Thursday, 11 July 2013

11.07.2013 Walking the Joburg CBD - Marshalltown

I've started to develop a bit of an addiction - namely spending the day wondering aimlessly around the Johannesburg CBD (Central Business District). In a city which has some pretty soulless malls and anonymous suburbs and a shamefully large amount of informal housing and derelict buildings, the CBD shines out for me as a place filled with history, interesting architecture, people from all walks of life. It feels like somewhere which is certainly on the up and in a palpable state of revival. Downtown for me is real city life.

View of the CBD from a bridge crossing the railway tracks

In our first week here I ventured out on my lonesome to explore the CBD and I actually landed in Braamfontein, mistakenly thinking I was in the heart of downtown Joburg. I can't lie, I was feeling kinda nervous. Everything at that time made me nervous. For the first time in my life I truly stood out as a foreigner and quite frankly the whole new continent thing was giving me some serious culture shock. In reality Braamfontein, just over the railway tracks from the CBD, is a really fun student part of the city, which has all of the most happening bars, lots of street life and some seriously hipster cafes. Back then having landed from Europe in the sterile Sandton bubble, Braamfontein's graffiti, rubbish, chicken shops, busy pavements, high density housing and lack of white people were an amazement for me - it was literally another city.

While I love Braamfontein for its great bars, cafes and nightlife (which actually kicks off at the weekend before it has even passed 6pm!), the CBD is still the heart of this city for me. Rich in variety and architectural splendour it has so much to see.

One of the most tourist friendly and prosperous parts of the CBD to walk around is Marshalltown, an area where you can really glimpse the former and present wealth of the city.

Chancellor House

This is the building where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo had their legal practice and I wrote about it in a previous post so I am not going to go into details again. It is just a few blocks away from Diagonal Street where they sell a lot of blankets, heaters (I presume there will be fans and hats here in summer?) and other household stuff and interestingly you can also find a couple of Muti shops selling freaky things for use in traditional medicine and other juju stuff.

A Muti shop

Main Street and the chamber of mines

A short walk from the courts is the pedestrianised Main Street which has the lavish headquarters of numerous major mining companies such as BHP Billiton and AngloAmerican Gold. Many of the grand buildings here have facades with beautiful carvings relating to the gold rush and statues inspired by South Africa's magnificent wildlife. There are also some particularly nice pieces of public art, such as this statue of leaping springboks.

Facade at BHP Billiton
Main street is also peppered with relics from the mining industry such as old trains, stamp mills and pumps. It was from literally right under these streets that the first gold was mined a mere 130 years ago, leading to the swift creation of one of Africa's biggest cities. Main Street has many nice cafes frequented by local office workers (hence they are often closed on weekends) and even has a Woolworths Food (the posh South African supermarket). In nearby Anderson Street you can also find some of the nicest hotels in the city centre such as the Reef Hotel and the Mapungbuwe.

Random mining stuff

Library Square Gardens

A few blocks north of Main Street this square is another example of the successful restoration of beautiful historic downtown buildings. This is an area which was one of the very first to be developed in the city during the early gold rush years. The beautiful library at the heart of the square has recently been restored and is well worth checking out. With a large high school nearby the square is often filled with kids hanging out on their lunch breaks or playing while waiting for the bus. Looking over it is the Guildhall Pub, the oldest in Johannesburg and a great (and yes, safe) boozer.

The Guildhall Pub

Corner Fox Street and Loveday Street

A large part of Fox Street (running parallel to Main) is also now pedestrianised and has some big offices on it. It also has some amazing old buildings kept in very nice condition such as the impressive Old Standard Bank of South Africa building. Nearby you can also find the Post Office building (victim of fire a few years ago, awaiting restoration) and some other elegant civic buildings.

This could easily be somewhere in Europe...
The old Post Office

There are two very nice cafes here worth looking out for. Ma Bertha's -a very friendly new cafe on Loveday where you can get a huge plate of steaming stew and pap for 40 Rand. They even have tables and chairs right on the pavement in true European cafe culture style (i.e not roped off, but literally right in the middle of the pavement). The other is the much older Pinos, an Italian cafe with genuine Italian coffee, a very faithful clientele and a toilet which you have to be escorted through the kitchens to reach. It gets really busy here and is a very authentic recreation of an atypical Italian coffee bar.


Gandhi Square

My strolls downtown often tend to start or finish here as this is the terminus for the Metrobus. Minibus taxi are still much more popular than the Metrobus as they are more reliable and take more complex routes - with Metrobus you can be waiting a long time or getting dropped really far from your home. But, that said I still enjoy riding the Metrobus back up north as they are double decker so you get a great view as you ride home.

Gandhi Square is of course named after the great Indian leader who worked as a lawyer in Johannesburg for many years. He has a statue on the square, but it is pretty small, blink and you might miss it. It shows Gandhi in his youthful lawyer years in court robes with some important looking papers.

Gandhi's statue
Back in the early 1990s Gandhi Square was a bit of a no-go area, despite being the main bus terminus for the city. There was a lot of trouble with crime and drugs, the lighting and policing was poor and people were constantly getting robbed here. Not so today however. The square is a hub of activity surrounded by office, shops, cafes and bars. It is very safe and is well looked after. It is also sustainable offering affordable business, retail and rental opportunities to the people who visit downtown the most. Much of the credit has to go to local entrepreneur Gerald Olitzki who worked hard to redevelop the area when anyone else with money had given up and fled to Sandton. You can read about him in this great article from 2010 by the Globe and Mail.

Gandhi Square
I think this huge banner on Gandhi Square pretty much sums up my feelings about Joburg's revival.

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