in many ways, the health of any one building's population can be measured by its children – whether they hide in corners in the dark, whether they have shoes, whether they smile and are well-clothed, whether they come up to hug you or whether they stare in silent fear, whether they are allowed to go onto the street outside their building, not only for safety reasons but also for reasons concerning the tenants’ ‘legitimacy’ (is the building being squatted? hijacked?). walking only a couple blocks through the neighborhood can render one hopeful and then hopeless and back again in a matter of minutes. the first visit or two provoked such an urgent desire to provide for basic provisions – shoes, clothes, light – that we spent several days talking not about design solutions but about survival assistance. this was problematic in the sense that everyone had their own population they wanted to help, and the solutions in the end seemed short-lived.
after more analysis it became evident that part of the challenge of our neighborhood was simply one of ‘placefulness’ within the greater metropolitan area. Marshalltown is, for all practical purposes, invisible, and has been implicitly dubbed a ‘sinkhole’ that needs gentrification according to the official maps doled out by the Johannesburg Development Agency. we decided to take this map as our starting point – pull it apart, critique it – and redraw a new map of Marshalltown that hopefully reveals its layers, complexities, and its potentials. this re-mapping was accompanied by the beginnings of a new development framework that understands gentrification not as a sweeping out of existing ‘sinkholes,’ but as an investment in these existing communities as containing the own seeds of the area’s improvement (see maps and text; the two are meant to be front to back, and fold in both directions to offer both old and new maps and analysis). while there is still part of me that aches to just go back and do the hands-on dirty work of installing functioning skylights in dark dusty buildings where people live separated by cheap wooden partitions, my group (led by amazing mentors Elena and Laura) is hoping to develop the framework to the point where it can be adopted as a viable development strategy that would supplant the current paradigm of ‘investment to increase real-estate values’ (read: evictions and further problems of slum-creation and homelessness).
on a personal level, saying goodbye to a community of kind, empowered individuals from around the globe has provoked nothing short of culture shock. i am looking for the hints of transition-driven messiness which i have grown to so relish in the cities i have visited, and instead have been confronted with gelato and Prada. i think this means i must look harder (or perhaps visit the Russian embassy again, where no manner of hand-gesturing would allow me past the high-security gate to apply for a needed visa). rendered mute by an inability to sum up the totality of my Jo’burg experience in a clean, cohesive way, i offer just a few snapshots of unforgettable moments...after all, perhaps snapshots are a fitting way to describe a city of disconnected pockets connected mostly by highway.
a solo Sunday walk through one of the city’s worst ‘no-go’ zones, from Berea through Hillbrow to Joubert Park and the Johannesburg Art Museum: i did this before Global Studio even started, after which i would have never gotten away with it (either out of fear or reprimand). i was subsequently and significantly scolded by locals for this foolhardy adventure, which i even more foolhardedly defended as a valuable one (although admittedly i don’t think i would do it again). however, following this cross section of the city was revealing if only to try and understand the palpable ‘edge’ that makes some places feel okay, and others not:
retail – when it spills onto the streets, and storefronts are open, and people are engaged in legitimate economic transaction be they formal or informal. i followed this hum of commercial activity and steered away from dead-end pocket parks.
women – their presence breaks the threatening monotony of large groups of loitering men; moreover, they are usually the ones engaged in abovesaid commercial activity (most memorable: live chicken with head sticking out of blue plastic bag in hand).
the smell of human waste – while in Mumbai this signaled nothing but the city going about its business, in Jo’burg, which has the infrastructural capability to support people’s bodily needs, it signals a place forgotten, ignored, and uncared for.
alleys – Jo’burg is the paradigmatic Modernist city; beautiful mid-rise towers of astounding simplicity and unique detailing line up like soldiers, creating razor-straight alleys between them. sometimes these are full of a mountain of trash, other times they are opportunities for an endless perspective.
this walk encompassed the crux of so much of the psychological challenge of Jo’burg: you are damned if you do (crazy, naive, risky, stupid) and damned if you don’t (guarded, paranoid, living in fear). it is an emotionally exhausting challenge to constantly question yourself where the line between the two is, and not simply be swept up by the fear factor which, if the city is ever to heal itself, will have to be challenged. (*it's worth noting how this area is rendered on the official Jo'burg map above; Hillbrow, the city's densest area, has no street articulation...)
the fortified police HQ along Louis Botha Ave:
imagine looking at a 25’ high barb-covered wall as you walk along a tree-lined city sidewalk only to realize it’s the city’s main police station. no doors, no gates, no protection – you are more vulnerable 10’ from that police station than you are in a crowded street in a ‘no-go’ zone.
the Metropolitan towers:
high-density high-rise residential complex in the Berea area. at night the windows glow in an organic pattern, a stunning reminder that for all its complexity Jo’burg is still simply an enormous collection of people from a thousand different places just trying to get by, have a life, cook dinner, sleep, eat and make a buck
the Apartheid museum:
powerful, enormous, reserve a full day if possible. such recent, startling, heartbreaking history that terrifies as much as it heals. minicab rides to and from almost got me lost and missing my flight to Italy, with lunch in a fancy gas station in between (compare: Jo’burg gas stations, which are also supermarkets and cafes, with Milan’s gas stations, which are minimal pull-offs and simply for gas...the city that lives by its cars vs. the city that lives by its sidewalks).
the muti market and environs in Durban:
a twisting, maze-like convoluted space of stalls and blanket-spaces and stairs and stores. it began with heavy infrastructure: highway overpasses and a train station. then infill: light metal shed roofs that connect them all providing covered space for the ‘formal informal’ market below, which thrives enough to spill out onto adjacent uncovered bridges and sidewalk spaces.
midnight mall in Durban:
the city’s middle class pleasure turned inwards, by the sea, in the flourescent light of night. children run around unguarded while parents of all ethnicities gamble their coins away in the casino. prior to this late-night destination we had scoped out a ‘local’ hangout; heavy bass and a parking lot full of mini-bus taxis and bouncing bodies had us turning around in a matter of minutes for more ‘tame’ environments. (still, it looked like an energetic and fun scene).
solo sunset runs in the rugby field, Wits University: where studio participants were housed. we were locked in and the city locked out by the campus turnstile gates that activated only with our magnetic cards. the day-city is done by 5pm, and going anywhere after dark means calling a cab, so these twilight runs on the field were a necessary stand in for bodily freedom, the absence of which was felt by all after a few stir-crazy days. the highway sped right by the field; as you run you can even smell the exhaust. this sounds disgusting but in some way it was a reminder that we were in a city on those occasional all-studio work days when it was easy to forget that we were.
i don’t want to conclude this Jo’burg blog with any tidiness or finality; i’d like to return and the city will be different next year, and the year after, with a major spike come the 2010 FIFA games. there isn’t a more exciting place to do challenging work, especially at the scale of urban design and policy consideration.