Asking the difficult questions about urban rejuvenation

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On Tuesday night I attended an event in Joburg where a group of young creative people spoke on the theme of “I am Joburg”. It was a fun event, and a fun evening but something really bugged me about it, and it has been bugging me since. It isn’t intended as a criticism of the event at all, because in the end the organizers can do what they want with the format they design, but I guess it is a criticism of the way in which stories about Johannesburg, and its rejuvenation, are told.

The talks at the event all came from the same voice – an overarchingly male, middle-class voice (which I guess some will say is a dominant voice of most discourse). And for the most part, stories of Joburg’s rejuvenation are about the privileged slowly emerging from behind their giant suburban walls to enjoy art, music, cheese, wine and cocktails at certain spots in the city. I am not criticizing this development – I am 100 % part of that group – but I don’t think the issue of rejuvenation should be looked at so heavily through this angle. Yes, it is good that people with disposable income come into the city, have fun there, love it and come back. It brings in investment and hopefully improved conditions for everyone.

But I think we need to confront the more difficult issues too; like that of housing in the city. My best friend brought this up yesterday and it has been an area of immense interest to me for years. It is all well and good to talk about inner city rejuvenation, fixing up buildings etc – but the streets and the buildings are not empty. What happens to the people who live there? The urban rejuvenation story for these people is one of red ants, forced removals and destitution. There was a story in the news a few months back about a building in the CBD where the red ants moved in to remove the people who were living there illegally. It was an awful story, but what made it worse were the cold and callous comments from people about the residents of that building that accompanied it.

For me, this is not urban rejuvenation – it cannot be about serving the needs of one community of people over another. Yes, this is very idealistic of me. No, I don’t care. I don’t think it is good enough to say “but that is how it has always been.” If I was a trust fund baby or a lotto millionaire I would love to put my money into urban development and try to find a solution or approach to this issue.Perhaps I should start buying lotto tickets after all….
I think the first photo kind of sums up my first point about voices – this is Juta street too.
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20 thoughts on “Asking the difficult questions about urban rejuvenation”

  1. LOVE the last picture. Took exactly the same on Past Experiences inner city graffiti tour yesterday, funny to see it again here!

      1. I agree with your points, by the way, very well said, but I also don’t have an answer. There will always be trends where a place becomes fashionable (and therefore more expensive) to live, which means the people who can no longer afford it will be squeezed out. Or, if you think about it, the other way around as well. A place no longer fancy to live in usually gets taken over by those who can now afford it, accelerating the exodus of money. It is a little bit like the cycle of boom and bust of an economy. Which has also never been fully conquered.

      2. it is such a tough issue. The thing for me is that in the SA context it is all the more crucial because of the continuation of spatial apartheid and the staggering inequality levels. The people who are evicted or forced out of inner city areas get further and further dispossessed.

  2. Such a difficult question, faced by many cities around the world, although Joburg is certainly an extreme case. The same problem exists in Washington DC, where formerly poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods have now become gentrified and the poor residents can no longer afford to live there because the property taxes have sky-rocketed. I wish I knew the answer. Anyway, great post.

    1. Me too. And I wish i had the money to try and get some answers going. I am actually thinking of pursuing this as my Master’s topic – to look at models around the world and see whether Joburg can have the answer, especially in the context of SA’s spatial apartheid.

      1. Try framing in different language, one needs to begin with a rapid evolution of belief systems. Throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them. Start rearranging mental landscapes before you touch the physical, I believe Winston Churchill had somthing smart to say on the subject.
        The Black Plagues of the 1350’s brought about improved conditions for the surviving poor, It’s time to thin out our own ignorant herds.

      2. hi Anthiny – that is a really good point, and really that is all I can do at this point. When the attitude changes, the language and the beliefs, suddenly the situation can be framed differently.

