Yesterday I joined the Joburg Photowalkers on an architectural tour of two towns on the outskirts of Johannesburg: Benoni and Springs.

Benoni and Springs — east of Joburg in an area called ‘the East Rand’ — are to Joburg what Frederick and Manassas are to Washington D.C., or what Hackensack is to New York City. They are small towns outside of big towns — places where people tend to live out of necessity, convenience, or habit, rather than for the culture or nightlife. In America we call these towns the outer suburbs, or more simply, the ‘burbs.

Due to the influx of gold-mining money in the East Rand during the 1930s, Benoni and Springs boast an unusually large number of art-deco-style buildings. Art deco was the main focus of this tour, and the buildings we visited were beautiful and interesting. But I was just as interested in the glimpses I got of what life is like in small-town South Africa.

An ice cream salesman cycles past Benoni City Hall.

Our photowalk, which was actually a photo-drive due to the sprawling nature of the ‘burbs, began at the Benoni City Hall, a stunning art deco structure built in 1937. Architect Jeffrey Cole, who led the tour, gave a great explanation about what makes this building art deco, what materials it’s made of, what the cornices and fittings are, etc. But I know next to nothing about architecture and I didn’t bring a notebook with me on the tour. So I’ll just let you admire the pretty pictures.

City Hall.

City Hall again.

We took a stroll through the neighborhood, sweltering in the heat, to check out some other buildings in the area. Benoni’s streets remind me of streets in midwestern U.S. cities — wide, straight, and flat.

Then we got back into the car and headed to a busier section of town, parking in front of a crazy-looking church that used to be a movie theatre.

This building, which I believe was also built in the 1930s, used to be the town’s movie house. As you can see, it is now the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. It was interesting inside but the security guard wouldn’t let us take photos.

We walked from the church to one of Benoni’s main commercial streets.

Window-shopping on what seemed to be Benoni’s version of Main Street.

Main Streets are all but dead in small-town America. Most American Main Streets are either boarded up completely, or have been taken over by quaint antique shops and restaurants. They are no longer places to do business, but rather places on which to take a stroll down memory lane.

Not so in small-town South Africa. On Main Street in Benoni, you can get your hair cut, have your clothes tailored, buy a cell phone, shop for groceries, or make  a long-distance call. It’s a different place than it was 2o years ago, but still a place to see and be seen.

Telephones for hire. The old-fashioned kind, with cords and wires!

Our most exciting stop of the day was a true Benoni landmark: the Korsman’s Ice Cream factory.

Photowalkers descend on the ice cream factory.

The ice cream people didn’t know what hit them — they couldn’t freeze the soft-serve fast enough for us. I had a cup of Bar One flavor (Bar One is a candy bar, kind of like a Milky Way) mixed with vanilla for R4.50 (about $.60).

The staff opened up the back room for photowalkers who wanted to see the freezers and ice-cream-making machines. I was too eager to stuff my face to go back there though.

The ice cream was very soft so I had to eat fast before it melted. (Photo: Jerome West)

That was the end of the Benoni portion of the tour. We climbed into our cars and motored to Springs, about 10 miles (17 kms) away.

An old-school VW motors through Springs.

The coolest art deco building in Springs is the Central Fire Station. I missed Jeffrey’s lesson about the fire station, unfortunately. But it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that this is the coolest fire station in the world.

Central Firestation.

This large coat-of-arms-like decoration hangs above the door of the fire station. I have no idea what it means, but it’s funny that the fire station is guarded by fire-breathing dragons.

Springs felt larger than Benoni, and the shopping street we walked on was a bit livelier. Also a bit more dangerous, it seems — one photowalker had his cell phone swiped. I only discovered this later, after walking blithely down the street with just one other woman, chatting to shopkeepers and pedestrians without a care in the world. I’ll be more careful next time.

Beating the heat.

Proud shopkeepers. They were less serious in real life than they look in this photo.

A smooth-talking bag salesman.

My afternoon ended with a toasted cheese sandwich in the Springs mall, which is called Palm Springs. Love it.

I’m going out of town for a few days on Tuesday and not sure if I’ll blog again before then. If you don’t hear from me this week, don’t fret. I’ll be back soon.

%d bloggers like this: