Where is the City Centre?
The second question travelers arriving at Liz at Lancaster from Europe and the US often ask me is: ‘Where is the city centre’? (The first question is ‘Is there wi-fi?’) This first question is easy to answer – ‘Yes and it’s FAST!’ But the second question is not so easy to answer. I try to explain that we do not have one city centre. There is no iconic central Square (à la Times Square, Trafalgar Square, the Grande Place) and there is no iconic shopping boulevard (à la Champs-Élysées, Via Veneto or Oxford St). What we have rather are:
- 3 distinct Central Business Districts (known in South Africa as CBD’s) one of which includes Johannesburg City Centre or ‘old’ Johannebsurg. ‘Old’ is a relative term, as Johannesburg only dates back to 1886 with the discovery of gold on a large scale
- pockets of urban regeneration and gentrification in various parts of ‘old Johannesburg’
- various suburban neighbourhoods each with its own particular character
The 3 city centres: Johannesburg City Centre; Sandton Central; Rosebank
The distances are big: from the City Centre in the south to Fourways in the north is anywhere between 35 and 45 km, depending on the route. While the Kliptown Soweto in the west to O.R. Tambo in the east, is anywhere between 52 and 65 km. So you can see what a spread-out sprawling megalopolis Joburg is.
‘Old’ Johannesburg/Johannesburg Central/Joburg CBD/Downtown Jozi or simply ‘town’ – it has many names!
Until the 1970s most major corporations, law firms, mining companies, department stores and even a lot of medical practices, were located in Johannesburg Central. Gradually over time however, ‘old’ Johannesburg which is the heart of Jozi, suffered the fate of many post-industrial urban centres with the gradual move of big businesses out of the city centre. There were a whole lot of reasons including: legislation restricting black labour; lack of parking and traffic overload; the rise of motorways opening up suburban development and much more besides. By the early 1990s ‘town’ as it was known, had degenerated into a really dodgy area with abandoned buildings which had been ‘high-jacked’ by squatters; a total lack of effective urban management; and only a few stalwart banks remaining with their head offices: First National Bank in the north-west, Standard Bank in the south- west and ABSA in the south-east.
The role of Johannesburg Development Agency
From the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, things began to turn around with the Johannesburg Development Agency developing ‘themed’ precincts:
- Newtown was developed as the cultural precinct (with the Market Theatre at its heart) I’ve written a couple of posts on Newtown and the history of its development. Multiple JDA projects make-up the development of the greater Newtown precinct
- Ellis Park became the sports precinct centred around the various sports stadia
- the Fashion District to the east of Gandhi Square is where the garment, sewing and haberdashery stores can be found.
- Braamfontein Corporate Precinct
- The Hillbrow Health Precinct
The role of private developers
And at the same time private developers had the vision of a newly regenerated city centre.
- Gerald Olitski is the brains behind the Gandhi Square precinct (a public private partnership)
- Maboneng has been developed by Propertuity run by Jonathan Liebmann
- the Johannesburg Land Company developed the Main St Mining District.
- the property company Southpoint has converted several buildings in Braamfontein into student accommodation for students. Wits University is located in Braamfontein.
- various private developers who buy and renovate old, disused and dilapidated buildings
Pockets are walkable but be aware going from one precinct to another.
Although there are surveillance cameras positioned throughout much of the city centre, these areas are quite spread out and visitors need to take care if walking from one to the other, because, as with most big cities, moving off a main thoroughfare by one street can bring problems of pick-pocketing and petty crime. The best way to visit the city centre during the day is to get an overview with the Red Bus Tour and then decide which areas you want to return to. And in the evening if you are going to Maboneng or Newtown, take an Uber.
James Delaney has this to say of Joburg city:
[It’s] like Berlin – creative, varied, architecturally striking, rich in history, and alive with art, food, coffee and interaction across social divides. Rough and cool it is, squeaky-clean it isn’t, and that grit is what visitors are fascinated by. Watch groups of middle-aged Europeans walking the streets of Maboneng and you’ll notice they’re taking photos of the quirky, old, rough and unusual things around them. It’s a real adventure to explore, unlike any other city, and that’s what they’re loving.
Rosebank and the Parks area
As the mining camp of Johannesburg began to expand in the early 20th Century, wealthy Randlords and industrialists, began to move north of the city centre initially building homes on the north-facing ridge of Parktown and Westcliff. Originally Parktown (and other ‘Park’ suburbs) derived their name from Park Station (the main Johannesburg station). But as the suburban development continued northwards around green lungs like the Johannesburg Zoo and the Zoo Lake, and as more trees were planted in what was to become the largest urban forest in the world, so the word ‘Park’ in the names of suburbs took on a new meaning. So Auckland Park; Parkview; Parkwood; Parktown North; Parkhurst; Craighall Park are all suburbs in the Parks region which surround Rosebank, a second business district.
These Parks suburbs have a very particular ‘neighbourhood’ feel to them with lots of street life, pavement cafes, small bespoke shops, art galleries and loads of coffee shops and bakeries. So 44 Stanley Ave in Auckland Park; 4th Ave Parkhurst; Tyrone Ave Parkview; Delta Centre Craighall Park; 3rd and 4th Ave in Linden; Keyes Art Mile in Lower Rosebank; and the cluster of art galleries and eateries in Parkwood are all great places to meet, eat, shop and chillax. Rosebank Central itself is developing rapidly and is the 3rd largest business centre in Johannesburg. Plus it has 4 large shopping malls which all interlink around open piazza areas: Rosebank Mall; The Zone 1 and 2; and the Firs. And best of all the Red City Bus leaves from the Zone in Rosebank.
The rise of the new financial heart of South Africa, which also has the dubious reputation of being the ‘richest square mile in Africa’, dates back to the opening of Sandton City in 1973, a shopping mall based on North American models. Gradually big businesses began to move to Sandton (leading to further decay of inner city Joburg). Now it comprises glitzy 5 star hotels, multiple corporate head offices in monumental structures of steel and glass, a vast equally flashy newly expanded Sandton City shopping mall, zero pedestrian walkways and ongoing gridlocked traffic. For those tourists who like their travels to reflect as closely as possible their lives back home, Sandton is the chosen place.
There is also a huge urban sprawl north of Sandton Central with masses of very upmarket homes as well as entry level townhouses, a lot of which cluster around Fourways and the famous Monte Casino – another Italian pastiche. This leads to confusion around the label: ‘Northern Suburbs’. This name used to be the old Park Suburbs as they were north of the original city centre. However now Johannesburg North refers to the new suburbs north of Sandton Central. I warned you the answer was not simple!
International tourists often spend their brief time in Joburg at the Nelson Mandela Square built on an Italian piazza model with the Michelangelo Hotel towering over it and the gargantuan statue of Madiba included in endless selfies and tourist souvenir shots marking ‘I was here’. I guess it’s not hard to figure out that I am not a great fan of Sandton – although some of its buildings are architecturally interesting if not signs of corporate competitiveness at its most crass. There’s a photographic blog coming up on Sandton corporate buildings.
Delaney says of Sandton that ‘ There’s little street life, and after office hours there’s not much happening for tourists – the feeling Canary Wharf has, or perhaps Frankfurt. It’s functional, central and well connected for public transport to the airport.’
So now you see why it’s difficult to explain to guests who want to find the city centre where it all happens. In Joburg it happens all over the place!