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Brothels and gangs marked Jozi’s first formal street

Commissioner Street was Jozi’s first formal street, and ever since it has not only been connected with the economic growth of the city, but its seedy side as well.

The street came into being in 1889, and was done on the cheap. It ran from Ferreirastown to Jeppestown.

VIBRANT: A busy Commissioner Street dominated by high-rise buildings today. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee. Credit: Ihsaan Haffejee

Road construction back then was done by three ox wagons laden with stones driven up and down in a straight line for a week to compact the stones.

However, President Paul Kruger then instructed them to make the street 22.8 metres wide, as opposed to the normal 15.2m, so that ox wagons could make a turn comfortably.

Naturally, the trappings of the city were to follow. Commissioner Street was the site of the first chemist, and where the first jail was built.

One of the city’s first stock exchanges was on Commissioner Street – state of the art for its time, with tiled toilets and a bar.

By the 1890s, the western side of the street, where the Johannesburg Central police station is now, had developed a reputation for its brothels and the gangs that controlled them.

In his book The Fox and the Flies, Charles van Onselen tells how this section of the early CBD was known as Frenchfontein because of the brothels and prostitutes in the area.

Van Onselen also writes of a shootout 110 years ago on Commissioner Street where a gang called the Bowery Boys forced residents to take cover. In a call typical of the present day, the public demanded to know where the police were during this gunfight.

Now the historic street is to undergo a name change – Premier Nomvula Mokonyane has said it would soon be named after Albertina Sisulu, the struggle icon who died last year. – Staff Reporter

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