I train at the Hillbrow Boxing Club and I’ve been going there three mornings a week, every week, for the past five years.

I used to go to the gym with a bunch of friends, but for the last several months it’s been mostly just me. I drag myself out of bed at 6:00 a.m., plunge my tiny car into the riot of taxis on Claim Street, wind boxing wraps around my hands, and exhaust myself for an hour with my coaches, George and James.

This thrice-weekly ritual is an essential part of life for me. Boxing, and Hillbrow, have seeped into my veins.

Heather and George at Hillbrow Boxing ClubMe and George Khosi, founder of the Hillbrow Boxing Club. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I spend more time alone in Hillbrow than I used to, driving and running up and down the parking lot of the boxing club. I see more and I think more.

In a city full of complicated, confounding, rapidly changing spaces, Hillbrow is the most complicated and confounding and rapidly changing of all. I’ve written about Hillbrow many times (here’s my first post from March 2011), but I struggle to fully explain what it is, or what it feels like.

Hillbrow is different from the rest of Joburg — the people are different, the buildings are different, the weather is different. I often leave Melville in bright, warm sunshine, and arrive 15 minutes later to thick, chilly fog in Hillbrow. It’s weird.

But in another way Hillbrow is the real Joburg. When major historical shifts happen, Hillbrow is the first part of town to experience tumultuous change — where change manifests itself most acutely. Hillbrow is like a sensitive child with a weak immune system, catching all the bugs before the other children, experiencing high fevers and coughing fits. We hope she’ll survive, and grow up stronger for all her suffering. But maybe she won’t.

I used to romanticize Hillbrow. The crush of people and traffic, the piles of trash, the air of danger — it seemed so fascinating and cool. Sometimes it still does. But I think I’m more realistic now. Hillbrow is a special place. It’s always been a cultural nerve center, a part of the city where people go to party and challenge the establishment. But Hillbrow is also a place of suffering. There’s acute poverty, addiction, and violence. There are huge, dying buildings, rotting from the inside out as people try to live in them.

Hillbrow is a hard place, like the city that surrounds it. Hillbrow is hard to know.

I could have saved myself a lot of time and made this a five-word post: Hillbrow is hard to know.

10 Pictures of Hillbrow

Anyway, the real reason for this post is a set of photos I took last month during a walk in Hillbrow. I took the pictures while exploring Nugget Street with George and Marie-Lais, for Marie-Lais’ “Other Side of the City” column in The Citizen newspaper.

Here are my ten favorites.

Kids running up Nugget Hill in HillbrowA kid runs up Nugget Hill, a legendary Hillbrow hill. The mosaic in the background is by prominent Jozi artist Andrew Lindsay.

Nugget Hill from aboveNugget Hill from the top. The city has recently given this section of Nugget Street a face-lift, redoing all the pavement and sidewalks and installing stairs and a wide walkway near the bottom. The pedestrian bridge over the street is closed — I’m not sure why. Hopefully that will change soon.

Welcome to Our HillbrowGeorge, Hillbrow’s proudest ambassador, stands on a set of steps decorated with the poem “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” by Phaswane Mpe. The poem’s words wind their way to the top of the steps.

HauntingHaunting, indeed.

Building in HillbrowA child plays in front of a Hillbrow high-rise, laced with satellite TV cables, as a city employee sweeps the street.
 Guy in HillbrowThis guy demanded that I “shoot him”. I can see why, as he is exceptionally photogenic.

Pulpit of Christ the King Cathedral in HillbrowCathedral of Christ the King, at the bottom of Nugget Hill, has to be one of the most beautiful churches in South Africa. It’s perfectly maintained and always open to the public. 

Cathedral of Christ the KingAnother shot inside Cathedral of Christ the King.

Cathedral of Christ the King stained glassAnd another.

Skipping rope in the Hillbrow Boxing Club
Back at the Hillbrow Boxing Club, where we started our walk, a teenage boy skips rope.

That’s my take on Our Hillbrow.

If you’d like to explore Hillbrow but aren’t sure how to go about it on your own (most people aren’t), I recommend taking a tour with Dlala Nje.

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