Ponte City, Inside and Out

Ponte City is a mythical place.

outside ponte1 sm

Ponte City, the tallest residential building in Africa.

Ponte City is the most visually striking structure in Johannesburg, and its history is as fascinating as its appearance. Ponte has 54 floors and hundreds of flats. A few decades ago it was a trendy middle-class apartment building. Later it became the city’s largest brothel and dope den, ruled by gangs, thugs, pimps, and dealers.

In the 1990s there was a rumor that Ponte would become a high-security prison. (Never happened.) During the real estate boom of the early 2000s, a big property development company bought Ponte and it was set to become a huge, luxurious block of expensive condos and penthouses. (That plan also failed.)

ponte and soccer field sm

Men play soccer in a Hillbrow park adjacent to Ponte City.

Over the last several months, I often ran past Ponte with my crew from the Hillbrow Boxing Club. I would gaze up at that behemoth metal cylinder, its red Vodacom sign contrasting with the bright blue sky. My shutter-finger itched as I fantasized about the photos, and the stories, awaiting inside.

I’ve been asking around about Ponte for the last two years. “Who lives there?”  I asked anyone and everyone. “How can I get in?” I never got a concrete answer. Everyone had a story about what Ponte used to be. No seemed to know what it is now.

Recently, I started to hear rumors about renovated flats on the upper floors and super-high security measures. I even saw a few photos on Facebook. Nothing completely tangible though.

Finally, last week, I got a tip-off from fellow Jozi blogger and journalist Laurice Taitz. Mainstreetwalks was doing a tour of Hillbrow. The tour would include a visit to Ponte.

I was suspicious. Seemed too good to be true, and I couldn’t find much information on the Mainstreetwalks website. But I signed up, packed my camera equipment, and drove to the tour’s starting point in the Maboneng Precinct. I met the rest of the small tour group and we headed off toward Hillbrow in the Saturday morning sun.

We got in.

I’m glad I didn’t try to barge in on my own. Ponte’s security is indeed tight. Given the horrors on the building’s past, the current management leaves nothing to chance. Getting visitors in is a mission for those who live there. We barely got in ourselves, waiting for 20 minutes in the newly renovated lobby while our guides reasoned with the guards on duty.

waiting for elevator sm

In the bad old days, there could be 15 people living in a one-bedroom flat. No more.

At last, I clutched a frayed Ponte visitor pass in my hand. It was time to go up.

hall pass sm

I was just a little bit excited.

Our Ponte host was Nickolaus Bauer, a journalist for the Mail & Guardian. Six months ago, Nickolaus went to Ponte to write a story. He liked the place so much that he moved in.

We followed Nick into the cramped elevator and disembarked on the 51st floor.

My shutter finger was finally satiated.

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Looking down into Ponte’s core.

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Ponte’s interior, as seen from the 51st floor corridor.

Nick took us to his flat, briefed us on Ponte’s history and talked about what it’s like to live there. (Check out his April 2012 M&G story about Ponte. It’s a good read and much more informative than my post.) He also told us about Dlala Nje, the innovative community center that he and his business partner, Loopy, have just started up on the ground floor of Ponte.

I had difficulty focusing on what he said though. My shutter finger was too busy working.

view from ponte

View from Nick’s apartment.

“Who wants to go down into the core?” said Nick. How often does one get asked a question like that?

ponte from the core

Looking up from Ponte’s core. It’s cleaner than it used to be, apparently, but there is still quite a lot of rubbish there.

guy on rubble sm

I don’t even know how to caption this. That’s Loopy, who also lives in Ponte, up on top of the mound.

I didn’t get any decent shots of Nick’s flat, which is lovely and ridiculously affordable considering the jaw-dropping view, or of the new community center. (Dlala Nje seems like a really cool project, by the way, and it’s open to the public. It has a brand-new page on Facebook, which I’m going to keep an eye on.) I also regret that we didn’t get a chance to visit any other flats in Ponte — I would have liked to see one of the less fancy places on the lower floors. But I’m sure I’ll be back.

ponte core bw sm

My favorite shot of the core.

So now I know. Ponte is as amazing inside as it is outside. And despite the myths, it’s basically just a place where people live.

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Ponte teenagers.

I’ll have more to say about the rest of our Hillbrow tour in the next post.

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24 Comments

  • Reply Gail Wilson November 15, 2012 at 7:22 am

    So envious but what fantastic shots, will be looking out for the next tour.

    • Reply 2summers November 15, 2012 at 7:23 am

      Thanks Gail! I think there will be another tour coming up soon.

  • Reply Justcallmegertie November 15, 2012 at 8:03 am

    Wow! These are great shots. And the view from up there!

