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architecture

Looking up at Ponte City

That Time I Climbed Ponte

Let me tell you about that time I ran to the top of Ponte City.

Looking up at Ponte City
Looking up at Ponte City, the tallest residential building in Africa (at least for now).

Every few months Dlala Nje and Microadventure Tours co-host the Ponte Challenge, which invites people to gather at the bottom of Ponte City at a very early hour and run or walk 54 storeys to the top. Last month I finally made the event and I (mostly) ran to the top. It really wasn’t that bad.

Running Up Ponte City

Here’s how it worked. I arrived at Ponte just before 7:00 on a Sunday morning, parked in the garage, and went up to the Dlala Nje headquarters on the ground floor to register for the race. The race costs R150, or about $10. (Dlala Nje is a Ponte-based nonprofit organization that runs tours of the surrounding area and community activities for kids.)

I should mention, for anyone who doesn’t already know, that Ponte City is 100% safe. Yes, it was once a notoriously crime-ridden building but that was 20 years ago. Today Ponte is legally occupied and a joy to visit. Search my blog for other posts about Ponte — I have several.

View of Berea looking down from the Ponte City parking lot.
View of Berea looking down from the Ponte City parking lot.

There were 30 or 40 of us there, laughing nervously and wondering (both aloud and inside our heads) if we could actually do it. Once everyone had arrived we gathered in a grassy area outside the building to limber up. Then the guides called for groups of ten people at a time to start the race. A new group left every five minutes or so.

We started all the way at the bottom, in the core of the building.

Inside the Ponte core
Ponte City is hollow on the inside.
George Khosi of the Hillbrow Boxing Club in the Ponte core.
Coach George Khosi of the Hillbrow Boxing Club, ready to run the stairs.

Going in, I knew the record time for running Ponte’s 54 flights is about five-and-a-half minutes. I could not even imagine how this was possible. I figured it would take me at least 30 minutes and I’d have to walk most of it.

But although the race was indeed exhausting, it was nowhere near as difficult as I thought. Here’s a short, amateurish video documenting my trip to the top.

I am reasonably (but not insanely) fit and I ran the steps in about 12-and-a-half minutes. I think I can definitely run it faster next time. George, who has pretty bad knees, did it in 14 minutes. I think everyone who participated — including some people who walked the whole way and even one family with a toddler — finished under half an hour.

Ponte’s stairwells are relatively spacious and clean so the run was pleasant overall. It was funny watching the reactions of people who live in the building as I ran past, panting and spluttering. Dlala Nje guides were posted every 20 floors or so to monitor our progress and there was even paramedic on hand. (He wasn’t needed.)

Best of all, at the end of the race we were invited to have a light breakfast in Dlala Nje’s event space on the 51st floor.

Selfies on the 51st floor of Ponte City.
Selfie time.
Heather and George at the top of Ponte City
My boxing fist pose always looks stupid compared to George’s.
View from the 51st floor of Ponte.
The view.

The Ponte Challenge was an excellent way to start a Sunday. A nice burst of exercise, great views, and I was back home by 9:30 a.m.

Follow Dlala Nje and Microadventure Tours on Facebook for announcements about future Ponte Challenges.

Cathedral of Christ the King

5 Beautiful, Secret Places in Downtown Joburg

I was on a walking tour today, talking to someone about Joburg. It suddenly occurred to me there are so many insanely beautiful places in downtown Joburg that Joburgers either: a) don’t know about because the places are really hidden; or b) are afraid to visit, or would never consider visiting because they think the place is too dangerous or too trashed or just not worth the trouble.

I talk about some of these places until I’m blue in the face, but I still get the same responses: a) blank looks; or b) questions like, “But is it really safe to go there?”

So I thought I’d write an article like this, with a really click-baity title, to get your attention. Here are my five favorite beautiful, secret places in downtown Joburg. If you like beautiful, secret things (and who doesn’t?) you should visit them all.

1) Cathedral of Christ the King

Yes, it’s in Hillbrow and Hillbrow can be a little daunting. But the Cathedral of Christ the King has a parking lot with 24-hour security and it’s really not very hard to drive to. Inside, the cathedral is pristine and it’s without a doubt the most beautiful church in the city. I’m shocked by how many people don’t know about it.

Pulpit of Christ the King Cathedral in Hillbrow
Pulpit of Christ the King.
Cathedral of Christ the King
Guys, sorry for the cliché but this church is breathtaking. The outside is also really pretty but somehow I’ve never photographed it.

I recommend visiting the cathedral in the morning, as it always seems to be open then. It’s at 1 Saratoga Avenue (technically in Berea but everyone thinks of it as Hillbrow).

2) The Johannesburg City Library

Most locals don’t realize the Johannesburg City Library, on Beyers Naudé Square in downtown Joburg, underwent a massive renovation from 2009 to 2012. It’s stunning inside and always full of people studying and reading, as every public library should be. (Read my previous post about the library.)

Outside Johannesburg City Library in downtown Joburg
The library.
People studying at Joburg library
The library’s prettiest hall.

The library, located at the corner of Albertina Sisulu Road and Pixley Ka Isaka Seme Street, has safe underground parking accessible from Albertina Sisulu Road (formerly Market Street). Just tell the parking attendant you’re going to the library. This library is also accessible via the Rea Vaya bus and the area is very safe for pedestrians.

3) Inside Ponte City

Okay, Ponte City is no secret. It’s that giant cylindrical building — the tallest residential building in Africa — with a Vodacom ad on the top.

Ponte from the outside.

Many Joburgers still believe Ponte is a high-rise slum filled with garbage and drug dens and criminal gangs. Not true.

View of Joburg from the top of Ponte City
View from the 52nd floor of Ponte City.

