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.

Reviving Maboneng
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. 

Creative Maboneng
On Sundays and the first Thursday evening of the month, Market on Main takes place at Arts on Main. The craft and cuisine extravaganza fills the ground floor with food stalls, selling everything from Ethiopian curries and injera (sourdough pancakes) to handmade ravioli. Johannesburg is one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan cities but lekker (tasty) South African specialities are also on offer, including boerewors (beef sausage) rolls and bunny chow (curry in a hollowed-out bread loaf), an invention from Indian-dominated Durban.

Upstairs, beneath skylights in the corrugated roof and a rusty pulley from the building’s warehouse days, the stalls sell a quintessentially Johannesburg mix of contemporary and traditional items, reflecting the rich culture of this Afro-metropolis. Leather jackets and silk cushions are sold next to rolls of block-printed fabric and beaded Maasai belts.

Sunday is also a great time to explore the rest of the Maboneng Precinct, where Fox and Kruger Streets in particular bustle with people dining al fresco and strolling between shops and cafes.

The excellent choice of local eateries includes Blackanese Sushi & Wine Bar, with its noodle bar, chopstick-decorated walls and, as the name suggests, black chefs preparing sushi platters. There is also PataPata, a 1950s-style diner and deli; Eat Your Heart Out kosher deli; House of Baobab, specialising in African cuisine such as couscous and stews; Sharp!, which offers a chance to experience the typical shisha nyama (social gatherings and braais) that smoke away on township corners; and Little Addis, serving the same spicy, filling Ethiopian dishes and platters that draw crowds to Market on Main. On House of Baobab’s rooftop, the Living Room bar-cafe is a local favourite for sundowners; its sofas, hammocks and eco-garden gazing over the towers of Johannesburg’s CBD.

While you are wandering, do not miss Area3, a space run by Adidas, which regularly holds exhibitions, events and parties to showcase local art, music, fashion and sports talent. And the Maboneng Precinct even has an independent cinema. Located in the Main Street Life complex, a renovated textile factory, The Bioscope shows a programme of African-interest features as well as international films and documentaries.

Touring Maboneng
Viewing apartments may not sound like the most fun activity, but free tours of chic conversions give fascinating insight into the far-sighted and utopian vision underlying Maboneng, where people are invited to contribute to the area’s reinvention by coming to work, live and play. Call Propertuity a day in advance to organise the tour (010-007-0080) or inquire at the information office inside the shipping container near the corner of Fox and Kruger Streets; on Sunday you may be able to turn up and join an existing one.

On the tour, a Propertuity sales agent will lead you between buildings including Artisan Lofts, a converted 1950s office block; Revolution House, originally a 1930s material shop; and Main Street Life. Inside the complexes is a stunning collection of penthouse apartments, open-plan spaces and smaller units, all slickly converted and reflecting the buildings’ manufacturing heritage in their high ceilings and exposed beams. Amazingly, as the idea of inner-city living has yet to enter mainstream Johannesburg in earnest, believers in this project can pick up a studio for as little as 350,000 rand, making this urban revolution a tempting and realistic proposition.

If you prefer to explore the streets, Main Street Walks offers a five-hour Maboneng tour  which takes in attractions including Arts on Main and the Kwa Mai-Mai Market, where traditional clothing and items are sold alongside the ingredients of potions and medicine made by sangomas (traditional healers).

Stay in the heart of the Maboneng Precinct at the 12 Decades Art Hotel, located on the seventh floor of Main Street Life. Each of the boutique hotel’s 12 rooms has been decorated by a local artist or designer to evoke a decade in Johannesburg’s history, from 1886 when the gold rush began to 2006. For example, the Minehaus room, conceptualised by furniture designers Dokter and Misses, covers 1916 to 1926; its white corrugated iron and abstract decor evoking both Johannesburg’s mining-town past and early 20th-century art movements. Through the Artist Exchange scheme, artists can stay at the hotel in exchange for an artwork.