The southeastern section of Johannesburg’s city centre is a shabby patch of concrete jungle, where a flyover scythes through a grimy jumble of warehouses and red-brick blocks, their facades shadowed by fire escapes, security bars and hoardings. But follow the flyover’s graffiti-splashed pillars a short distance to Berea Road and you will find one of South Africa’s hippest urban enclaves – an incredible example of urban regeneration.
On the grid of streets running northeast of Berea you can eat Ethiopian food in a weekly market, drink cocktails on a rooftop, browse galleries and boutiques and witness the area’s dynamic reinvention on a guided tour. And for travellers, spending a few hours here gives a glimpse of the development that is starting to transform central Johannesburg.
The Maboneng Precinct was once, like the rest of inner-city Johannesburg, a no-go area. When apartheid ended in 1994 and Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress party to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections, a crime wave swept through the city during the inevitable period of transition and uncertainty. As businesses relocated to the relative safety of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, squatters moved into the vacated buildings; car-jacking was common after dark and walking around was dangerous any time of day. Left behind was a boarded-up ghost town with a fearsome reputation.
It was a bold move, then, for property developer Jonathan Liebmann to try and attract professionals and creatives back to this part of the city. Not only did he have to turn Maboneng’s derelict warehouses and disused factories into a fashionable destination – mimicking the gentrification of docks, riversides and industrial quarters in neighbourhoods such as Shoreditch, London and Williamsburg, Brooklyn – but he had to overcome the demonisation of inner-city Johannesburg in many locals’ suburban mindsets. Opened in 2009, today his Arts on Main complex is the nucleus of a buzzing urban destination, which stretches about four blocks northeast from Berea Road to Betty Street, between Fox and Main Streets. Liebmann’s company, Propertuity, now owns more than 30 buildings in the area, with new retail and residential spaces and a nightclub set to open in the coming months.
Arts on Main
Occupying a 1911 bonded warehouse, Arts on Main houses galleries and boutiques in its whitewashed, high-ceilinged interiors. Highlights include the Love Jozi/Black Coffee fashion store, which sells Love Jozi’s locally inspired range. Suiting Johannesburg’s friendly and down-to-earth attitude, there is a playfulness to designer Bradley Kirshenbaum’s work. The glass JoburgTap bottles for example feature the warning, “Drinking this water is one of the safest things to do in the city”, while T-shirts display designs such as Johannesburg’s skyline rising from a barcode. The store also showcases Black Coffee’s line of sumptuous, meticulous and highly imaginative women’s wear, in which designer Jacques van der Watt incorporates such influences as Central African ceremonial garments. Next door is the David Krut Bookstore, its tables holding everything from international art periodicals to a healthy collection of Africana.
Both shops open onto a rear courtyard, which is dotted with bushy lemon and olive trees and overlooked by the surrounding cityscape of flat roofs, air vents and razor wire-topped walls. A vintage car decorates the upstairs terrace of Canteen restaurant , which serves modern dishes such as beer-battered hake and chips in a minimalist interior.
Huge slogans splayed across the courtyard buildings bear testament to the artistic metamorphosis of Maboneng. “Lido Electrical” reads one of the older signs, while a newer addition is less prosaic: “Love your work”. As part of its vision to bring young creatives back to the inner city, Propertuity offers discounted studios and apartments in Maboneng to up-and-coming artists. William Kentridge is one of the more renowned artists with a studio in Arts on Main; his works – typically charcoal drawings, sculptures and animated films – have fetched more than $1 million at auction. With sundry galleries, art-related organisations and regular events including performances, screenings and readings, Arts on Main has become one of Johannesburg’s foremost creative hubs.