In fact, Ponte is fully legally occupied and 100% safe to visit. There is a public events venue on the 52nd floor, run by social enterprise Dlala Nje. Dlala Nje also runs a youth center on the ground floor and leads tours of the building and surrounding areas. (Read my previous post about Ponte.)

Looking up at Ponte from inside its hollow core, accessible from the building’s parking garage. I’ve looked at this view 100 times and it still makes my head spin.

Ponte City is on Lily Avenue in Berea. I recommend visiting as part of a Dlala Nje tour.

4) The Old Johannesburg Stock Exchange

There have been several Joburg Stock Exchanges but I’m talking about the building where the stock exchange lived from 1979 to 2000, at 17 Diagonal Street.

The atrium at 17 Diagonal Street. I love the disco-style elevator and the plentiful public art.

This building was a surprise even to me until a few months ago. I knew it existed, but had no idea how beautiful it was until I visited on a tour with JoburgPlaces.

I had thought the Diagonal Street building was closed up and abandoned, like many grand old downtown Joburg buildings. In reality the building is in great shape, with a stunning atrium, and there are lots of businesses operating there.

The old JSE trading floor is closed to the public. But if you’re lucky enough to get in you’ll see the lovely stained-glass windows at the back, which were brought from the previous stock exchange and perfectly preserved.

Stained glass on the old JSE trading floor.

The best way to see the old JSE trading floor is on the JoburgPlaces Money, Banks and Vaults tour. Contact them for more information.

5) The Wilds

Maybe this is cheating a little because the Wilds Municipal Nature Reserve is just outside the area I would define as “downtown Joburg”. But I have to include it in this list because the Wilds is so, so, so lovely — in fact I think it’s the most beautiful park in Joburg, by far — and I’m tired of trying to reassure people how amazing and safe it is to visit.

The now-famous kudu sculpture by James Delaney, with a view of Joburg behind it.

I’ve written about the Wilds multiple times. See blog posts here and here and this longer article for the Different. Yes, the Wilds once had a serious crime problem. But it no longer does.

Park in the parking lot on Houghton Drive, and as an extra safety precaution stay in the northeastern half of the park. (In other words, don’t cross over the Houghton Drive pedestrian bridge to the southwestern section because there isn’t as much security there.)

Then go explore this glorious park with abandon, admiring every indigenous flower and plant, every colorfully painted bench, every piece of public art, and every brilliant Joburg skyline view. Listen to the trees rustling and the frogs singing and the kids laughing.

You won’t believe you waited so long.

Greenhouse at the Wilds Municipal Nature Reserve in Joburg
Even some Wilds enthusiasts don’t know about the retro-style greenhouses at the western edge of the park — a beautiful secret place inside another beautiful secret place.

What’s your favorite secret Joburg place? I’m always looking for more.

I’m going to revive my Jozi Top Fives series in 2019. Consider this the first post of the revival.

Transwerke building in Hillbrow

Transwerke: Artists Bring a Crumbling Building to Life

In Hillbrow, at the corner of Joubert and Sam Hancock Streets, is a striking Art Deco building with a strange, ominous-sounding name: Transwerke.

Transwerke, and the many buildings like it in Joburg, are a perfect illustration of this city’s strange, fascinating, maddening contradictions.

Outside the building appears dilapidated and forlorn. It smells like pee.

But Transwerke is also majestic, unlike any building I’ve seen before. It has graceful, oval-shaped balconies jutting out in all directions.

Transwerke building in HillbrowGoogle doesn’t seem to know what “Transwerke” means and no one in the building could tell me either. Do you know? 

Interior courtyard at TranswerkeAn interior courtyard.

Behind TranswerkeBehind the building.

Transwerke was designed in 1939 by acclaimed architect Gordon Leith. Back then it was the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital — a place where women gave birth and also a residence for midwives. The hospital sits just below the Old Fort Prison, now Constitution Hill.

Under apartheid, the midwives living at Transwerke were sent to deliver babies in the women’s prison.

The building closed in 1983 and Transwerke sat vacant.

In September 2017, Transwerke received a “black plaque” from the Gauteng Heritage Action Group. Black plaques are meant to shame heritage building owners into stopping rampant decay in buildings that should be treasured as historical landmarks.

Transwerke is part of Constitution Hill. The owner is the Gauteng Provincial Government itself.

At some point between the black plaque dishonor and now, Transwerke’s ground floor was converted into artists’ studios. There are at least ten artists in there, making beautiful paintings and prints and photographs in the old doctors’ offices and midwives’ flats.

Art in TranswerkeArt and a printing press. Perhaps babies were once born in this room? Who knows. The prints are by Mandlenkosi Mavengere.

Read more about Transwerke in this Mail & Guardian article.

My Visit to Transwerke

I went to Transwerke last Thursday as part of an artists’ open studio night. Very few people knew about the open studio as it was not widely advertised. I’m lucky to be friends with some artists in the know.

When I tried to park my car in front of Transwerke I was shooed away by security guards who told me it was dangerous to leave my car there. This was confusing because: 1) There were several cars, all much fancier than mine, parked there already; and 2) Isn’t that what security guards are for? But I digress.

The vibe inside Transwerke that night was the opposite of dangerous. It was filled with art and music and wine and laughter and fun. I took portraits of some of the artists.

Artist Mbali Dhlamini at TranswerkeMbali Dhlamini.

Artist Isaac Zavale at TranswerkeIsaac Zavale.

Artist Khotso Motsoeneng in TranswerkeKhotso Motsoeneng.

Mmabatho Grace Mokalapa in TranswerkeMmabatho Grace Mokalapa.

Victor Dlamini at his studio in TranswerkeVictor Dlamini, one of South Africa’s top portrait artists, who has the coolest studio in Transwerke. This room must have been the hospital lobby at some point.

I’ve been feeling a bit jaded about life in Johannesburg lately but visiting Transwerke restored my faith. Thanks to all the artists and to the beautiful building for improving my attitude.

