I live in Melville, a “bohemian suburb” (as described by Wikipedia) just north of downtown Joburg. Although most of my recent posts have focused on the inner city, I’ve written frequently about my love for Melville.

However, I’ve never written anything about Melville’s history. In fact I knew almost nothing about the history of Melville until last weekend, when I took a walking tour of Melville with the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF).

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Our tour group gathers on 7th Street with JHF guide William Gaul. 

The JHF, previously known as the Parktown Westcliff Heritage Trust, is a Johannesburg institution; it’s been fighting to preserve historic homes and landmarks in Joburg for almost 30 years. The JHF conducts walking tours on a weekly basis and I’ve been meaning to take one for years. When I saw a Melville tour on the JHF Facebook page, I knew the time had come.

The walk’s starting point was right behind my house. When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was the demographic makeup of the tour group. Th JHF walks seem to cater to an older crowd than other Jozi walks I’ve been on.

JHF walkers wear colorful and fabulous hats.

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I hope these ladies don’t mind that I went all paparazza on them. But the hats were too awesome not to photograph.

 William, our JHF guide, grew up in Melville a few decades ago. (I forgot to ask him where he lives now.) He shared all kinds of interesting memories about the way Melville used to be, which I enjoyed comparing and contrasting with my knowledge of what Melville is now.

A few historical tidbits: Melville was established in 1896, ten years after Johannesburg. The suburb was reportedly named after land surveyor Edward Harker Vincent Melvill, although no one knows why an extra “e” was added to the name. Melville has 886 stands and was primarily an Afrikaans-speaking, lower-middle-class suburb until the last few decades.

We gathered at the corner of 8th Avenue and Hill Road, then trooped up Rustenberg Road to look at something that I’ve driven past a thousand times but never noticed before.

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Oom Paul Se Kop. 

The rock face above Rustenberg Road is called Oom Paul Se Kop, which means “Uncle Paul’s Head”. The rock is painted with a portrait of Paul Kruger. William says this painting, which is obviously touched up on a regular basis, has been there for as long as he can remember (not sure how I never noticed it).

The rock is so named because Paul Kruger, former president of the South African Republic and nicknamed Oom Paul, once slept here on his way between Johannesburg and Pretoria. As the story goes, Oom Paul refused to stay in Johannesburg proper because he hated the city, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

I enjoyed walking around Melville and seeing everything through new eyes. It’s been months, maybe years, since I walked through  Melville with my camera and just looked.

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This B&B, Die Agterplaas, is on my street. A few of my friends have stayed there and I’ve eaten breakfast there many times. I blogged about it once, nearly three years ago. But I don’t think I’ve ever taken a photo of it with my DSLR. Also, even though I see it nearly every day, I had totally stopped noticing that Die Agterplaas has a windmill.

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Check out the new, ugly, modern house next to the quaint, old, Melville-style house. The modern house is totally blocking the small house’s view of the Melville Koppies. How rude. Again, something I never noticed before.

One of Melville’s most interesting features is the way the houses are terraced into the hills. There are hidden stairways, like vertical pedestrian alleys, connecting the streets. Unfortunately many of these old stone stairways are now locked by the residents who live around them, to deter crime. But that’s one of the advantages of doing a JHF walk — stairways got unlocked for us.

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Climbing the stairs next to Die Agterplaas, between 5th and 6th Avenue.

William made a good point that from a historical and practical perspective, it’s a shame that these stairways are locked. They were built by the city to help pedestrianize the area, and closing off the walkways — while possibly deterring crime — discourages people from walking and reduces the charm of the suburb. I agree.

The other cool thing about JHF tours is that regular people let you in to look at the insides of their houses. We visited several houses, prearranged by William, to check out the architecture. One homeowner pulled out old blueprints of her house to show us how the footprint had changed over the years. Many of Melville’s houses are more than 100 years old. (I think the Lucky 5 Star Commune was built in the 1930s.)

Our group made quite a spectacle as we walked up 7th Street, which was busy on a Saturday afternoon.

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The Golf Tea Room on the corner of 7th Street and 1st Avenue. It’s a corner store now, but apparently it used to be an actual café. It’s called the Golf Tea Room because it’s close to the Johannesburg Country Club and men used to go there for tea after playing golf.

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The Scala barbershop, a Melville landmark just off  7th Street. It’s been there for 44 years, and it’s not even the original Melville barbershop.

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A down-and-out busker on 7th Street.

We finished our tour with tea and scones at a stunningly beautiful private home on 7th Avenue, then climbed up to the Melville Koppies for a view of the city. I never get tired of that view.

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A view of Hillbrow from the top of the Melville Koppies.

I really enjoyed this walk and hope to go on more JHF tours in the future. However, my feathers did get ruffled at the end when William suggested that Melville is no longer a nice place. In fact his exact words were, “Well, it’s pretty bad.” (I’ve only been on one JHF tour so I can’t say for certain, but I think this “The past was great, the present is pretty bad” kind of message might be a common refrain.)

I was confused as to how William could say Melville is “pretty bad” after leading such a lovely walk through a lovely suburb. I guess I’m biased, and I don’t know what Melville was like “before”. But I live here now and I think it’s a wonderful place to live. Just saying.

Present opinions aside, I enjoyed the trip down Melville’s memory lane.

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