During recent travels, Nadia Krige spent a night in Joburg’s eclectic Braamfontein and found a couple of striking similarities with Cape Town’s very own Woodstock/East City.
It’s a Monday afternoon in mid-November and the sky over Johannesburg is leaden with gathering thunderclouds. After a wind-battered takeoff in Cape Town, the turbulent landing at OR Tambo International seems almost fitting. These two cities, forever trying to outwit one another.
However, as we navigate the intricate network of highways and byways en route to Once in Joburg – our boutique Braamfontein hostel accommodation for the evening – it becomes increasingly clear that this endless competition is both forced and foolish. It’s like chalk and cheese – Johannesburg, electric as its brewing skies and Cape Town, cool and calm as its Atlantic shoreline in April. Johannesburg, a wild thing, ever-sprawling to gain more ground and Cape Town, a languid creature lazing away in its City Bowl hammock.
It’s only once we hit Braamfontein that the oh-so-human need to compare surfaces full-force. Despite the much-taller buildings and grid-like street layout, this gritty precinct bears a striking resemblance to Cape Town’s East City and, maybe even more pertinently, Woodstock.
After checking in, I hit the streets to explore this strange sense of familiarity a bit more, and find myself latching onto four similarities in particular:
From dying business precinct to trendy hot spot
With a prevalence of boutique sneaker stores, minimalist coffee shops and suave tech hubs, the streets of Braamfontein (Juta and Melle’s intersection in particular) simply ooze hipster chic, much like Albert Road in Woodstock. Apart from this, it’s also home to the Neighbourgoods Market, a Joburg offshoot of the Woodstock original that takes place at 73 Juta Street every Saturday.
The late afternoon pedestrian traffic comprises mostly young men and women dressed to the nines in varied expressions of the latest trends, leaving my-travel-rumpled-self feeling profoundly uncool.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Less than a decade ago, the colourful buildings now surrounding me cast lonely shadows over the empty streets shortly after the last office worker clocked out for the evening. Filthy and perceived to be dangerous, there was only one emotion the area inspired, and that was a need to escape.
As with Woodstock and the East City, Braamfontein has undergone massive urban regeneration over the past few years, largely driven by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and a number of private sector partners. In a similar vein to Cape Town’s CBD and the Central City Improvement District (CCID), it all started with the establishment of the Braamfontein Improvement District (BID) and the provision of cleaning and security services.
Soon enough the once derelict commercial centre was transformed into an entrepreneurial precinct that continues to draw an influx of young creatives and wealthy developers alike. According to the managers at Once in Joburg, even travelling businesspeople want in on the buzz, as many now prefer finding accommodation in Braamies (as it is affectionately known) rather than heading out to the glitzier and less inspiring northern suburbs.
With its clean, minimalist design and an intriguing menu of caffeinated beverages, Father Coffee in Juta Street is to Joburg what Truth Coffee in Buitenkant Street is to Cape Town: a bastion of café culture that draws visitors from far and wide.
While it may be the name on everyone’s lips, it is by no means the only spot serving a decent cup of joe in the area. In fact, within a radius of about 100m, you will find at least three more coffee shops that take the art of roasting, brewing and serving super seriously.
During my short walkabout, I couldn’t resist stepping into Doubleshot Coffee & Tea. With a dinged-up roaster occupying one corner and a polished wooden counter overlooking Juta Street, it just radiated the kind of vintage charm I’m always on the lookout for. Identifying as small batch coffee roasters and artisanal tea blenders, they produce the kind of quality handcrafted products that draw a fiercely loyal following, much like Cape Town’s own Deluxe Coffeeworks.
Apart from quaint cafes and bespoke eateries lining the streets, Braamfontein seems to be experiencing the rise of a fusion business trend similar to Cape Town’s. Perhaps the best example of this is the colourful strip, known as 70 Juta, which brings The Woodstock Exchange to mind. Once an army surplus store, this extensive building now houses 15 petite creative spaces, including everything from designer shops and eateries to an architecture studio and gallery space, as well as offices.
One of Braamfontein’s most striking features is a 10-storey-tall artwork of Nelson Mandela smiling warmly at all the passersby. Painted by American street artist, Shepard Fairey in 2014, the spraypaint and acrylic work pays tribute to the iconic South African, as well as the 25th anniversary of the anti-apartheid Purple Rain Protest.
Like Woodstock and its neighbouring District 6, Braamfontein seems to be a particularly popular spot for striking street art, much of which was actually commissioned by the JDA.
While I would have loved to join a Past Experiences street art tour through Braamfontein, our time was far too short, but I was lucky enough to stumble upon two incredible pieces quite by chance: Craig Smith’s The Guardians and a purple and turquoise mural – equal parts intriguing and terrifying – by Lauren Opia, both tucked into an alleyway behind Once in Joburg.
Apart from these impressive pieces, there was one bit of functional design that caught my eye and made me wish for something similar in Cape Town – concrete blocks lining Juta Street had been transformed into four-seater benches with the addition of colourful and attractive trellis type divides.
As with Woodstock, the regenerated Braamfontein described above has become a deeply contested urban space.
While the benefits of the massive clean-up and development efforts are plain to see – creation of jobs, safer streets and booming small businesses, among others – there’s no denying that they have brought exclusivity in their wake.
Buildings that once housed low-income residents – often illegally – have now become prized property for private developers, hungry for the challenge of transforming derelict apartments into stylish inner-city dwellings for an affluent middle-class market. With Wits located close-by, the area is becoming particularly sought-after for student accommodation.
Unsurprisingly, original residents and traders who don’t quite fit the ‘trendy’ bill have found themselves systematically worked out and the JDA and partners have been accused of promoting gentrification.
While there is no quick fix for damage done, the fact that it has sparked various rounds of debate, commentary and protest, seems to suggest that areas like Braamfontein and Woodstock are fertile soil for the seeds of change.
With inclusivity being the single most important characteristic South African cities are striving for, it’s clear that a healthy balance needs to be restored. And where better for the shift to start taking place than in these areas that have experienced both ends of the spectrum?