An update on the history of Transwerke, via the Heritage Portal: “Queen Victoria Maternity Home closed when the maternity section was incorporated into the new Johannesburg Hospital, now Charlotte Maxeke. The Transvaal province then converted it into flats for their staff – hence Transwerke – Transvaal works.”

Somerset House, Fox Street entrance

JoburgPlaces and the Restoration of Somerset House

About three years ago, I was roaming around downtown Joburg on a drizzly Sunday afternoon with some photographer friends. As we walked along Fox Street near the corner of Rissik Street, just behind Gandhi Square, we noticed an open doorway and walked inside. I didn’t know it then but this doorway led to Somerset House.

I had no idea what I was looking at but I could tell this building was special. My eyes went immediately to the dazzling black-and-white checkered floor and the bright green tiles along the walls. I looked up; the building was three stories tall and the two stories above were painted in various shades of red and blue, with ornate wood and iron railings lining the balconies overlooking the atrium.

I now know the vaulted ceiling is made of glass, but the ceiling was covered in metal sheeting back then so I couldn’t see it. One end of the building was closed off so I didn’t know Somerset House was actually an arcade, with one side opening onto Fox Street and the other onto historic Gandhi Square.

We didn’t stay in the building for long. We weren’t really supposed to be there, and my friends got worried about safety so we left after about 15 minutes of exploring. Looking back now, I wish I’d stayed and shot 1000 more frames.

Inside Somerset House, 2015What I saw when I first walked into Somerset House, sometime in 2015. The Fox Street entrance is behind me. The building’s staircase is somewhere behind those metal grates.

Looking down from the second floor of Somerset House, 2015Looking down from the second floor (Americans would call it the third floor) in 2015. Note the clothes hanging on the railing below and the two children near the stairway; there were several families living in the building back then. I’m standing with my back to the Fox Street side. The then-closed-off Gandhi Square side is in front of me.

Third floor of Somerset House, 2015Another look at the second (third) floor of the building in 2015. A bit of the metal-covered ceiling is visible. The white and brown rectangle is the old-fashioned lift, which has been out of operation for decades.

Little did I know that three years later, Somerset House would be in the middle of a glorious restoration and JoburgPlaces, one of my favorite Jozi tour companies, would take up occupancy there.

This story has some twists and turns so try to stay with me.

History of Somerset House

Somerset House, Fox Street entranceSomerset House on the Fox Street side as it looks today. Unfortunately I didn’t shoot any photos of the outside in 2015.

Somerset House is one of the oldest buildings in downtown Joburg, built in 1906. The basement and ground floors were originally occupied by the United Building Society, precursor to Absa Bank: The ground floor housed the bank offices and the United safety deposit boxes were in the basement. The bank eventually needed more space and moved out in 1930, at which time the building was renamed Somerset House.

The Gandhi Square entrance was closed off in the 1970s to make more space for the Traffic Square restaurant, a long-term tenant on the ground floor. Like many buildings in downtown Joburg, Somerset House slowly decayed as the inner city declined in the 1980s and 90s.

In 2017, visionary Joburg property developer Gerald Olitzki bought the building — Olitski owns most of the buildings around Gandhi Square and is responsible for the amazing rejuvenation in that area over the past two decades — and committed to restoring it.

(This is an extremely abridged version of more than 100 years of Joburg history. For a far more detailed and fascinating historical account of Somerset House and its surrounding buildings, read this article in the Heritage Portal by Joburg historian Lucille Davie.)

Somerset House Today

In March 2018 my friend Gerald Garner (not to be confused with Gerald Olitski), founder of JoburgPlaces, sent me an invite to visit an exciting new project of his. The invite came as no surprise; Gerald is in the habit of starting exciting new projects. In 2014 he spearheaded the development of the 1 Fox precinct and in 2016 he did the same at One Eloff Street. This time around it’s Somerset House and I think it’s Gerald’s most exciting project yet.

JoburgPlaces is partnering with Olitski Property Holdings on the restoration of Somerset House and eventually has plans to buy space in the building. As usual, Gerald (Garner) is thinking big. Somerset House will become the starting point for JoburgPlaces tours, and will also house a restaurant/bar/events venue called the Thunderwalker. There will be a boutique hotel and penthouse apartments and all kinds of exciting things. But let me not get ahead of myself.

I showed up at Somerset House with my camera at the end of March 2018, eager to see what had happened since 2015. The place was still a construction zone but the changes were dramatic.

View from the first floor of Somerset House in March 2018Looking down from the first (second) floor, facing the Gandhi Square side, in March 2018. The checkered floor and green tiles were covered up at the time. The Gandhi Square entrance had been re-opened. 

Ground floor of Somerset House, March 2018View of the ground floor and an unhappy-looking construction worker.

Somerset House first floor in March 2018View from the second (third) floor, facing the Fox Street side.

The most exciting part of our March 2018 tour was the visit to Somerset House’s basement, which I hadn’t seen in 2015. As I mentioned, the basement housed about 1000 United Bank safety deposit boxes. The boxes are still there today.

Gerald told us the basement would be the future home of the JoburgPlaces Zwipi Underground Bar.

Somerset House basement stairwayThe basement stairway as it looked in March 2018.

Safety deposit boxes at Somerset HouseThe safety deposit boxes. As you can see, some of them are open but the majority of the boxes are locked and the keys were lost decades ago. No one knows what’s in those locked boxes now but it would be extremely expensive to have them all opened. So for now they’re staying closed.

Heather in the Somerset House basementMe at the entrance to the safety deposit box room. (Photo: Fiver Löcker)

Future home of the Zwipi underground bar at Somerset HouseThis photo wasn’t shot in March 2018, but just a couple of weeks ago in the first weekend of August. I need to include it though and you’ll see why in a minute.

