My fascination with Hillbrow — a former middle-class inner suburb that is now the toughest neighborhood in Joburg — began in February when I explored Hillbrow on a Joburg Photowalk. When I heard there would be another Hillbrow Photowalk this past weekend, exploring the grounds of the old Johannesburg General Hospital, I signed up, stat.
Walk down the street in Hillbrow and you’re simultaneously assaulted with Africa’s past, present, and future. Look up at the vividly colored mid-20th-century high-rises — a select few nicely restored, most crumbling and draped with laundry lines. Look down at the sidewalks, strewn with trash and random junk, interrupted by the roots of stately old trees. Look around at the masses of people — Hillbrow streets are always brimming with people of all ages, from all over Africa. There are countless Hillbrow stories begging to be told.
One of Hillbrow’s most interesting stories is the story of Johannesburg General Hospital, or ‘Joburg Gen’. This story is too long for me to recount in its entirety, but here are some highlights:
1) The hospital dates back more than a century; the original buildings were constructed in the 1890s. The architecture is stunning and historic.
2) In the mid-1980s, Joburg Gen was moved to a new location on Parktown Ridge. Several historic mansions on Parktown Ridge were torn down to make way for the new hospital, which is undoubtedly the ugliest building in town. (Some people say that the new Joburg Gen, which was slapped over properties seized from English mining magnates, was the Afrikaans government’s way of thumbing its nose at its old British oppressors. But that’s a story for another blog.)
3) The Old Joburg Gen complex became Hillbrow Hospital. Like most of Hillbrow in the 1980s, the old hospital fell into disrepair. A quarter-century later, most of the buildings were either locked and abandoned or occupied by squatters.
4) Fast-forward to present day. Many of Hillbrow Hospital’s buildings are still empty, falling apart, and/or occupied by squatters. However, a couple of the buildings have been reclaimed and beautifully restored by a partnership led by the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (WRHI), one of Africa’s leading HIV/AIDS and reproductive health institutions. WRHI is using the old hospital grounds, which are now called the Hillbrow Health Precinct, to provide state-of-the-art research, training, and care for people affected by HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. (Read more about the development of the Hillbrow Health Precinct.)
I spent five years working for an HIV/AIDS non-profit so this story is of particular interest to me. But you don’t have to be a non-profit geek to appreciate it. Here’s an urban renewal project that is revamping some of Joburg’s oldest buildings, while also providing health services to a community with tremendous need and combating the most destructive disease in Africa.
Plus, it’s a freakin’ cool place to take pictures.
This dilapidated house used to belong to the hospital superintendent. The yard has become a well-tended vegetable garden, perhaps used by the health precinct staff. I was intrigued by the old apartment building behind the house, which has what look like solar panels on its roof.
A highlight of the tour was walking through the building that used to house the hospital’s operating theatre and x-ray block. This building is currently under renovation and will soon become a mom-and-baby clinic for families affected by HIV and tuberculosis. Pregnant women with HIV will come to this clinic to receive treatment to prevent HIV transmission to their babies, as well as other services.
The renovations are being conducted with painstaking precision, to maintain the historical integrity of the 83-year-old building.
Lovely old windows, returned to their former glory. The windows in this clinic, unlike windows in airless American hospitals, will actually open so they can let in fresh air, which is essential for TB patients.
Yael Horowitz, the dynamic project manager for the rejuvenation of the Hillbrow Health Precinct, probably didn’t know what she was in for when she agreed to tour the Joburg Photowalkers through the hospital. There were at least 50 of us and we have a tendency to scatter and become unmanageable, especially in a photographer’s paradise like this. Yael did a brilliant job though.
On the way out of the main hospital complex, my friend Nina and I stopped to chat with Vusi, a guy who lives in the old nurses’ quarters. He asked why we were taking pictures and seemed relieved to learn that we weren’t on any kind of official business. I think he was worried that his home might be in danger.
Our last stop was the WHRI administration building, which has been completely refurbished from the bottom up. It now serves as WHRI’s main office and training facility. A renovation of this magnitude is a huge achievement in a place like Hillbrow, where the majority of Joburgers are still terrified to go.
I ♥ you, Hillbrow Health Precinct.