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Johannesburg's inner city makes an amazing revival

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 The Globe and Mail

From his high-rise office, a young lawyer named Gerald Olitzki looked down on the city and watched the slow, agonizing death of downtown Johannesburg. He saw beggars, muggers, glue-sniffers, pickpockets and tramps. He saw the city abandoned, the whites fleeing to the suburbs, the empty buildings seized by crime lords and squatters.

When he became a property developer and sketched out a plan to revitalize the inner city, even his own family thought it was a doomed dream. "They said it was sheer madness," Mr. Olitzki recalls. "Nobody had any faith in the city."

That was two decades ago. What has happened since is one of the world's most fascinating experiments in urban renewal. Johannesburg, long notorious as the "murder capital of the world," is quietly winning back its inner-city core. Many streets are safe again and cosmopolitan downtown neighbourhoods are filling up with art galleries, cafés, boutique hotels and pedestrian precincts.

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But the battle is far from over, and a crucial test arrives on Friday when the World Cup kicks off its cavalcade, throwing this city under the global spotlight for a month. While soccer matches will be held across South Africa, ground zero will be Johannesburg - and it will take only one violent crime or transportation fiasco to unravel years of effort.

Indeed, most of the soccer tourists are likely to miss Joburg's revival. Few of the 350,000 foreigners who arrive for the World Cup will set foot in Johannesburg's downtown core, having fallen under the spell of lurid accounts in the tabloid media, which portray the country as a gang-ridden hellhole.

The statistic that everyone still uses is South Africa's dismal murder rate - nearly 50 per day, more than the United States, which has six times the population.

Yet the country's homicide rate has dropped by a dramatic 44 per cent since the mid-1990s - from 70 per 100,000 people to a new low of 37 per 100,000. And reports rarely mention that the vast majority of these killings are in isolated townships, far from the heart of the big cities. In the centre of Johannesburg, where the revitalization is concentrated, the murder rate has dropped by 27 per cent since 2005.

The foreign soccer fans who do dare to venture downtown during the World Cup will catch a fascinating renewal process in mid-flight - still a struggle, sometimes failing, but filled with intriguing stories and inspiring victories. Much like the sporting contests at the World Cup itself, in fact.

The South African government has spent an estimated $5-billion (U.S.) on soccer stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, along with billions of dollars on rapid bus networks and a new Canadian-built high-speed train service.

Johannesburg's own municipal government has helped to spur the revitalization with rapid-transit systems, new sidewalks, street lights and reinforced police patrols.

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Yet none of this has made as dramatic a difference as the gutsy entrepreneurs who have transformed some of Johannesburg's shabbiest and most crime-ridden districts.


It's often treacherous work.

As he tours his newly acquired sites, Mr. Olitzki takes a wide berth around one of his buildings, not daring to enter. Years ago, criminals "hijacked" the building - stole it from its true owners, and collected rent illegally from squatters who invaded it.

The squatters lounge at a broken second-floor window of the crumbling edifice, glaring daggers at the new owner.

"It's quite dangerous - you wouldn't want to go in," he admits as he gazes at the squatters from a safe distance across the street.

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"There's a strong criminal element in there."

Back when Mr. Olitzki was a young lawyer despairing of the city's abandoned core, apartheid was on the verge of collapsing, and the whites were fleeing. He says it was a simple case of swart gevaar - an Afrikaans term that can be loosely translated as "fear of the blacks."

Thousands of affluent whites decamped to Sandton, which soon became the wealthiest suburb in the city, filled with luxury buildings and huge shopping malls.

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."


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."

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.


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.


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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