Opening the Zwipi Underground Bar

Fast-forward about four months to last Thursday evening — the “Imaginary” opening of the JoburgPlaces Zwipi Underground Bar. The restoration is by no means finished so this was a “soft” launch — the bar won’t open permanently to the public until September. Nonetheless, I was blown away by the interior of the building, especially the basement.

Ground floor of Somerset House, August 2018The ground floor — still quite rough but getting there.

Basement of Somerset House in August 2018The basement — wow!

Zwipi Underground Bar in August 2018The Zwipi Underground Bar. Remember the photo above of the guy in red coveralls? The space went from that to this in less than a week.

Safety deposit box room in August 2018The new and improved safety deposit box room.

Safety deposit boxes at Somerset House, August 2018Safety deposit boxes, jazzed up with fairy lights.

How to Visit Somerset House

If you’ve read this far, I imagine you’re excited to see Somerset House for yourself. This link on the JoburgPlaces website explains where things stand at the moment. In short though, I recommend booking a JoburgPlaces “Secret Safari & Underground Dinner” or a JoburgPlaces walking tour (most of which now include a walk through the Thunderwalker venue).

In particular I recommend the “Money, Banks and Vaults” tour, which includes the old United safety deposit boxes and many other hidden bank buildings and vaults around the inner city. That tour is a story for another blog post.

Congratulations to Gerald and the JoburgPlaces team.

JoburgPlaces team in Somerset HouseLeft to right: JoburgPlaces guide Charlie, JoburgPlaces founder Gerald, friend of JoburgPlaces Manuela, JoburgPlaces event manager Koketso, and friend of JoburgPlaces Fiver. Shot in March in what would soon become the Zwipi Underground Bar.

Oldest house in Johannesburg in Bezuidenhout Valley Park

The Oldest House in Johannesburg

A few weeks ago I visited the oldest existing house in Johannesburg.

I’m a little confused as to exactly how old the house is. The house standing beside the oldest house was built in 1852. At least that’s what the historical plaque on the house says; this article by the City of Joburg says it was built in 1863.

This second house (not the oldest one, but the one standing beside it) is referred to as the Bezuidenhout Farmhouse. It was built by the Viljoen family and later taken over by the Bezuidenhout family when a Viljoen married a Bezuidenhout.

Bez Valley FarmhouseThe Bezuidenhout Farmhouse, built in 1852 (I think) and currently used as a Rotary Club office.

Blue plaque on Bezuidenhout FarmhouseBlue plaque on the Bezuidenhout Farmhouse.

But the actual oldest house, which the Viljoens presumably lived in before building the larger house next door, doesn’t have a plaque. Isabella Pingle, the heritage activist who showed the houses to my friend Marie-Lais and me, says it was built around 1850 — more than 35 years before Johannesburg itself became a city.

Oldest house in Johannesburg in Bezuidenhout Valley ParkThe oldest house in Johannesburg, built sometime around 1850. 

The most interesting thing about this house, to me at least, is that there are a bunch of regular people living there. The house is obviously a significant historical site, but no one really knows or cares about that. For the people who stay there, this is just the house where they live.

The two houses are inside Bezuidenhout Park, a Joburg City park, and I got the impression that at least some of the the people living here are staff of the parks department.

When I visited the house, there were a bunch of kids outside playing with a shopping cart. I asked them if I could go in. I met a beautiful woman named Thandi, wearing a beautiful red coat, and she showed me her room.

Thandi in her room in Bed Valley ParkThandi in her room. The blue jacket hanging behind her is a Joburg City Parks jacket; she told me it belongs to her father.

After checking out the houses, Marie-Lais, Isabella and I walked over to the old cemetery a few hundred yards away. It was the Bezuidenhout family cemetery for several generations.

Bezuidenhout family cemeteryThe cemetery.

Cemetery statueMy favorite statue in the cemetery.

There is a lot more to be said here — about the city’s oldest house, when and why it was built, what has happened to it over the past 160-something years, and the people who live there now.

But like lots of stories in Joburg, most of this story is still a mystery to me. I hope you enjoyed this small piece of it.

Downtown Joburg from 120 End Street

On Top of Joburg at 120 End Street

Nothing beats watching the sunset from a Joburg rooftop.

Downtown Joburg from 120 End StreetLooking down at the crazy evening traffic from the roof of 120 End Street.

On Sunday evening, Mark Straw from the Joburg Photowalkers organized a rooftop mission for all of the photographers who contributed their pictures to the recent #JoziWalks weekend. We drove together to 120 End Street, a 26-story residential building in the middle of the CBD, and spent the evening taking pictures there.

120 End Street in downtown Joburg120 End Street (center) shot a few months ago from the roof of August House. I’ve always been curious about the view from the top of this building. 

On the roof at 120 End StreetOn the roof at 120 End.

Another Take on the Joburg Skyline

I’ve said this a million times before, but Joburg’s skyline is its best asset and I never get sick of looking at it from various angles and heights. Every rooftop provides its own unique interpretation of the city.

120 End Street has a particularly interesting view of Hillbrow and the most chaotic section of the city centre, between Ellis Park and the Noord Street taxi rank.

Joburg view from 120 End StreetSomeone on Instagram asked me which street is in the middle of this frame. I’m pretty sure it’s De Villiers Street but I can’t tell for sure, even after several minutes staring at Google Maps. Regardless of which street it is, I cannot believe how busy it was on a Sunday evening. The traffic in this part of Joburg is ridiculous — it’s the only part of town where I’m seriously scared to drive.

Joburg train tracks and Park StationChaos.

View to the north from 120 End StreetView to the north toward Hillbrow and Berea.

View to the east from 120 End StreetView to the east toward Maboneng and Jeppestown.

Photographers at 120 End StreetSettling in for the evening photoshoot.

