Ponte City is a mythical place.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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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