On my recent post about downtown Joburg, I received some questions about Hillbrow — a huge residential community overlooking the city center. I now have some answers.

Hillbrow was a bustling middle-class neighborhood until the end of apartheid rule, when it began to transform. Similar to many 20th-century American inner cities, Hillbrow’s white middle class fled to the suburbs, making way for poor black South Africans (who were previously barred from living in places like Hillbrow) and immigrants from across the continent. The population soared and crime grew rampant; Hillbrow became a “no-go” area for visitors.

Five years ago it would have been difficult (maybe impossible) for me to walk in Hillbrow and not get robbed. But the times, they are a-changin’. Yesterday I slung my camera over my shoulder and joined the Joburg Photowalkers for a jaunt through what most people consider to be Jozi’s meanest streets.

One of many colorfully painted apartment buildings in Hillbrow.

Our group met up at the Lutheran Community Outreach Foundation, a community center on Edith Cavell Street. This place deserves its own post so I’ll save it for later.

At the center we met up with Tim Rees-Gibbs, a lifelong Hillbrow resident and member of the South African Police Service Youth Division. Under Tim’s watchful eye, we wandered a few blocks of Hillbrow and shot photos of what we saw. I must admit, though, that I was often having too much fun to take pictures.

Bananas for sale — R4 per plate. I bought some and they’re excellent.

The buildings in the background have been “hijacked,” meaning that criminal gangs have forcibly taken them over from legitimate landlords. Tim told me that a one-bedroom flat can have a dozen or more people living in it. The tall building on the right does not have a functioning elevator. Count those fire escapes and imagine what that means.

This beautiful soccer field was at the foot of the hijacked buildings. It was built before the World Cup and I’m told that Nike paid for it. The score was 1-1.

According to Tim, this was once the most dangerous building in Hillbrow. If you walked past it you were guaranteed to get mugged. It was recently reclaimed from its highjackers and remodeled. Now it’s one of the nicest buildings around.

Another nicely refurbished building.

Vegas, baby!

If you look carefully behind the woman walking by, you’ll see a “referee” in a lab coat holding up a red card. Fabulous. Seriously though, beautiful graffiti and an important message.

No explanation needed.

A woman and her daughter selling sweets for R1 apiece. Despite my best efforts to win her over, the daughter did not find me amusing in the slightest.

The baby under the umbrella next door was another story.

This photo is a placeholder. We stumbled upon the Hillbrow Boxing Club during our walk and I had a chat with the man in charge, George Khosi. Those of you who know me in real life will understand the significance of this meeting. I’ll be back, and future blogging will ensue.

When I got home last night and looked through my photos, I realized that I’d captured a fairly “happy” picture of Hillbrow. I’m generally a happy person so I guess my camera is drawn to happy images. And it’s true that Hillbrow seems like any other place in the world — people live there and go about their business, feeling happy and sad and everything in between.

But I feel like I need balance out my happy images with a bit of reality. Hillbrow is still plagued by poverty, overpopulation, and crime. Not all the buildings are freshly painted and not all the streets are clean. I felt safe walking around because I was with a group and a knowledgeable guide. But it would absolutely not be safe for me to go there alone.

[Disclaimer: Take everything written here with a grain of salt, as I’ve spent a total of three hours in Hillbrow and actually have no idea what I’m talking about.]

That said, I would highly recommend visiting Hillbrow. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve done since moving here. The Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust is hosting a walking tour there next weekend. Or you can contact the Lutheran Community Outreach Foundation and ask for Gerard.

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