Heather and Kevin at 120 End StreetMe and a nice guy named Kevin. (Photo: Mark Straw)

We had delicious food on the roof, supplied by my old friend the Roving Bantu, and it was all pretty much perfect except for the frozen breeze that attacked us the moment the sun went down. (This might be Africa but don’t be deceived. It gets freaking cold here in June and July, especially 26 floors up.)

Heather at 120 End StreetMe in my happy place. (Photo: Nice guy named Kevin)

Sundown at 120 End StreetHillbrow and Braamfontein at sundown.

120 End Street viewSorry for the redundancy but I struggled to narrow down my photo choices.

Jozi silhouetteShooting the Sentech Tower.

Unfortunately 120 End Street is not open to the public so please don’t ask me how you can get up there. But here are some other suggestions for places to go with great views of the Joburg skyline: Ponte City with Dlala Nje, Randlords, the Melville Koppies, the Parktonian, and Elevate at the Reef Hotel.

CBD at night from 120 End StreetOne last shot for the road.

Thanks so much to the Joburg Photowalkers, #JoziWalks, and the Roving Bantu Kitchen for making this fun evening possible.

Skyline from the Sentech Tower

Some Shots From the Top of the Sentech Tower

Last week I got an incredible opportunity to visit the Sentech Tower, a.k.a. the Brixton Tower.

Sentech Tower at sunset
A picture I took a few years ago of the Sentech Tower at sunset.

While not as tall as the Hillbrow Tower, which is 269 meters (883 feet) high and the tallest structure in Africa, the Sentech Tower is still massive at 237 meters (778 feet). Also, the Sentech Tower is closed to the public and virtually no one gets to go inside. So this was a lucky break.

The Sentech Tower was built in 1961 to broadcast radio stations, and later TV stations. It used to have a viewing deck open to the public, but it closed in 1982 due to apartheid paranoia. Same goes for the Hillbrow Tower, which used to have a revolving restaurant at the top. Joburgers live in hope that the towers will both reopen someday.

Anyway, visiting the Sentech Tower was cool. I got to see the radio broadcasting equipment on the bottom floor, then took the remarkably fast elevator to the top, and even checked out the hollow inside of the tower on one of the middle floors, with nothing inside it but an elevator shaft.

Since the Sentech Tower is a bit outside of town, it offers a perspective on Joburg that we don’t get to see from the top of the city’s other tall buildings.

I’m not allowed to post any pictures of the inside of the tower (that paranoia continues into the present day), but here are a few shots of the city through the windows on the viewing deck.

Skyline from the Sentech TowerView of downtown Joburg from the west. In the foreground is Milpark (the old gas works is on the far left), Fietas, and Wits University.

Carlton Centre from the Sentech TowerThe Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa. Sadly Joburg’s cloudless winter skies are setting in, along with the afternoon smog.

Braamfontein cemetery from aboveA section of Brixton Cemetery — I think it’s the Jewish section but someone please correct me if I’m wrong. It looks crazy from above.

 Hillbrow Tower from Sentech Tower
Hillbrow Tower again.

Thanks to the person who helped me get into the tower. He doesn’t want to be named but I really do appreciate the invitation. And here’s hoping I get to go up again someday when people are actually allowed in.

Sentech Tower view

Read more about the Sentech Tower.

Culture section of National Museum of African American History

From Africa to America: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

I’ve just returned to Joburg after two weeks in the United States. I spent most of the trip trying to stay warm (this was my first dose of American East Coast winter since 2010), running errands, and spending time with family and close friends.

I didn’t have much time for cultural pursuits, but I did achieve one major Washington D.C. tourism goal — a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and CultureThe National Museum of African American History and Culture (I’ll call it the African American Museum for short), located prominently on Constitution Avenue right beside the Washington Monument. The museum opened in September 2016. Read more about the museum’s award-winning architecture here.

I feel it’s important for me to write a post about this museum, as it links the two halves of my life together in a couple of ways.

First, the African American Museum was designed by acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who also designed the Hallmark House building in downtown Johannesburg. I stood in the same room with David at the Hallmark House media launch a few years ago but was too shy to talk to him. I regret that now, as I’d like to be able to say I met the guy who designed one of America’s most iconic and historically significant museums.

Second, the African American Museum provides a profound link between the histories and cultures of my two homes: Africa and America. I can’t overstate the significance of it. The history of African Americans is much more than the history of one particular cultural or ethnic group; it emcompasses the history of the entire world.

My Visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I visited the African American Museum with my dad, on a weekday afternoon in mid-January. Unlike the other Smithsonian museums, you cannot simply walk into the African American Museum — there are some rules to be followed about how and when to go. I’ll provide more information at the end of this post.

Lobby of the African American MuseumThe lobby of the museum.

Escalators inside Nation Museum of African American History and CultureInteresting shadow-play between museum floors.

Dad and I spent four hours at the museum and managed to see a little less than half of it. There is no way to see the entire museum in one day, and we knew this. We decided to focus our time in two sections: The Culture Galleries on the top floor, and the Slavery and Freedom section of the History Galleries — covering the years 1400 to 1877 — on the lower floors. (View a map of the African American Museum here.)

We didn’t even make it all the way through the Slavery and Freedom section, as we ran out of time (and energy) around the Civil War period.

The Culture Galleries

This is the “fun” section of the museum, covering the history of African American culture, including music, dance, art, sports, and film. Dad, who grew up in the rock-and-roll era and loves African American music and dance, was most excited about this section. So we went there first.

Chubby Checker's Cadillac at the African American MuseumChubby Checker’s Cadillac. Chubby is best known for doing the Twist.

Culture section of National Museum of African American HistoryDad shoots photos of a Diana Ross film costume. The museum provided an occasion for Dad to tell (several times over) his all-time favorite story — of how he wandered into a San Francisco nightclub in 1969 and caught a live performance of Ike and Tina Turner with the Ikettes. He was just inches from the stage, he claims, and may have caught a few of Ike Turner’s sweat beads.

