Why coffee is the key to urban renewal

#158. Go for a city walk. With the John Moffat Building at Wits University celebrating 50 years of being, today was declared a “Grand Day of [architectural] Celebrations”. So we joined the small crowd at the University for an urban walking tour taking in 40 of Joburg’s best historic buildings.
The route started at Brickfields, the social housing development that has transformed Newtown, bringing in high-volume residential accommodation that can sustain all the amenities that make city life worth living – coffee shops, a book shop, art galleries and restaurants. From there we crossed to the Market Theatre (once the Indian fruit market but that was in the the 1930s) to stand in Mary Fitzgerald Square and take in the view of Museum Africa on one side and one of the city’s hostel compounds for its mineworkers (now the Worker’s Museum) that was built in the late 1800s. Then this place was a crazy tented camp town that probably (to my mind anyway) looked and felt a lot like Deadwood (the HBO series about a lawless gold mining town during the California gold rush) and now, it’s not so different.
We passed by the bronzed Brenda Fassie sitting on her barstool outside the BassLine and from there we set off under the bridge holding the M1 North to the once notorious John Vorster Square (now Johannesburg Central Police Station) and then on to what was the Chinese Club in the old Chinatown in Commissioner Street which houses the Yung Chen Noodle Bar, my favourite crispy chicken purveyor. There was no time to stop.
Next was Chancellor House – now a burnt out shell of a building with lots of homeless people using it as a shelter — colourful laundry flapping in the morning sunshine. “HAPPY PEOPLE TILL WE DIE” read the sign scrawled on the one remaining door of what was once Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo’s law practice.
And on we walked, heading for Diagonal Street, to the statue of Walter and Albertina Sisulu who are staring into each others eyes and remembered as the “parents of a nation”. From there we headed into Gardees Arcade – the sounds of Brenda’s Vulindlela blasting out of the colourful shops stocking everything from blankets to Florsheim Shoes. At the Arcade I introduced myself to Mr Vallabh who now owns Gelvan’s Pharmacy, which was started by my great-uncle Louis Gelvan after he moved his pharmacy from Sophiatown sometime in the early 1950s. The charming Mr Vallabh was keen to show me my uncle’s book in which was handwritten the recipe for the eczema treatment and other mixtures that he had dispensed as a young pharmacist.
Men with trolleys packed full of vegetables wheeled them through the morning traffic and along the paths of the shiny new Rea Vaya bus stations. On to the Library Gardens, now Beyers Naude Square, where huge glass panelled structures celebrate and mark his legacy. A few roads up, opposite the Rand Club, a Vida E Caffe looked ready to open while around the corner from Gerald Olitzki’s (some call him Mr Joburg) remarkable development of Ghandi Square a sign advertised the coming of a Lulu coffee shop. (As a major fan of their Parktown North branch I can vouch for their product.)
From there we walked on to the Carlton Centre (when it was built it was the tallest building in the southern hemisphere) and into the Carlton Centre bustling with Saturday morning shoppers with me promising myself to come back and take in the panoramic view of the city from the top of the building (last viewed sometime in the late 1970s when adverts for ‘braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet’ held our attention on SABC.)
Out of the door we walked into the warm sunshine and then headed into the jampacked Small Street Mall arcade, with its cheap and cheerful clothing made in China, adverts for underwear and secret socks (cheap, cheap a man in hotpants, a touch of make-up and one too many highlights called out.) The famous Moolla’s is still there — it’s shoes as outrageous as they ever where and no doubt to be found on the feet of many a flamboyant pimp.
And onwards to our final destination Joubert Park where we headed into the cool interior of the Johannesburg Art Gallery for some relief from the mid-morning heat.
The walk reminded me that the city is amazingly walkable, once custom-built to be navigated on foot. Once it all made sense. That was before big businesses upped and left the city after the fall of Apartheid and fled to the North.
And while safety is what concerns most who never venture past Braamfontein I am ready to be lured back to the city with its remarkable heritage and patchwork of architectural history on show by the thought of a 16-ounce skinny cappucino waiting for me near the corner of Fox and Von Brandis Streets. Anyone want to join me?

2 thoughts on “Why coffee is the key to urban renewal

  1. A very nice article. I stay in Newtown at one of the Brickfields new flats. I’m new to Newtown but I think it a great place and I wish I knew half of the history. Thanks for the lesson 🙂

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