville as trendy as Kensington Market, there will be new life for its long-troubled streets.

JOZI RISES: A NEW NAME FOR A NEW VISION

Maria McCloy, editor of a South African urban culture website, has lived in Yeoville since 1997 without experiencing any crime or violence.

She loves its cosmopolitan feel, its outdoor market, its street life and its people from every African region.

"I just like the energy here," she says.

In homage to its migrants and cultures, Joburgers often call their city by a fashionable new name: Jozi.

The name derives from black urban slang, but it has become a symbol of the city's growing African influences.

This, in fact, may be a harbinger of Johannesburg's future: not as a European preserve, as it was during apartheid, but as a truly African capital.When the World Cup soccer fans arrive in this city, they need to enjoy it for its Africanness - not for its pale imitations of North American shopping malls.

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