Music section of culture gallery in African American Museum
My favorite section of the Culture Galleries, where visitors can peruse different records and put songs into a queue to actually play over the sound system.

The collection of costumes from famous musicians blew me away. Highlights included James Brown‘s spandex jumpsuit with “SEX” in huge letters across the mid-section, a rainbow suit worn by Jermaine Jackson of the Jackson 5, Little Richard‘s sequined baby-blue jacket, and an elegant red ballgown featured in En Vogue’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” music video.

Music section in African American MuseumA glimpse of the musician costumes. The maroon suit in the middle is from Gladys Knight and the Pips. The Jackson 5 suit is just to the right.

The Slavery and Freedom Galleries

The Slavery and Freedom Galleries are accessible via a massive elevator, which takes visitors underground on a literal journey through time and space to pre-colonial Africa.

I didn’t take any photos in this part of the museum. It’s dark down there, which I think is intentional — the history of slavery is very dark indeed. Photographs were allowed but I felt too sombre to take any.

I’d read quite a lot about slavery before this visit. But the African American Museum cast this horrible institution in a whole new light for me.

What struck me most was the realization that the institution of slavery created the concept of race. In the 1400s there was no such thing as race in the world. There were simply people with different colored skins from different parts of the earth, doing business with each other (and fighting each other) as relative equals. Slavery existed but it was usually a byproduct of war and had little to do with skin color. Also, enslavement was generally temporary.

That changed when Europeans and Africans began trading in human lives, buying and selling human beings in exchange for currency. The slave trade was the dominant economic force in the world for centuries. Slavery became a hereditary state, passed down from parent to child, based on skin color.

And that’s how race was born.

Photos from the Culture GalleriesWhat is race?

Tips for Visiting the African American Museum

Tickets: Although admission is free, you need a ticket to visit the African American Museum. Tickets can be difficult to obtain, especially during the summer and on weekends and holidays, so it’s important to plan ahead. The different ways of procuring tickets are listed here.

Dad and I got our tickets as weekday walkups. We arrived at the museum at 1:00 p.m. (the appointed walkup time) on a weekday and were granted immediate entry. This method is not 100% reliable; if you happen to show up on a busy day then there might not be any walkup tickets available. We happened to go on a very cold weekday in the middle of January, when crowds were light. I’ll probably use the same strategy next time.

Visiting: As I mentioned before, don’t expect to see the whole museum in one day. It’s impossible, both physically and psychologically. Pick a few sections that look interesting to you and save the rest for another day. Ask advice from the museum staff, who are all extremely friendly and helpful.

Walking: This museum is HUGE and there aren’t enough places to sit in my opinion. Wear very comfortable shoes, bring a bottle of water, and be prepared to walk a lot. Pick up a map at the information desk because you’ll probably get lost.

Eating: Allow time for lunch at Sweet Home Café, the cafeteria at the African American Museum. Sweet Home Café offers African-American-inspired dishes from various regions of the United States. I can personally vouch for the fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Note the food isn’t cheap — a generously portioned main dish with two sides costs about $20.

Man walking through Killarney during Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tour

The Heritage of Johannesburg’s Middle-Class Suburbs

The weekend after Heritage Day, the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation has an annual tradition of offering a whole programme of tours at very affordable prices. There are about a dozen tours to choose from over the course of two days and you can do three tours for R150, or about $11. (Read about last year’s Heritage Weekend.)

This year I intentionally chose two walking tours through neighboring Joburg suburbs — one in Forest Town and one in Killarney — because I thought they’d be fun to blog about together.

Walking through Forest Town on Heritage WeekendWalking through Forest Town.

For those of you who don’t live in South Africa, I should explain that the term suburb has a different meaning in South Africa than it does in the U.S. or other places. The city of Joburg is made up of dozens of suburbs, which are more like neighborhoods in American cities. Each suburb has its own identity and often engenders fierce loyalty among its residents. (My love for Melville is a good example.)

Forest Town and Killarney, despite being almost adjacent, are totally different from one another. I loved exploring them both.

Forest Town: Joburg’s English Forest

Forest Town was founded in the first decade of the 1900s, and our tour guide Ed Coogan describes it as Joburg’s first middle-class suburb. (Before that Joburg was basically a sprawling mining camp with one wealthy suburb, Parktown, where all the rich people lived.)

Forest Town was built on the edge of a man-made forest, planted by rich English people who wanted a forest to hunt in. (I kid you not.) All the streets in Forest Town are named after English forests; Sherwood Road is the most recognizable example.

Epping Road in Forest TownEpping Road, another foresty Forest Town street.

Our tour of Forest Town started at the new Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, which isn’t officially open to the public yet. (UPDATE: I’m told by two readers that the centre is indeed open, but I think it’s best to call in advance just in case.) The museum includes exhibits honoring those killed during the Holocaust of World War II, as well as the victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide CentreOutside the beautiful new museum. Those are actual train tracks running up the wall, representing the plight of the millions of people who were transported to concentration camps by train during the Holocaust.

Inside the Holocaust and Genocide CentreInside the centre.

From the Holocaust and Genocide Centre we embarked on a brisk, five-kilometer walk through leafy Forest Town. We didn’t get to go inside any private houses but Ed did tell us some interesting stories about several of them, including one property that has served (at various times) as both a gay brothel and a temporary home for animals of the Joburg Zoo. We also stood outside a house owned by South African President Jacob Zuma, which was raided before Zuma’s corruption trial in 2005.

House in Forest TownA house in Forest Town. I can’t remember if there is an interesting story behind it but I thought it was cute.

Jacob Zuma's house in Forest TownJacob Zuma’s house. I guess he doesn’t live there currently but I was still really surprised that it seems to have no security, beyond the typical high wall and electric fence.(UPDATE: One reader commented that Jacob Zuma never owned this house but actually rented it. This would make more sense.)

