Melville’s Memory Lane

I live in Melville, a “bohemian suburb” (as described by Wikipedia) just north of downtown Joburg. Although most of my recent posts have focused on the inner city, I’ve written frequently about my love for Melville.

However, I’ve never written anything about Melville’s history. In fact I knew almost nothing about the history of Melville until last weekend, when I took a walking tour of Melville with the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF).

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Our tour group gathers on 7th Street with JHF guide William Gaul. 

The JHF, previously known as the Parktown Westcliff Heritage Trust, is a Johannesburg institution; it’s been fighting to preserve historic homes and landmarks in Joburg for almost 30 years. The JHF conducts walking tours on a weekly basis and I’ve been meaning to take one for years. When I saw a Melville tour on the JHF Facebook page, I knew the time had come.

The walk’s starting point was right behind my house. When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was the demographic makeup of the tour group. Th JHF walks seem to cater to an older crowd than other Jozi walks I’ve been on.

JHF walkers wear colorful and fabulous hats.

Lady rainbow hat copy

Lady orange hat copy

Lady black hat copy

I hope these ladies don’t mind that I went all paparazza on them. But the hats were too awesome not to photograph.

 William, our JHF guide, grew up in Melville a few decades ago. (I forgot to ask him where he lives now.) He shared all kinds of interesting memories about the way Melville used to be, which I enjoyed comparing and contrasting with my knowledge of what Melville is now.

A few historical tidbits: Melville was established in 1896, ten years after Johannesburg. The suburb was reportedly named after land surveyor Edward Harker Vincent Melvill, although no one knows why an extra “e” was added to the name. Melville has 886 stands and was primarily an Afrikaans-speaking, lower-middle-class suburb until the last few decades.

We gathered at the corner of 8th Avenue and Hill Road, then trooped up Rustenberg Road to look at something that I’ve driven past a thousand times but never noticed before.

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Oom Paul Se Kop. 

The rock face above Rustenberg Road is called Oom Paul Se Kop, which means “Uncle Paul’s Head”. The rock is painted with a portrait of Paul Kruger. William says this painting, which is obviously touched up on a regular basis, has been there for as long as he can remember (not sure how I never noticed it).

The rock is so named because Paul Kruger, former president of the South African Republic and nicknamed Oom Paul, once slept here on his way between Johannesburg and Pretoria. As the story goes, Oom Paul refused to stay in Johannesburg proper because he hated the city, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

I enjoyed walking around Melville and seeing everything through new eyes. It’s been months, maybe years, since I walked through  Melville with my camera and just looked.

Die Agterplaas copy

This B&B, Die Agterplaas, is on my street. A few of my friends have stayed there and I’ve eaten breakfast there many times. I blogged about it once, nearly three years ago. But I don’t think I’ve ever taken a photo of it with my DSLR. Also, even though I see it nearly every day, I had totally stopped noticing that Die Agterplaas has a windmill.

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Check out the new, ugly, modern house next to the quaint, old, Melville-style house. The modern house is totally blocking the small house’s view of the Melville Koppies. How rude. Again, something I never noticed before.

One of Melville’s most interesting features is the way the houses are terraced into the hills. There are hidden stairways, like vertical pedestrian alleys, connecting the streets. Unfortunately many of these old stone stairways are now locked by the residents who live around them, to deter crime. But that’s one of the advantages of doing a JHF walk — stairways got unlocked for us.

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Climbing the stairs next to Die Agterplaas, between 5th and 6th Avenue.

William made a good point that from a historical and practical perspective, it’s a shame that these stairways are locked. They were built by the city to help pedestrianize the area, and closing off the walkways — while possibly deterring crime — discourages people from walking and reduces the charm of the suburb. I agree.

The other cool thing about JHF tours is that regular people let you in to look at the insides of their houses. We visited several houses, prearranged by William, to check out the architecture. One homeowner pulled out old blueprints of her house to show us how the footprint had changed over the years. Many of Melville’s houses are more than 100 years old. (I think the Lucky 5 Star Commune was built in the 1930s.)

Our group made quite a spectacle as we walked up 7th Street, which was busy on a Saturday afternoon.

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The Golf Tea Room on the corner of 7th Street and 1st Avenue. It’s a corner store now, but apparently it used to be an actual café. It’s called the Golf Tea Room because it’s close to the Johannesburg Country Club and men used to go there for tea after playing golf.

Scala

The Scala barbershop, a Melville landmark just off  7th Street. It’s been there for 44 years, and it’s not even the original Melville barbershop.

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A down-and-out busker on 7th Street.

We finished our tour with tea and scones at a stunningly beautiful private home on 7th Avenue, then climbed up to the Melville Koppies for a view of the city. I never get tired of that view.

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A view of Hillbrow from the top of the Melville Koppies.

I really enjoyed this walk and hope to go on more JHF tours in the future. However, my feathers did get ruffled at the end when William suggested that Melville is no longer a nice place. In fact his exact words were, “Well, it’s pretty bad.” (I’ve only been on one JHF tour so I can’t say for certain, but I think this “The past was great, the present is pretty bad” kind of message might be a common refrain.)

I was confused as to how William could say Melville is “pretty bad” after leading such a lovely walk through a lovely suburb. I guess I’m biased, and I don’t know what Melville was like “before”. But I live here now and I think it’s a wonderful place to live. Just saying.

Present opinions aside, I enjoyed the trip down Melville’s memory lane.

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25 Comments

  • Reply katarzynapawelczyk June 10, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    When Sazi and I went on one of the Trust’s CBD walks I was really put off by the it-used-to-be-so-nice-before-“they”-ruined-it attitude that seemed to be the norm among both the guides and most of the people on the walk…I hope that wasn’t the case on your walk, though I imagine with Melville it could easily have been.