  3. I agree 100 percent with you. Blog post of the year! I fully intended to attend that function on Tuesday but I missed it due to work. It’s a tough topic. I feel so strongly about every point you raised and I could blab on about it for hours. My ‘property development’ friends jump all over me when I bring up this angle. Their approach is that it’s business and nothing personal and unfortunately many people who are heavily involved and backing rejuvenation share that principle. Every time I bring it up there question is “well then please tell us how to compromise” and I haven’t quite got an answer yet. I guess compassion and thought would be a start….It may not be personal for the ones developing the building but it’s personal for the mother who no longer has a roof over her child’s head. At the risk of sounding like a sentimental idiot, how can you just throw people out onto the street when they have no where else to go, without a second thought. It’s fantastic to buy up penthouses like there is no tomorrow and look at the skyline and setting sun (which I love, obviously) but too few people look down to the misery below those lofty penthouses. Rejuvantion shouldn’t happen at the expense of the underprivileged, just to satisfy those who want to gain an ‘edge’ by moving into the city. Basically it breaks my heart.

    1. i think it is so important that we have these conversations, and blab about it as you say. Ultimately it is all rooted in this notion, this fear,ma desire to keep away from “the other”. How special would it be if Joburg’s story could be different than so many other countries’?

      1. Amazing. The hardest part about all of this is knowing that we have the ability to make that difference but seeing people neglect that option because it’s harder work (and therefor harder money to pocket!)! Imagine if those people left their cheese and wine up in the penthouse for a day and went down to clean the streets, chat to the people or just mingle – actually experienced the life that a lot of them live. I’m convinced that would start to change thought processes a bit. I lived in the city (right opposite city hall) for a year. I used to jog around the city and mingle with the normal residents. They were some of the most wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met…the same people who are finding themselves homeless week after week.

      2. totally. I had a moment on Tuesday when one guy was talking about car guards in the usual stereotypes. No one bothers with trying to look beyond these stereotypes because it is uncomfortable. And it is very hard to evict or remove people when you actually see them as people.

  4. Kate! interesting post- there are some fantastic organisations, like JOSHCO (one of my clients) doing a brilliant job at providing affordable quality housing to very low income earners – in the city. Joshco recently won a UN scroll of honour award for providing excellence in social housing. Many of the buildings being cleared by the red ants are ces pits of people living in sub human conditions and much of the time being exploited by slum lords – the conditions in the buildings are hardly idyllic, i have been there – the way many of these people are expected to live is an insult to human dignit. The council is largely to blame for this, and govt also needs to earmark larger funding for affordable accomodation, close to peoples places of work! a very important issue here is, what creates a sustainable and inclsive city?
    The theme was – I am Joburg, so obviously it is seen through the presenters eyes, a very particular viewpoint. I personally think that the selection of speakers was a ibit flat and it would have been very interesting to sample the viewpoints of different end users of the city, because i think that if you asked a hundred different people what there Joburg was you would get a hundred completely different views.

    1. Hey Brian, I will definitely check them out. This is what I hope is happening and this is actually what I want to do my masters on. Not denying that the buildings that are often evicted are not suitable for human habitation, but the people are usually thrown out on to the streets…in spite of the court rulings. And the mental blocks in people’s heads are still there, and perhaps they are the biggest challenges. I really hope Joburg’s story can be different. And I would love to be a part of making that happen.

  5. I guess there’s the other side of the coin as well. If you own a building and some Nigerian pitches up and takes possession of that space and the next thing you know you have 80 people occupying your building who refuse to move, your options are a bit limited. Its fab that there are organisations working on lower cost accommodations and there are also initiatives like UAP that are a great example of people giving back to the community. Unfortunately that’s more the exception than the rule in most situations. Hopefully that’ll change-its definitely possible

  6. Thought provoking post! “Spatial apartheid and the staggering inequality levels” is a sad fact of life in all of the developing world. Development is an excuse to push the underprivileged into the fringes. Don’t see any solution in sight though!

    1. I think an alternative could be possible but it would mean a concerted effort on the part of government and private sector, as well as mind set changes in everyone. The highest walls and barriers exist in people’s heads.

      1. Absolutely! But what if governments are only interested in staying in power and dancing to the tunes of these very same developers? Don’t see much improving in the near future…here at least.

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