Once upon a time, there was no more desirable address in perhaps all of the southern hemisphere. Certainly, there was no taller one.
They call it Ponte City: a 173-metre high, 54-storey cylindrical tower, the whim of a 1970s architect who created an iconic building that is to the Jo'burg skyline what the CN Tower is to Toronto's. When Ponte opened, it featured shag carpet on the walls, burnt-orange linoleum on the floors, chrome-covered wet bars, built-in saunas and, from each and every apartment, staggering views of the continent's most bustling city. People flocked to live here, just as architecture and style writers stumbled over each other to rave about its chic.
Back then, of course, only white people got to live in downtown Johannesburg. When the apartheid laws that segregated living spaces were repealed in the early 1990s, black and Indian people flooded into the city centre. And whites fled just as fast, taking their money with them. The metropolitan government largely abandoned the policing of the city centre and the provision of services.
Ponte City began a rapid decline. Within a year or two, its 11 storeys of parking garage were being used as a dimly-lit brothel, drug lords operated brazenly out of the lobby and three stories of trash built up in the hollow core of the building. Rent for the three-storey luxury penthouse fell to just $500 (Canadian) a month, as Ponte went from byword of style to epicentre of crime and urban decay.
Now, however, an unlikely pair of developers has bought the city icon, filled with dreams of restoring it to glossy urban glory; the latest, most audacious move in efforts to bring downtown Jo'burg back from the brink.
"When you get a building like this, you can have a social impact, because the private sector buying a building like this is going to bring the middle class back into the centre of the city," said David Selvan, one of the new owners. "In one fell swoop you change the thinking. There are very few things you can do to have this kind of effect."
He and partner Nour Addine Ayyoub plan a new Ponte, one with an on-site gym and up-market grocery store, an amphitheatre in the core that projects movies onto the building sides and coloured glass boxes popping out into the core so everyone can experience that heart-stopping look down. Flats will sell for $60,000 to $115,000.
"Look at this place! Could you afford to live here in Toronto or New York?" Mr. Selvan enthused. "No! Only in South Africa!"
Of course, the reason the flats will be affordable is that, a $14-million renovation notwithstanding, Ponte sits at the core of Hillbrow, the worst neighbourhood in the city with the world's highest violent-crime rate. And no coloured looking-glass boxes can change that. At least not quickly.
But Neil Fraser, an expert on the redevelopment of the city, says that turning Ponte around will have a big impact on the area.
The city, through its Johannesburg Development Agency, has been hard at work in recent years to change thinking about the downtown, an area that a full 80 per cent of respondents in a 2002 survey said was too dirty and unsafe for them to set foot in. The JDA has rehabilitated derelict buildings such as a cultural centre, and created a new fashion precinct - and then provided incentives to private businesses to move into the neighbourhood.
The program has made considerable achievements: The JDA is coy with its statistics, but there is no question that business occupancy has risen dramatically in the city over the past few years, while residential occupancy is increasing as well. Housing prices are up nearly 60 per cent in two years. It's become politically fashionable for corporations, including many of those who fled the inner city at the end of apartheid, to move their headquarters back downtown. By opening up in downtown Jo'burg, they are seen as pledging support for the new, black South Africa it represents.
The city has also had unusual success in persuading the private sector to sign on to support the regeneration efforts. Mr. Fraser noted that the private sector has in many cases put far more money than the government into projects such as street lighting and sidewalks.
Ponte's redevelopers envision their buyers as the professionals who now commute into businesses in the city from fortified homes in the northern suburbs. Bringing that middle class into the city, Mr. Fraser said, will stimulate retail and services, and a nightlife, providing an effect of normalization, he said. "Today you don't have a 24-hour environment, and residential leads that."
Sammy Mafu, marketing director for the JDA, rhymed off what the inner city does have: illegal shebeens (taverns), squatters, minibus taxi ranks that take over crucial arteries, sidewalk barber shops.
"Until the middle class lives here, you're always going to have these problems," he said. "The poor are only going to think about the health of their family and their tummy, not the health of their urban space."
Johannesburg's inner city has become a refuge, albeit a dangerous and dirty one, for people from impoverished rural parts of South Africa and for illegal immigrants from all over Africa. Thousands of them squat in the abandoned buildings, and thousands more rent cheap flats such as those now provided in Ponte City. And they, of course, will have to go, as Ponte is reborn with its Italian bistro.
"It's very painful to have to shift, because I'm used to it here, and it's safe," said Norma, a young illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe. She pays $100 a month to rent half a bedroom in a top-floor penthouse for herself and her four-year-old daughter - they share the flat with 10 other Zimbabweans. "I wish I would have the money to buy a flat here. I wish I would. But I will have to find somewhere and I don't know where I will go."
Mr. Ayyoub said his company has hired someone to help tenants find new housing, and approached other low-cost buildings in the neighbourhood to secure space.
Mr. Selvan, 56, is a lawyer turned film producer who grew up in wealthy white South Africa but spent years living abroad. Mr. Ayyoub, on the other hand, is the 40-year-old son of Moroccans who was raised in a tough immigrant-dominated slum of Rotterdam, an area not unlike Hillbrow. He moved to South Africa a couple of weeks before the first democratic elections in 1994, drawn by the country's sense of possibility, and made a fortune in the software business.
The new Ponte will be ready for occupancy early next year. Mr. Selvan and Mr. Ayyoub acknowledged that it will be something of a mission to persuade wary South Africans to buy back into Hillbrow. But they are believers. "The city's reputation internationally is based on turning this [neighbourhood]around," Mr. Ayyoub said, waving out a 53rd-storey window. Just below him was Ellis Park Stadium, where the final game of the 2010 soccer World Cup will be played.
Last year, only a quarter of people surveyed said they thought downtown was too dirty or too unsafe to visit. "It is going very firmly [in the right direction]" Mr. Fraser said. "The impetus is there, the political attraction is there, a lot of things going in its favour, but there are a lot of areas that need TLC before you can say we're on the road again."
Points on Ponte
Designed by architect Rodney Grosskopff and completed in 1975, it has 54 residential storeys.
The building is finished with a rough grey concrete in a style referred to as new brutalism.
On windy days, gusts coming down into the building's core from above collide with air funnelling back up, creating huge, sudden whirlwinds almost like cyclones. The building's windows all had to be specially sealed to counteract the winds.
Ponte is said to have the highest number of suicide-related falling deaths of any building in the world. Most jumpers have gone outward, rather than down into the building's core.
The German writer Norman Ohler set a 2002 novel in the building, Stadt des Goldes. "Ponte sums up all the hope, all the wrong ideas of modernism, all the decay, all the craziness of the city," he said of the tower. "It is concrete fear, the tower of Babel, and yet it is strangely beautiful."