Our last stop in Forest Town was St. Francis in the Forest, a quaint Methodist Church built in 1937. I used to attend a 12-step meeting at St. Francis and had been there dozens of times, but strangely never inside the actual chapel. It’s so beautiful.

Ed Coogan at St. FrancisEd addresses the tour group outside St. Francis.

Inside St. Francis chapelInside the chapel.

Killarney: Manhattan Living in Joburg

I’ve always been intrigued by Killarney, whose original owner came (not surprisingly) from Ireland.

Killarney ParkA taste of Ireland in Africa. Killarney is known for the interesting fonts on its many apartment buildings.

Killarney is unique among Joburg’s older northern suburbs in that it’s populated almost exclusively by low-slung apartment buildings (or “blocks of flats”, as they say here) — there is only one freestanding house in Killarney. I have a few friends who’ve lived in Killarney over the years and I love its spacious, light-filled apartments.

Typical flats in KillarneyA typical building in Killarney.

Killarney was purchased in the 1930s by I.W. Schlesinger, a wealthy American transplant who built Africa’s first film studio on the site of what is now Killarney Mall.

Schlesinger — much like the British founders of Forest Town who wanted their suburb to resemble an English forest — wanted his suburb to resemble a neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, just with smaller and fewer buildings. I suppose he kind of succeeded, although the notable difference between Killarney and Manhattan is Killarney has virtually no shops or restaurants except the ones in the mall.

Daventry Court in KillarneyDaventry Court, built in 1934, is one of the oldest and best examples of Art Deco architecture in Killarney.

Glenhof Gardens in KillarneyGlenhof Gardens. Such a beautiful building.

Mediterranean building in KillarneyOur tour guide, Adam Golding, lives in this building. I love the sea-blue font.

Killarney CourtMany of Killarney’s buildings have been altered over the years, not always for the better. The ugly black font of this building name is a good example. The old retro sign below it is so much prettier.

Gleneagles Court in KillarneyGleneagles Court, another historic Art Deco building. We were able to go inside the lobby, which is stunning.

Post boxes in Gleneagles CourtI was fascinated by these mailboxes, or postboxes as they’re called in South Africa. In addition to being beautiful, the boxes are made in Brooklyn and approved by the U.S. Postmaster General. I suppose it’s another shout-out to Schlesinger’s Manhattan lifestyle.

Thanks to the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation for another great Heritage Weekend. The foundation runs tours all year round, all over Joburg, and there are some really great ones coming up. Follow them on Facebook to stay informed.

Post box sign in Jeppe Post Office

Inside Joburg’s Historic Jeppe Post Office

There are sections of downtown Joburg where things are so chaotic and colorful and slightly scary that I find it hard to focus on any one thing. Such is the case at the corner of Jeppe and Kruis Streets, home of the Jeppe Post Office.

Look here — a clothes shop entrance lined with dozens of curvy mannequin legs in tight-fitting jeans, packed so close together there’s hardly space to walk through. Look there — the hood of a car spread with 100 pairs of colorful flip-flops.

Look here — a trolley piled high with oranges selling for a rand each. Look there — a man pushing a shopping cart full of bloody cow heads.

Look here — a highjacked apartment building spilling garbage from every window. Look there — a newly restored, gleaming white office block with shiny black glass windows.

Spaza shops, hair salons, honking taxis, muscular police vans, and a hundred people squatting, standing, walking every which way.

Corner of Jeppe and Kruis StreetsA quick glimpse of Jeppe and Kruis Streets.

My eyes dart from one thing and one person to another and my brain considers what or who I should or shouldn’t photograph, or whether I should even take my camera out of its bag at all. I have a million thoughts at once. Hence, I miss things.

I’m on this corner with a bunch of journalists and tourism professionals and university media students, on a tour organized by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and Laurice from the Johannesburg In Your Pocket Guide. I’m standing on this corner because we’re about to visit the Jeppe Post Office, about which I’ve been brimming with excitement for days. But even though I’m standing in front of the post office, a hulking behemoth of a building, I barely see it amidst the chaos.

Looking up at the Jeppe Post OfficeLooking up at the Jeppe Post Office.

Inside the Jeppe Post Office

I never knew the Jeppe Post Office existed before this tour, which is crazy. Unlike the older and more famous Rissik Street Post Office, which has been closed for years, the Jeppe Post Office is still operating. The post office will continue to operate into the future, as I understand it, although Afhco has purchased the building and the upper floors are set to be redeveloped into residential apartments.

The Jeppe Post Office is filled with beautiful and weird Art Deco fonts and fixtures and frescoes. And it’s huge. This post office has 15,000 PO boxes (only a few thousand of which are currently occupied), including one box that is reportedly still used by the Oppenheimer family.

Jeppe Post Office main hallThe busy main hall of the Jeppe Post Office. Check out that incredible light fixture on the ceiling.

Lastly, get this: The Jeppe Post Office, which served as the main Joburg postal depot after it was built in 1935, has a now-defunct conveyor belt system that moved mail through underground tunnels linking it to Park Station and other post offices around the city. Those tunnels still exist, and the JDA is working on a plan to redevelop them for pedestrian use.

Basically, this building is freaking incredible and I’m going to show you the all the pictures.

Clock in Jeppe Post OfficeThe beautiful clock in the front entryway of the post office.

Person at post office getting mailAn actual person getting mail! Apparently people still do this in South Africa, although I stopped trying long ago. My local branch doesn’t have the Jeppe branch’s staying power; the Melville Post Office closed without notice more than a year ago and never reopened.

People in post officeCheck out the super-racist, giant-white-alien fresco above the windows.

Inside post officeSpeed service. And another creepy fresco.

Post Office box signsRad font directing people toward the PO boxes. Afrikaans above and English below.

Jeppe Post Office boxesA few of the 15,000 Jeppe Post Office boxes.

