Seventy-year-old Parsotam Bhikha set up shop in Braamfontein almost 50 years ago. He has witnessed the suburb’s blooming from a white working class place of semi-detached cottages, sleazy hotels and tiny flats, to a hip and funky high-rise space now.
He remembers Braamfontein with a few high rises - the tall building he is in, Heerengracht, had just gone up and he was the first tenant. He had to have a white nominee to rent in a white suburb. And a white secretary, tucked away somewhere. “We had to feed the white inspectors,” he says, with a wry smile.
Braamfontein these days is a different planet. It’s full of vibrant, youthful energy from thousands of students who live and play there. They attend UJ and Wits and several other colleges in the suburb.
Galleries, restaurants, bars and coffee shops have popped up in profusion. There’s even a few shebeens, I am told. A jazz club is soon to open. There’s the fabulous if overcrowded Neighbourgoods market every Saturday, its entrance in an alley. The Beach on the rooftop of a 3-storey building in Juta Street, where you can sit under an umbrella, curl your toes in some of the 40 tons of beach sand, and sip whatever you fancy. And there’s Critical Mass, where you can pull up with your bike every last Friday of the month in Juta Street, to ride en masse around the CBD in a great community ride.
Braamfontein, along with the CBD, experienced a dip in the 1990s when businesses moved out of the city, although heavyweights like Sappi, Liberty, SA Breweries and the JD Group remained in the northern side of the suburb. But in the mid-2000s things started turning. These corporates invested in their immediate surrounds, planting trees and gardens, and creating quiet cul-de-sacs. Sappi pumped money into the park below the Joburg Theatre, and transformed an untidy patch of grass into a delightful oasis.
Gradually these efforts filtered southwards. Ten years ago Southpoint property developers moved in, and today it owns some 26 buildings, renting to some 5 000 local and international students.
Now the alleyways are getting some fussing. Often places of criminal activity, garbage and informal toilets, Braamfontein’s alleyways are going to become mini galleries, with 10 murals to brighten them, sponsored by the city.
If you’ve taken a stroll through Braamfontein lately you would have noticed playful and colourful umbrellas hanging in several alleys. That’s the start of it. One of the murals has already been completed – called Umbrellas by Pumla Gqada. The murals will be in a range of media - mirror tiles, woven bottle tops, multi-layered plastered surfaces, chevron signage, and paint - says Stephen Hobbs of Trinity, the company overseeing the whole thing.
He says they are planned for three alleyways, and the biggest will be Craig Smith’s work, Guardians, taking 150m2 of wall space. All the artists work or live in Braamfontein. It was very much a community and workshop approach, adds Hobbs, aimed at giving lesser known artists some exposure, with a space in one of the buildings being donated for workshop sessions. “It will be looking at how street art comes in different shapes and forms,” he says. All the artworks will be in place by March.
Trinity has recently resprayed those metal trees in Juta Street in bold colours. It also looks after the grand Eland sculpture at the top of Jan Smuts Avenue. “Braamfontein is a cool, urban hub now,” says Hobbs.
But the alleyways are going to get another shot of energy. “The alleyways are going to be galleries and public space connectors,” says Josef Talotta of Southpoint. What that means is that those that were gated in the 90s are opening up, and walls are going to be bashed through, with glass fronts announcing shops. He’s converting an old service courtyard into a café, with cobble and plants, transforming a dreary space. An ad agency already has its entrance in an alley.
Talotta rattles off all the businesses and NGOs that have recently discovered Braamfontein – the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, Nu Metro, Puma, the Swiss Arts Centre, Lawyers for Human Rights, the World Wildlife Fund, the Loreal Institute, Virgin Mobile, Thought Works, a US IT company, and many others.
What I find interesting is that a collaborative approach between the NGOs and students is being planned, where students will do internships with NGOs, or masters students may act as advisors to NGOs. Talotta says that there are international students renting space from Southpoint, bringing a cosmopolitan dimension to Braamfontein.
Talotta walks me around. He points to the absence of hanging signs above the pavements on the buildings along De Korte that Southpoint owns. They have been taken down. “It increases the sight lines, and gives a subconscious feeling of safety. There is uniform lighting, giving it an up-to-date aesthetic.” That attention to detail makes all the difference.
He stresses that Braamfontein is not being gentrified, but rather regenerated. “We are trying to keep the old too.” Eventually they want storyboards in the suburb, detailing its history.
“Our core business is the student lifestyle, the youth energy. This is complementary with what Adam is doing,” says Talotta.
Adam Levy moved into the suburb in 2005. He bought 155 Smit Street, a glass fronted building on both north and south sides. He has the two-storeyed penthouse, which he took three years to transform into probably one of the city’s trendiest places to live.
Levy owns 10 buildings in the suburb, of which two are residential, the others a mix of office and retail. He says: “The environment is almost a utopian atmosphere - it really is the rainbow nation.”
He reckons he gets up to 6 000 visitors to his Neighbourgoods market on a Saturday morning, of which a lot are foreigners. That adds up to a million since 2011, when it opened. It attracts people from the northern suburbs, who probably would never otherwise have ventured south of Rosebank. “It is a very different experience from the one they would have expected,” says Levy.
He believes that we “don’t set ourselves high enough standards”. Instead of punting ourselves as a world class African city, as the council does, we should be thinking of ourselves as a world class city in Africa and the world. “We should aspire to believe that Johannesburg is a world class international playing field. And Braamfontein is the creative node of the city – it has a sense of chicness, with a culture created now that is so dynamic.”
Meanwhile, Bhikha opened Civic Tailors and Outfitters in 1966 in De Korte Street. He learnt tailoring from his brother, who opened Clifton Tailors in Jorissen Street in 1947. His brother closed two years ago, but Civic Tailors endures.
Bhikha has clients coming for suit alterations from Sandton, Pretoria, Roodepoort and Midrand. He once tailored to former police minister Charles Nqakula, and deputy president Kgalema Motlantle. He no longer makes suits, he says, because you can buy a suit these days for a quarter of the price.
I took a pair of trousers in, the zip refusing to close. He had them fixed in an hour.