Tell a white South African that you’re planning on visiting Ponte City Apartments and you’re bound to be met with incredulity: “You've got to be kidding me?”
There is a good deal of irony in this. In the 1970s, Ponte City and Hillbrow, the inner-city suburb in which the apartment tower was built, were among the most desirable places to live in Johannesburg. At 54 stories, Ponte City was the tallest residential building on the continent, not to mention one of its most affluent. There was just one problem: it was too damned cosmopolitan. If Hillbrow’s whites wanted to mix with blacks, the vindictive logic of apartheid went, then that was fine. The government would simply make it impossible for the so-called “grey area” to develop. The rot, as they say, soon set in.
"What followed was mass urban degradation," Nickolaus Bauer of Dlala Nje (@DlalaNje
), the tower's community centre, told Crikey
. "No money flowed in for development or maintenance of infrastructure." Ponte City went from being the hippest address on the continent to its first vertical slum. "And then, just before the transition to democracy, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that laws formerly prohibiting people's movements were repealed. Hundreds of thousands of people from the rest of the country flocked to the inner city en masse in search of employment." Overcrowding and crime were soon endemic. The inner city went to hell and the tower along with it.
But that was long ago. While any mention of Johannesburg's city centre still calls to mind the pimps and drugs dealers of the 1990s, Hillbrow in general and Ponte City in particular have begun to clean up their act. Ponte is now at the centre of the inner city's impressive regeneration, an orderly middle-class building like any other. But the incredulity of some whites still remains.
"Growing up in Johannesburg, you'd never hear anything good about Ponte City or Hillbrow," Bauer said, "especially if you were born in the 1980s or afterwards. It's been a tremendous challenge for us to convince people that it's safe to come and experience it for themselves."
Bauer and his business partner Michael Luptak hope to change all that.
"It is essential that we change how people think about the inner city," Bauer said. "If they don't get rid of their fear, how will the situation ever change? The more people who realise that the inner city is about as dodgy as the suburbs they live in, the better."