"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City
thirty-six. Johannesburg & the geographies of separation
approach flight, 6.17 to 6.19
a two-day flight of exhausting proportions and mysterious topographies: a double red-eye, the first over the Atlantic, reveals dark nothingness below. the next night, 6 hours over the African continent revealed the same, this time over land. in the morning’s zoomed-out view of the earth: razor-straight roads look like scratches in the dirt, sun-dried oases are lacy with cracks. a winding river in a parched plain yields a delicate linear cloud which curves above its watery course -- i have never seen a river-ribbon-cloud before. even the high-atmosphere cloud-field is different – small, infinite, barely-puffy whisps that yield little sign of moisture or irregularity as far as the eye can see. approaching Jo’burg: the irregular pods of housing tracts of varying sizes, prominent against stretches of surrounding land, every single one fortified by walls which squeeze neighborhoods into claustrophobic protection. a few walls stretch far beyond the neighborhood, anticipating its growth, making room for the future mores that come into the fold.
initial read 6.20-6.22
i’m typing this from one of the few (allegedly) inhabitable after-sunset places this city offers the newcomer single white female such as myself: mounded under covers in bed, a water bottle threatening to scald my knees. the physical adjustments demanded by this city (or one population’s story of this city) operate at every scale, from that of the intimate body and its comportment to that of the greater metropolitan landscape and its cloistered enclaves, connected by miles of highway. since arriving here, at the recommendation of the kind but protective owner of my pension, i have shed myself of jewelry, done away with my shoulder bag, rediscovered the disposable camera, and found the insole of my shoe to be a comfortable place to store cash. these precautions aren’t ubiquitously practiced by the population by any means -- don’t read my example as representative -- but given my desire to explore the areas where i have been told to not go, the precautions become liberating and allow me the freedom to explore without the anxiety of planning every bus/cab ride to every ‘safe’ destination.
my three solo days here before the PBBC/GSSA have been invaluable, as so much of the city is enacted through attitude and word of mouth. in other words, fear and the expression of it in the form of warnings re. the city’s ‘no-go’ zones (which include, among other things, the metro system and the Jo’burg-Pretoria rail corridor) are such powerful definers of how this city is inhabited, separated, and moved through. without actually venturing to test one’s own comfort levels within the built environment of the city, it would be easy to remain inside its myth of ubiquitous danger – which is not to suggest that the crime is a concoction; the statistics are supportive but the impressions are skewed, making the well-to-do white population appear particularly targeted when in truth, the African poor actually experience the highest percentage of victimization. the white population is simply the most vocal and preemptive about its fears.
moving from the realm of the body outwards, the next space of sought-safety in Jo’burg is the car. this is a road city, surrounded on all sides by highways which extend northwards into the Northern Suburbs. after sunset, even walking four blocks is ‘just not done,’ and for the (un?)fortunate of us who don’t have private vehicles, anomalous cabbies lie in winter-cold wait outside of the restaurant/bar strips. (cabbies are officially call-for-hire only). needless to say, the relationship between car ownership, capital, and the creation of suburban enclaves is inseparable, and pre-apartheid was institutionally supported through housing subsidies for returning soldiers and white-collar workers who were once located in the downtown area. now, as the largely E-W metro system has been left to become ghetto’ized, serving the working-class southern urban districts, and the public bus system rendered hopelessly inefficient (hour-long waits are not abnormal), the necessity of the vast informal system of minibus taxis remains the most viable and heavily used means of transportation for the non-auto’d class. when the CBD lost much of its manufacturing and mining mainstay in the 70’s, white-collar services and IT enterprises took their sprawling offices, and their money, northwards into territory serviced only by highway and car. thus, the greater metropolitan area’s growth and spatial segregation happens largely on a north-south access, and the fusion of Pretoria and Jo’burg is being infrastructurally anticipated by the Gautrain high-speed rail, which will link the two cities in under an hour, and for a significant fare. (this tactic will likely exclude the working class, which are the population who have most need of rail travel at this point. the motivations for this rail are thus mystifying many).
even with an increasing radius of comfort here, penetrating the minibus system is slow-going, hindered by a lack of signs, maps, and centralization. the government has recognized the minibus’ efficacy in providing a necessary service, and as such there are increasing attempts to if not formalize, then certainly legitimize them. (this effort is also motivated by a desire to reduce competition-driven minibus-route related crimes). official roof-covered stands and expansive lots are visible in the CBD and at suburban nodes such as the Sandton City mega-mall, where the need for working-class service employees is substantial. relying heavily upon the knowledge of locals can be tricky as well, for although most people seem to be very familiar with a small selection of routes, no doubt centered upon their own work-home locations, figuring out more anomalous routes (such as from the CBD to Melville’s B & B enclave) takes trial-and-error. on top of this, i made the mistake yesterday of sitting in the front, in the cashier’s seat, which rendered me helplessly, embarrasingly responsible for figuring out everyone’s change as the money was passed forward. unfortunately, riding the minibuses and going to the more lively parts of the CBD remains the domain of the interested traveler, resulting in the sickeningly comic situation of the temporary boundary-breakers being the consumers of the spectacle of segregation. (or, perhaps less insidiously, simply the ones on a very tight budget?)
exploring the relatively concentrated CBD on foot, i have tried to observe how its atmosphere evolves, partly in an attempt to further understand the legitimacy of the warnings to not venture into certain areas (such as those near Park Station and the adjacent Joubert Park). this is also where the main minibus station is located, surrounded by throngs of hawkers selling used clothes piled on the street, second-hand necessities, and cheap vegetables. radiating from this intense nexus, the streets calm and empty southward and westward, with a smattering of office towers to the south, near the open rectangular space of Ghandi Square. this is also the public bus terminal, and the difference between Ghandi Square’s regular geometries and well-heeded use-zones (including spotless public loos), and the Park Station hub’s crowded, opportunistic, intensity embodies the difference between the public bus and minibus transit systems.
not too far from Ghandi Square is the purported Central Improvement District, which boasts the Carlton Centre at its center. this is the continent’s tallest building, and offers a 50th floor view of the colorful, arterially choked, architecturally-tired-but-potentially-beautiful city below. it connects to a round, glass-covered subterranean mall, and is across the street from the Smal St. Mall. this latter linear shopping arcade runs the length of 5 N-S city blocks, and moving towards Park Station along its length reveals a spatial change that partly accounts for the emergence of the atmospheric edge I mentioned: ceilings drop, daylighting diminishes, width compresses, and maintenance falls away into grit.
to provide a glimpse of contrast...in the muted light of late afternoon or early morning, running through Melville’s arbored streets has been a refreshing release from the city’s tension. unencumbered by all but my smelly running clothes, it is easy to feel that Jo’burg’s sense of unease arises largely not from race but from economics. the fewer indicators of ownership I carry the more freedom I feel to venture. however, maybe i am naive? this morning on my run i passed a fellow-runner wearing a Freddy Kreuger’esque set of inch-long knuckle-spikes. am i crazy to not sport the same, or is he, for feeling he needs them?
without transit maps and without car, my sense of the city’s scale is constantly morphing, as reflected in the frustratingly slow stop-start-erase drawing i have been making of Jo’burg. this process of understanding through drawing and writing its layout & systems of connectivity reveals what everyone intuits immediately – Jo’burg is highly fractured, challenging to decipher, and offers a hundred different identities depending on from which micro-pocket of the city you experience it.
reference: Jo Beall, Owen Crankshaw, Susan Parnell. Uniting a Divided City: Governance and Social Exclusion in Johannesburg. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London 2002.