#5: Find the new Bohemia. In the July edition of Vanity Fair Christopher Hitchens has written a piece entitled “Last Call, Bohemia” in which he says that every successful society needs its Bohemia — a haven for artists, thinkers, professional soaks, bibliophiles and book stores, exiles, poets, ladies of easy virtue and the men who need them, deviants and misfits, insomniacs and the restaurants or bars that are always ready to serve them. Every successful society requires a part of a city that is home to the people “who regenerate its culture”.
In the late 70’s and early 1980’s Hillbrow was that place – with its late night cafes and restaurants, music stores and bookshops. Then, you could venture out after 10pm to secure the latest copies of otherwise difficult-to-find international magazine titles at Estoril and eat a memorable schwarma next door. The purple rinse grannies who stayed in Hillbrow’s residential hotels were as much fixtures on the street as the denizens of The Summit Club and the suave backgammon-playing Continentals hanging out in the cafes one floor up from the street. Fontana didn’t close and there was never a bad time to eat a roast chicken. In it’s politics Hillbrow was defiant of the “whites-only” social order, it’s colourful mix strangely responsible for it’s designation as a “grey area”. Even then, grey was the new black.
By the late 1980’s Hillbrow’s edge started to become razor-sharp and you could hear the gunshots from Yeoville where Bohemia was flourishing. On the left bank the young revolutionaries gathered late into the night on Rockey Street arguing over the shape of things to come fueled by cheap beers and schwarmas from Ba Pita. (A thought: Why are my memories of Bohemia tied to the taste of memorable schwarmas?) The black coat Hasidic Jews were as much a feature of Yeoville then as Willie in his cowboy hat, broadcasting news of what was happening where that night, and the friendly dope dealers who hung out at the stop street, never believing you really were obeying the sign rather than cruising for a bank bag.
In 2008 I am held hostage by a picket fence in the suburbs (actually a palisade fence patrolled by CSS security) and it struck me after reading Hitchens that I have no idea where Joburg’s Bohemia is.
In the late 90’s Melville tried to claim it but the high cost of properties made the claim inauthentic. Bohemia flourishes where rentals are cheap. I have a suspicion that Joburg has pockets of Bohemia – a small slice in Newtown and possibly Braamfontein. A block or two in Killarney perhaps. The further north you go the less chance there is of finding it. Have you ever met a poet from Randburg or a writer from Sandton?
Maybe it’s time to follow the schwarma…