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2013 at 6:54 am

      There was a hint of that, but not too bad. The JHF has done (and is doing) amazing things to preserve Joburg’s history, so I’m willing to overlook a certain amount of hearkening back to the past 🙂

      • Reply katarzynapawelczyk June 13, 2013 at 11:50 pm

        Yeah they have, but it wasn’t so much “hearkening back to the past” that we felt, but veiled racism…most of it was from the other attendees of the walk though

        • Reply 2summers June 14, 2013 at 10:30 am

          Yeah, I sensed a bit of that as well.

  • Reply Eugenia A Parrish June 11, 2013 at 1:08 am

    I suppose having to unlock a pedestrian walkway because of crime would make someone who’s been around a few decades feel that things are “bad”. Most older people remember better times for a town, while the younger ones think it’s just fine. Not having old haunting memories to compare things to, they only have eyes for the good parts. The one exception I can think of is Cleveland! I grew up with jokes about the Cuyahoga being the only river in the world that ever caught fire (industrial pollution literally floated on the top of the water and nobody cared). Now the riverside and docks are lined with shops, restaurants and plenty of expensive pleasure boats. Above that are ballparks, museums and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Fun place, though there’s still neighborhoods where you wouldn’t want to walk down the alleys, locked or no.

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2013 at 6:55 am

      Hahaha. I’ve never been to Cleveland but would like to visit someday. Nice comment, thanks.

      • Reply tenneymason June 11, 2013 at 5:33 pm

        Been to Cleveland a couple of times. Loved it — especially the Rock ‘n’Roll Hall of Fame.

  • Reply Gail Wilson June 11, 2013 at 7:47 am

    So wanted to do this walk but they said it was going to be strenuous and as I had just got over the flu thought it would not be such a great idea. So thanks for sharing will definitely do the next one.

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2013 at 7:51 am

      It was indeed a bit tiring. Next time!

  • Reply Peter van der Merwe June 11, 2013 at 8:44 am

    I have lived very happily in Melville for nearly two years, and I can’t imagine ever leaving. I’m afraid your tour guide says more about himself than the place itself when he dismisses it ‘as “quite bad”. Yes, it’s a bit frayed around the edges in places – but it’s an incredibly vibrant, quirky suburb with a wonderful “live and let live” kind of vibe. I grin every time I drive into Melville. I marvel every time I look at the Jozi skyline from my deck. I love it.

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Thanks Peter. I love it too 🙂

  • Reply chuckv88 June 11, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    I’ve been living here for 14 years now and the ‘imminent demise’ of Melville has been predicted more times than I care to remember, mostly by people who are not living here. As for the Melville Residents Association… I would take them so much more seriously if I could see more of them on Melville’s 7th Street more often. Instead they seem to prefer the ‘ stay at home and object against everything’ approach. Pity really.

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      Haha. Thanks for the comment Chuck. The imminent demise of Melville is a similar idea to the imminent demise of South Africa. Often predicted but never coming to pass.

  • Reply Jozi1 June 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    William is an ex colleague of mine. I am very fond of him. My private nickname for him, however was Eeyore. Just saying …. 😉

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      Hahaha! Thanks for your comment. But unfortunately your nickname isn’t private anymore 🙂

  • Reply Anthony June 17, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    Heather,

    Reading this brought back some memories about Melville. About 12 years ago after leaving school some of my friends studied at UJ, back then it was called RAU (Rand Afrikaans University). We used to have the most amazing times over weekends on 7th (Ratz, Statement and Buzz 9). Lol!

    I still visit Melville often (not to party as I’ve grown up a bit) as I still have a client there. A stunning old Greek lady and we often take to the streets for a casual stroll.

    Must say, this little Suburb still oozes the charm it had years ago! You really reside in the funkiest Suburb in JHB!

    • Reply 2summers June 20, 2013 at 8:52 am

      Thanks so much for sharing your memories, Anthony. Much appreciated.

  • Reply MBee August 5, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Sounds like an interesting tour. I also wish that people would stop moaning about Melville and celebrate it for what it is – an interesting, dynamic and diverse neighborhood in an interesting, dynamic, and diverse city. If homogeneity is preferred there are plenty of other suburbs that will scratch that itch!

    BTW, I also live on the same street as Die Agterplaas, and am also an American transplant to Melville. Hi neighbor 🙂

    • Reply 2summers August 5, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Wow, Moira, small world! We’ve probably passed each other on the street about 1000 times.

  • Reply Catherine Hoyer August 23, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Thank you for doing a very interesting piece on Melville. I was born in Melville in 1946 we lived at 19 Fifth Ave, just as you come up the steps from 6th Ave. We use to have so much fun. We had the Koppies to climb in our back yard and of course the Melville Koppies which we use to go down to climb.
    My Mother and Father bought the house and both my sister and I were born there. We use to go down to the pools every day in the summer. and Melville was a great place to grow up in. My sister and I went to Melville School and when my sister was in St 5 there was a competition about Johannesburg and she wrote the music and words and she won all the schools had to go to the JHB town hall and that is where her song was sung. there are so many happy memories of growing up in Melville.

    • Reply 2summers August 23, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      That’s so cool, Catherine! I think I know exactly the house you are talking about. Thanks for the stories 🙂

  • Reply Sim November 20, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    I am thinking of buying my first home in Melville, and have been worried about the rumours too. Thanks for this!

    • Reply 2summers November 20, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      Good luck! I think this is a great place to own a house.

  • Reply colin February 9, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Thanks for the mini-tour. I spent a night in Joburg on my way to Safari.

    • Reply 2summers February 10, 2014 at 9:13 am

      Glad you enjoyed it!

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