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Johannesburg rises again

But
now, as the city celebrates its 125th birthday, creative South Africans
are seeing gold in warehouses and cheap office space, and they're
revitalising neighbourhoods with galleries, museums, shops, studios,
clubs and restaurants.


When
Fiona Rankin-Smith was making plans to renovate an office building to
house a major new museum, she thought she'd be building a lonely outpost
for art in gritty central Johannesburg.


But
nine years and 38 million rand (about $4.7 million) later, as she
prepared to move nearly 10,000 African paintings, sculpture and other
pieces out of storage and into the sleek new Wits Art Museum, she finds
South Africa's economic hub is returning to its roots.


"There's
this whole groundswell," said Rankin-Smith, the Wits' curator, as she
surveyed the lively street scene on downtown's west side from her
building's glass walls.


When
the museum opens early next year in the Braamfontein neighbourhood, its
neighbours will include private galleries drawn to the area in part by
plans for the Wits, which is owned by Johannesburg's University of the
Witwatersrand.


One
side of the glass and concrete museum features brickwork that resembles
basketweave. Brass knobs dot another facade covered in blue tiles from
the 1970s-era building's original exterior, a pattern inspired by Zulu
beadwork from the museum that incorporated British brass buttons.


Like
much of downtown Johannesburg, Rankin-Smith says the museum is inspired
by its past, and optimistic about the future. "There's these subtle
references that refer back all the time," Rankin-Smith said.


Johannesburg's
nickname is Egoli or "city of gold," and antiquarian book dealer
Jonathan Klass says downtown draws its resilience from the energy that
made it a mining capital and from "'its ability to change."


"People
are accepting the change and trying to create the change and go with
it," he said, "rather than trying to live in the past."


Collectors
Treasury, the shop started by Klass, his brother Geoff and their late
mother, has had homes in several buildings in and around central
Johannesburg since 1974. The brothers have seen other attempts to revive
downtown, and praise the latest because it is bringing back residents
as well as business. An area that was a business district for whites
under apartheid now is home to a vibrant multinational, multiracial
community, including Africans from elsewhere on the continent.


Collectors
Treasury's home since 1991 is a hoarder's paradise, eight stories of
books and other antiques in the former headquarters of a company that
imported printing presses. It's located at the gateway of an eastern
downtown neighbourhood developers call Maboneng Precinct. Maboneng means
"place of light" in Sotho, one of South Africa's 11 official languages.


Renowned
South African artist William Kentridge, whose grandfather once had law
offices in downtown Johannesburg, has moved into a studio in a complex
of Maboneng warehouses that now houses hip shops and apartments. The
neighbourhood has an art house cinema.


New
York-born musician Joao Orecchia organised a series of concerts in
Maboneng over the last year in not-quite renovated buildings. Audiences
climbing six stories to a rooftop for one concert could see the rubble
of what had been the elevator from the staircase wrapped around the
shaft. Once on the roof, they were captivated by the view, Orecchia
said. And while the site was forbidding then, the building will soon be
renovated into homes and studios for musicians and artists, he said.


Artists
"aren't afraid to come and find a space and do something," Orecchia
said. "As an artist, you almost have an obligation to contribute to that
picture of what Johannesburg is."


Trendy
clubs and restaurants are popping up to serve gallery hoppers. At
Randlords, safari chic decor of antelope skin rugs and beads is livened
by flashes of humour, like framed lacy panties at the ladies' room door
and framed briefs at the men's.


The
club on the roof of a 22-story office tower was named to evoke the
mining magnates who made their fortunes on the rand - or ridge - of rock
underpinning Johannesburg. It opened as a bar when the World Cup soccer
games came to South Africa in 2010. Now it hosts private parties, and
the occasional cocktail evening open to the public.


Margeaux
Swartz, a 27-year-old Johannesburg native who works for South Point,
the property company that developed Randlords, said she's seen wary
looks on the faces of guests who park in the building garage and are
whisked 22 stories to the club in an express elevator.


"Your
initial reaction when you're coming into the area is, like, 'Lock your
doors. Be careful,'" Swartz said. "But the minute you come up here ...
it's so inspiring. And you're at ease."


Randlord's
walls are glass, so visitors feel they can almost step into the
sweeping view. To the south, almost blending into the man-made mountains
of mining waste, is the 90,000-seat stadium the shape and colour of a
traditional African clay pot built for the World Cup. Just beyond the
stadium is Soweto, the township that was a dormitory for blacks under
apartheid, with its iconic sites tracing the history of the struggle
against racist rule, including a former home of Nelson Mandela.


The
Nelson Mandela Bridge stretches from the foot of Randlords across a
river of railway tracks to Newtown, a performing arts hub. Newer dance
and concert venues have been established around Newtown's venerable
Market Theatre, where political plays for interracial audiences once
challenged apartheid thinking.


All
these sites are easy to reach thanks to a rapid bus system known as Rea
Vaya that got up and running in time for the World Cup. Soon a central
station on the bus routes will be connected to a new light rail to the
airport.


Laura
Vercueil, spokeswoman for Johannesburg's tourism promotion agency,
traces the city's renewal to 1994, when apartheid ended, and planners
began dismantling strict regulations that had zoned the city centre for
whites and for business. Now, business, residential and entertainment
mix along with the races.


Vercueil
encourages foreigners and locals alike to discover the city, either by
hopping on and off Rea Vaya buses, or on foot with one of the city's new
walking tour businesses. Urban pioneers can shop for everything from
African herbal remedies to high fashion from local designers. They can
marvel at the array of art deco buildings, take in a show at the Market
or Braamfontein's civic theatre, and lunch at Guildhall, a pub that's
almost as old as the city.


"A
lot of the reluctance to venture downtown has to do with perceptions of
crime, and some of those are quite real," Vercueil said. But she said
local government is "working to clean up the city and make it a safe and
more desirable place."


Rose
Sizini, a 27-year-old bank marketing manager, was recently browsing a
local designer's clothes at a market in a garage near the
soon-to-be-completed Wits Art Museum. She said she was drawn by an
"artistic flair" she hoped more people would experience.


"They need to come here and explore it," she said.

Johannesburg,
like cities around the world, is struggling to get the balance right,
making a city centre that is comfortable for the affluent as well as the
poor and struggling middle classes who have made downtown their home
since apartheid ended. And there is still plenty of work to be done.


Curator Rankin-Smith nodded at broken windows in the floors above the space she has renovated for the Wits Art Museum.

"Hopefully," she said, "we've started something."


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