A Bohemian Rhapsody, with schwarma

#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…

9 thoughts on “A Bohemian Rhapsody, with schwarma

  1. During my travels, I met a diminutive hobbit like poet from Manhattan, who was one of the original bohemian inhabitants of Greenwich Village. In the 50’s, It became a magnet for artists, musicians, writers and poets, who were attracted by cheap rents in a run down part of central New York. The dilapidated shops were ideal for jazz haunts, book shops and outlets/galleries for all manner of eclectic bric a brac and art. The abandoned warehouses above the shops were converted into lofts using original fire doors and distressed plaster – a style which remains de rigueur

    It was utopia for a short while until the bored masters of the universe from 5th Ave found the commute to find jazz and art too much of a fag and started to buy the lofts, wear bespoke tweed jackets and smoke meerschaum pipes. In no time prices rose so high that the original arty folk were forced out to cheaper digs which became increasingly collonised by the nouveau riche “wannabe hip” set, until bohemian utopia closed down and was forced across the Hudson to spread out through “Noo Joysie” and all the way up to .During the recent US property boom “no-go” areas like Harlem, China Town and Brooklyn have become “gentrified” and the poor are hard pressed for affordable living space.

    So our problem is a reversal of that of the New Yorksers – bohemia becomes scum slum instead of unaffordable. Cape Town bucks the trend and Long St, Main Rd Obs and Kalk Bay remain cool and trendy even if a little tatty at the edges. Maybe Jozie and Benoni lack that critical mass of kewl jollers to make sublime living spaces, or is it the crassness of too much new money, that afflicts New York’s bohemia

  2. The suggestion that high property prices in Melville somehow disqualified it for Bohemian status in the late 1990s is perhaps a little disingenious. The frankly depressed surrounding suburbs — Sophiatown (nee Triomf), Brixton, Westdene, Richmond, etc — have over the years thrown up more than their fair share of rubbish poets and struggling artists, all of whom will bend your ear at length at any of Melville’s several pavement cafes and bars while bumming drinks off you. Then there’s the Westbury element, the gangsters, car thieves, drug dealers, bag snatchers and rapists who give Melville its unique cachet of streety edge. Lastly, of course, the punters, the mugs and tourists from the north, without whom…

  3. The monied bohemians have voted with their rands and have forced the sandal making hippies off the Midlands Meander (KZN) by forcing up property prices to Clifton 4th beach levels

    I vote for Kamburg or Monks Cowl @R50000 per sqm (not including the polo field or trout dam

  4. Bohemia? Mhhhhh? How about Yeoville 19something to early 1994?

    I spend do all my street” requirements” in Yeoville, including street corner barber shaving, dry cleaning etc. Not because of anything but habit. I live in Kill “larney”where there’s no street life at all,simply because Mugg and Bean poets aren’t the same as Street corner pub Goth poets or Rastabroddas with white women.

    Gawd, what happened to the reference “chics”? Gone up in smoke with bohemia, too?

    So Laurice, I ask you when last have been in Yeoville? Or you just care about over the counter purchasable bohemia? No, I am not suggesting Yeoville is bohemian- far from it. But I am just keen on knowing how far are you prepared to go, Dear?

    Have you ever thought of Alex Bohemia, or Soweto Bohemia? Will it be bohemia if it’s non’t proclaim it such? Just wondering. I really don’t have the answers, my friend

    ps: Muts say you write Fuckin’ well. Didn’t know.
    Please give us more.

  5. I know a Manchurian poet around Fordsburg – very obscure – mostly Irish style dirges, longing for the long lost glory of the endless plains and Khan dynasties of Mongolia and the kinky Kazakh folk poems of Saltanat Otembayeva from Qostanayhabits.

    They used to have a cool Ethiopian eatery at Bruma Lake – one of the few occupied shops at the mall – Cutting edge architecture, a large lake to spoon on a Sunday arvie. Huge oportunity for inpecunious creative bohemians in Jozie – or is there such a beast?:>)

  6. I also read the Hitchens piece — while he referrred to the now-dead village and soho and having become to gentrified (uggh) our Boho-sones have simply slummed it. Im not sure if that is good or bad. For me — and many others — although somewhat reductive — Jamesons remains a poinmt of reference for the most amazing feeling of safe, beautiful otherness … Yeoville too — but less deep. But lets not mythologize the making of these subcultures, they dont simply appear — it is up to the BOho Shamans to cast the neccessary spells to create one: *&*&(^(*^*)(&*&) ….

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