Looking through the PO box holesLooking through a PO box into the back of other PO boxes.

Person getting mail from a PO boxAnother person getting mail. Incredible.

Underground at the Jeppe Post Office

Finally, our tour group had the chance to go downstairs and see the mysterious postal tunnel we’d been hearing about. The post office’s basement is pretty interesting in itself.

Jeppe Post Office tunnel
Creepy basement hallway.

Beware conveyor beltsBeware conveyor belts.

Jeppe Post Office conveyor beltThe conveyor belt we must beware of.

Sign in Jeppe Post Office tunnelI don’t understand what this sign means, in either Afrikaans or English.

Jeppe Post Office tunnelThe tunnel, complete with creepy person-with-cellphone shadow. Note the tree roots growing through the ceiling. There wasn’t much to see in the tunnel and it only extends about 50 feet before being blocked off by a brick wall. Nonetheless, it was cool to go in and imagine what these tunnels might eventually develop into over the next several years.

It will be interesting to watch how the Jeppe Post Office transforms as Afhco and JDA proceed with their plans. In the meantime, if you find yourself on Jeppe Street I recommend popping in to check out the Art Deco signs and creepy frescoes, and maybe also to send some mail because it seems that mail miraculously still works here.

Thanks to Nomalizo from JDA, Johann from Afhco, and Laurice from Johannesburg In Your Pocket for this illuminating tour.

View of Joburg from Ansteys

Johannesburg, 13 Floors Up

Yesterday my friend Ted invited me to check out the flat he just bought on the 13th floor of the Anstey’s Building. Anstey’s is a legendary art deco high-rise in the center of downtown Joburg.

Ansteys from behindA shot of the back of Anstey’s (the building in the middle) I took about four years ago from a rooftop on Rissik Street. Anstey’s was built in 1935.

I’ve written about Anstey’s twice before (see here and here) so no need to repeat myself. I’ll just show you yesterday’s pictures. The views from Anstey’s are, for lack of a better superlative, epic.

View through the window at Ansteys
The view from Ted’s 13th-floor bay window.

View to the west from AnsteysView toward the west.

View of Joburg from AnsteysView toward the northeast.

View of street from Ansteys 13th floorColorful taxis queuing at a traffic light.

View of Tapz piece from AnsteysI love the massive graffiti piece above that building across the way. It was painted by Tapz, Joburg’s most prolific graffiti writer.

Woman in a windowWoman in a window across the street. I’m told the white building is beautifully renovated but the pink building next door, as you can see, is empty. This is a common sight in downtown Joburg.

If you’d like to learn more about the Anstey’s Building, it has its own Facebook page. There is also an art gallery in Anstey’s, called the 13th Floor (it’s actually across the hall from Ted’s flat), which I haven’t been to yet but intend to go to soon. It’s open by appointment only.

I’d also highly recommend the book Tea at Anstey’s, by Tanya Zack and Mark Lewis. The photos and stories are spectacular. Unfortunately the book is out of print but you may be able to dig it up in a Joburg bookstore. I bought a copy a few months ago at David Krut in Arts on Main.

Ansteys from the 4th floor terraceMy favorite photo of Anstey’s. I took it five years ago when I attended a party on the building’s fourth floor terrace. The building is currently getting a new coat of gray paint.

People studying at Joburg library

Long Live the Johannesburg City Library

I keep reading articles about gentrification in downtown Johannesburg. These articles — usually written by foreign journalists, or Capetonians — proclaim the city of Joburg remains blighted, crime-ridden, and poverty-stricken with the exception of a few pockets of upscale hipsterdom, like Maboneng and Braamfontein.

I dispute this proclamation. As proof, I present the Johannesburg City Library.

People studying at Joburg libraryA typical Tuesday morning at the Johannesburg City Library.

The Johannesburg City Library is a huge, beautiful building on Albertina Sisulu Road (formerly Market Street), overlooking Beyers Naude Square (formerly Library Gardens) in the center of the Joburg CBD. Originally opened in 1935, the library closed for three years between 2009 and 2012 as it underwent a major renovation and expansion.

Outside Johannesburg City LibraryThe library’s imposing front steps.

I poked my head into the library once or twice after the renovation was completed. But I never got around to exploring it properly until last week, when I went with Marie-Lais Emond to take photos for the Citizen “Other Side of the City” column.

I couldn’t believe: 1) how nice this library is; 2) how many amazing things are contained inside of the library; 3) how many people use this library; and 4) that people still go to libraries at all.

I confess that I can’t remember the last time I went to a library. I’ve been missing out.

Inside the Johannesburg City Library

The Johannesburg City Library is filled with books — about 1.5 million of them — as well as studious youth and a smattering of adults reading newspapers. There are major collections of Africana, music, and children’s books. Well curated works of art line the library’s walls. There is a full-sized theatre and a studio space for local artists. The basement has hundreds of miles of shelves, containing thousands (millions?) of newspapers dating back to the 19th century.

Books at the Johannesburg City LibraryOld books.

Old newspapers at the Johannesburg City LibraryMiles of newspapers.

Studious youth at the Johannesburg City LibraryStudious youth.

Card catalogueCard catalogues used to freak me out in college. Today, they’re charming.

The Johannesburg City Library also has beautiful architecture and design that appears to be perfectly restored and maintained.

Staircase in the Johannesburg City LibraryThe library’s restored staircase and bannister.

Pillar in the libraryA beautiful pillar and ceiling.

Stained glass in libraryStained glass above the library’s main entrance.

The Johannesburg City Library is neither gentrified nor blighted. It’s a real, historic, vibrant, well-used space. (There’s wifi, too, although I was too busy taking photos to test it properly.)

The library is open from 9:00 to 5:00 on weekdays and 9:00 to 1:00 on Saturdays. Get there early if you want to find a seat.

People in the library