Johannesburg - One evening a month ago I heard the delighted laughter of children in a place I never thought I would – the inner city. There was a jumping castle, colourful balloons bouncing from several poles, large chess pieces laid out on a pavement board that the children had drawn with chalk, skateboarders whizzing about, and a DJ belting out his sounds. A braai was sizzling on one side, with free hamburgers for the kids. It was happening on the corner of Kerk and Harrison streets, at the tail end of the Kerk Street Mall.
It’s a perfect venue for an event called Chesa Nyama – braaiing meat – in the city: there’s a zigzag metal canopy for cover, three or four half-moon shaped stairs forming a large amphitheatre to one side, plants and trees, all protectively overseen by two tall buildings.
The event was organised by property management company Urban Genesis and they plan to get more and more of the residents who now live in the CBD out of their flats and into these spaces once a month, particularly the children.
But it’s more than just braaiing meat – the plan is to develop it into a night market, with entertainers, craft traders, and physical stuff like table tennis and basketball.
“The event is called Ridgrow, which stems from the fact that the event takes place in the Retail Improvement District and it came about because property owners within the area wanted to have a special project that they can drive in this community,” says Lesego Tshuwa, a town planner and team leader for research and creative projects at Urban Genesis.
Joburg was created as a suit and briefcase city and after 5pm it has traditionally been deserted.
But in the last 10 years or more it has become a different creature – it is home to hundreds of thousands of people, living in converted office buildings. Just one company, the Affordable Housing Company, has over the past 18 years converted over 60 inner-city office buildings, creating 9 000 units, providing a place to live for 20 000 people. An estimate puts the total figure at about 400 000 inner-city residents.
The truth is there are few spaces in the CBD for relaxation or recreation. The Attwell Gardens Park in Plein Street, the overcrowded Joubert Park, the tiny Oppenheimer Park behind the Rissik Street Post Office, and the Library Gardens are the only places where people can look up to a blue sky.
Hardly adequate for a residential inner city.
The Kerk Street Mall is a great inner-city success story – it runs for six blocks from Kruis to Harrison streets and is a vibey place with hundreds of traders. For six days a week it’s brimming with people selling food, clothing, shoes, jewellery and home-made goods. Open-air hair salons offer any style of braid you can imagine.
It is estimated that up to 12 000 people walk through the mall daily.
Tshuwa, who is tasked with organising Chesa Nyama, says the central improvement districts that Urban Genesis manages work well during the day, but at night there is a sense that the city is not safe.
They are wanting to reverse that perception as well as provide a space for residents to enjoy the city.
But how do you get people out of their flats in the evenings to enjoy an organised event? Residents seem happy enough to send their children to Chesa Nyama, on their own, prompting Tshuwa to call parents irresponsible. “We need to get residents more active at night.”
Around the world, cities that work have a combination of outdoor and cultural activities and shopping, and that’s what Urban Genesis is working towards. To this end it has identified four pillars to achieve this: creating the infrastructure to ensure the space is used to its full potential, putting on a continuous programme of events, improving streets lighting and having a clean-up blitz. That blitz is ongoing, with fixed potholes, new manhole covers and improved paving.
But you can’t get away from it – there is crime at night. Tshuwa would like to see the council do more to help combat that crime – Urban Genesis security does a good job during the day, but they’re not on duty at night.
“The residents have been slow in responding to this event, they are really not tapping into making the most out of this opportunity provided by property owners,” she says.
“Part of our mission is to unlock the entrepreneurial potential that this community has; trade is already thriving during the day, but people who live on the site are not realising that.”
There are other attempts at initiatives to get residents out using the city.
A monthly basketball tournament has been happening at Oppenheimer Park. Table tennis and soccer have been played but not on an ongoing basis. A night food market has been held a few times, but funding is needed to pursue it.
Tshuwa says they don’t want to replicate Parkhurst or Maboneng, which are exclusive and expensive. “We want to keep it at grassroots level,” she says.
“It is going to be challenging to implement. Even Braamfontein took years to develop, and Fordsburg, which has a night market, has been around for years.”
Andile Mekeni, the customer well-being consultant at Spur, is also involved. His Carlton Centre branch supplied the jumping castle, balloons and burgers, and he would be keen to be more involved once he has the buy-in of Spur head office.
“In the long run we want to be part of it. This can be a festival, which can spread to Newtown and Braamfontein. It just needs someone with a vision.”
He speculates that the reason people are not going for Chesa Nyama is because they are not united, but it’s a tall order, uniting thousands of people.
Tshuwa sees it more in terms of the spaces. “This says something about people’s attitudes to empty spaces.”
She suggests it might be a cultural issue too, where people might not be familiar with making the spaces work for themselves. She may be right – the kids are enjoying the spaces, while the adults are more reticent to come out and relax in those spaces.
It has been a learning curve for her. “We need to make the space work for everyone, not just the little people.”
That doesn’t of course apply to the mall, where the traders make the space work for themselves. But that’s during the day.
Fordsburg has been vibing for years and Braamfontein probably took 10 years to evolve. Kerk Street Mall has been going for several years and is comfortable in its skin now.
But Chesa Nyama has only been running for a year. Maybe Tshuwa and her team just have to hang in there. It’ll come right, particularly with people like her and Mekeni in charge.