JHBLive asked me to write an article about the Maboneng Precinct. I was hesitant at first.
I’ve lived in Joburg for nearly five years and been a frequent visitor to Maboneng for four. I’ve written many times about my experiences in Maboneng – on my blog, in magazines, and here on JHBLive – but I’ve never written directly about what I think of Maboneng. Discussions about Maboneng tend to get political and I usually shy away from political debates, at least in public. But I decided to give it a try.
A picture I took near the Maboneng Precinct in October 2012.
Some Joburgers love Maboneng. Others hate it. Still others have never been to Maboneng, out of fear or lack of interest. There are even some Joburgers who have never heard of Maboneng at all. It’s unlikely that anyone in the latter group is reading this article, but just in case:
The Maboneng Precinct is a privately funded urban development on the eastern side of Joburg’s central business district. The word Maboneng means “place of light” in Sotho. Maboneng originated in 2009, when property developer Jonathan Liebmann bought a cluster of warehouses in a run-down city block bordered by Main Street, Fox Street, and Berea Street. Liebmann named the development “Arts on Main” and filled the space with galleries and prominent artist studios.
Liebmann’s company, Propertuity, soon bought more buildings in the area and named the new district Maboneng. Propertuity opened a boutique hotel, residential buildings, restaurants, and shops. In early 2011 a Sunday morning artisan market, called Market on Main, opened in the Arts on Main complex. Market on Main quickly turned Maboneng into Joburg’s number one inner-city hipster destination.
Sundowners at the Living Room in Maboneng. I shot this in late 2012 but today the Living Room is still one of Maboneng’s weekend hot spots.
Today, Maboneng includes dozens of small businesses, many galleries and high-end residential buildings, a school, a trendy backpackers, a park, and a museum. In theory, Propertuity purchases only industrial/office buildings not inhabited by people, and hence doesn’t displace any residents (at least no legal residents) from their homes. But the Maboneng Precinct continues to expand into the gritty, low-income suburbs of Jeppestown and New Doornfontein that surround it.
A tourism sign outside Maboneng’s Curiocity Backpackers, April 2015.
Sam, an informal recycler who I photographed on Fox Street in November 2012.
Controversy simmers. A few weeks ago, members of the crumbling Jeppestown hostels marched through the area chanting, “We want to eat sushi in Maboneng!” Columnists decry Maboneng as an insular sphere of gentrification amidst a sea of poverty – an urban playground for the rich developed at the expense of the poor.
I’m not an economist or an urban planner, nor am I a real estate developer or a political activist. I’m just a person who loves the Jozi inner city and writes about it. In that capacity, I’m going to tell you a story:
In February 2011 I’d been living in Joburg for six months, relocated from Washington D.C. I had a blog, with a small audience of readers, and wrote extensively about my experiences in Joburg. But with the exception of one visit to Newtown and a hectic trip to the Department of Home Affairs, I hadn’t set foot in downtown Joburg. As far as I knew there was nothing to do there. My boyfriend at the time, a South African photojournalist and lifelong Joburger, never went to the inner city except on assignment to cover political protests.
One weekend morning, I sat bored in our house in Melville and stumbled upon an article about the new Sunday market in Maboneng. I convinced my boyfriend to take us. We drove down Main Street, deserted on a Sunday afternoon, past scruffy spaza shops and panel beaters. Suddenly we came upon a parking lot filled with people and cars. We squeezed into a spot and walked into the huge Arts on Main warehouse, which had old railroad tracks running through it.
I shot this picture during my first visit to Maboneng in February 2011.
We marveled at the variety of food stalls and the diverse collection of people inside. We bought roti wraps and craft beer. We sat in the grassy courtyard – I still miss that grass, which has since been converted to gravel – and drank fragrant Ethiopian coffee from tiny cups. We climbed the fire escape to the upstairs clothing market; I snapped a photo of a tall man in fringed Zulu pants, browsing vintage fashion with his Pomeranian on a leash.
I went home and wrote a blog post about Market on Main. Within minutes, the post was making the rounds on Facebook. For the first time my blog received comments from South Africans I’d never met. (Until then, my audience consisted of other WordPress bloggers and my friends and family back home.)
“Great to see the development happening in the Joburg CBD,” wrote a South African now living in the UK. “What’s happening in Hillbrow these days?”
I had no idea what was happening in Hillbrow. In fact I’d barely heard of it. But I made it a point to find out. A couple of weeks later I went on a walk through Hillbrow, and I’ve been a frequent visitor ever since.
My boyfriend, the seasoned South African photojournalist, was impressed by what he saw in Maboneng. He spent the next few weeks working on a photo story about the rejuvenation of downtown Joburg. He visited the Carlton Centre and Gandhi Square, and shot photos of the public art outside the mining companies on Main Street. I tagged along and blogged about it. My blog’s popularity grew.
A view of downtown Joburg from the Artisan Lofts, one of Maboneng’s high-end residential buildings. I shot this sometime in 2013.
I started receiving invitations to downtown walking tours and art exhibitions. I said yes to everything and went into town at every opportunity. I forgot that I used to be afraid.
Last weekend I went to Maboneng, for the hundredth time since that first visit in February 2011. I admired the fresh graffiti murals under the highway. I chatted to the owner of the new pizza place and checked out the grocery store that just opened on Fox Street (super-expensive and not much stock yet, but it’s a start).
An informal recycler cruises past graffiti walls near the Arts on Main parking lot, April 2015.
I ran into a gaggle of tourists snapping selfies under the big Maboneng sign on Kruger Street. I asked if I could take their picture and they squealed with delight. They were in their mid-twenties, black, from a town in the Free State that I’ve never heard of.
“We’re just here for the day,” one of the two women told me, as the other one laughed. “We’re so excited to be here. We wanted to see Maboneng!” I could barely get a word in edgewise. I forgot to ask their names.
Tourists shoot photos of each other on Kruger Street in Maboneng, April 2015.
Four years ago Maboneng opened the door to the Joburg inner city for me, just as it did last weekend for those women from the Free State. Maboneng also sparked my new career, as a Joburg writer, photographer and explorer. I’m grateful to Maboneng for this, and I know I’m not alone.
A Maboneng sunset, January 2014.