    • Reply 2summers November 15, 2012 at 8:58 am

      I know. Spectacular. Thanks!

  • Reply charlotteotter November 15, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Long-time blog lurker here, breaking the silence to say thanks for the great post. I used to work in Braamfontein, live in Parktown and get my groceries in Hillbrow (2002 – 2004) and Ponte was always a mystery. Now no longer! How great that it is being regenerated and people are living there.

    • Reply 2summers November 15, 2012 at 8:59 am

      Thanks for the comment, Charlotte. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Yeah, Ponte seems like a pretty nice place to live, actually. If it weren’t for the Melville Cat I might consider moving there myself 🙂

  • Reply Slowvelder November 15, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I lived in Hillbrow in 1989-1990 and wheeled my son’s pram past the Ponte every day to get to his daycare. One day, right in front of the Ponte, I was pushing too fast and the wheel caught on a paving stone and the pram went over forward, I went over the pram, and my long skirt went over my head – so I showed a string of cars in the traffic right next to me my scantily clad rear end. To this day, I can’t look at the Ponte without remembering the shame of having to get up, return my skirt to its place, get the pram upright, replace my poor baby who had just grazed his nose and carry on walking.

    • Reply 2summers November 15, 2012 at 10:00 am

      Oh my goodness! That’s quite a story — thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Reply Deano November 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Heather,
    Great stuff. I love the clarity of the photos. Hey, did you change your email address recently?

    Deano

    • Reply 2summers November 15, 2012 at 1:22 pm

      Hi Dean, nope, I still have the same address. I haven’t gotten any messages from you lately though…

  • Reply shahilj November 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    It feels like you got into Area 51. Wow. The shot of the city skyline is probably the best I’ve ever seen. Ponte is a mystery with such a painful history yet is so beautiful – much like the rest of the city. I need to get to the top now!

    • Reply 2summers November 15, 2012 at 9:07 pm

      Wow, thanks Shahil! I’m sure you’ll get there soon – it’s easy now!

  • Reply tenneymason November 15, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    What an interesting story. Would love to know more about the reasons for the decline and resurgence. Sounds like fodder for a book. Maybe there already is one.

    • Reply 2summers November 15, 2012 at 9:09 pm

      I’m sure there is a book, if not more than one. But the reason for the decline is actually pretty straightforward – all of Joburg declined and Ponte, as the biggest building in what became the most dangerous neighborhood, was the epicenter of that decline. The resurgence is more complicated, but I guess not surprising. It’s still a great location to live in, and a really cool building.

  • Reply Mark Wiens November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Hey Heather, great opportunity to explore Ponte City. It sort of reminds me of Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, though at that place I think anyone and everyone enters at will. Great set of photos!

    • Reply 2summers November 18, 2012 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks Mark. I’ve never been to Honk Kong but The buildings obviously look amazing. Hope to go there someday — I’m a sucker for a great view 🙂

  • Reply chris December 9, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Thank you heather for the review on The Ponte. I’ve never found any interest or purpose in bloggers till you,I feel informed on a structure I’ve wondered about for a while now .

    • Reply 2summers December 10, 2012 at 9:07 am

      Thanks very much, Chris. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Ponte is a fascinating place!

  • Reply Sanjay Dhani May 3, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Wow. Nice piece . You’ve inspired me to visit as well.

    • Reply 2summers May 3, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      Thanks Sanjay, I’m glad to hear that!

  • Reply Grand July 2, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    It is just awesome. Well done.
    I wish I can go there for a tour. Amazing

  • Reply Dave August 18, 2014 at 9:18 am

    I read a story about Ponte on the Sunday Times yesterday, and checked out several online stories about the place this morning. I have always had a negative perception about Joburg, especially the Hillbrow neighbourhood. Although Ponte can be safe now, I should think the surrounding areas leading to it are still dangerous (crime and prostitution) which the police do nothing about.

    It exciting though to see how passionate few people are in rejuvenating the city while the police run these efforts down by collecting levies from dealers and ngingholas.

  • Reply Dave August 18, 2014 at 9:24 am

    Been contemplating moving into the inner city and didn’t know where to stay, I have a pretty good idea where to go now. I think Ponte would be the place for me.

    Currently staying in the township (Tembisa) due to its proximity to my workplace. However, morning traffic, the sewerage flowing the streets and waste collection is a shame. I know the Joburg traffic is a nightmare, living in a place like Ponte will compensate it.

    • Reply 2summers August 19, 2014 at 6:25 am

      That’s awesome, Dave. Good luck! I think Ponte would be a really cool place to live.

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