It’s not that crime has disappeared, though it has lessened since the city hosted the 2010 World Cup. And it’s not that the architecture is getting prettier—the urban core is mostly a generic expanse of fading seventies buildings that feels a bit like downtown Los Angeles. The leafy affluent neighborhoods can be equally depressing, with fortresslike homes hidden behind massive cement walls and electronic gates manned by private guards. For the most part, one does not feel particularly safe walking.
But despite its liabilities, Johannesburg seems to be having a moment—or at least the start of one. First came international attention during the World Cup, which sparked the opening of a (very limited) subway line. Around that time, a local rap-rave duo named Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for “the answer”) exploded on the Internet with a wild sped-up sound and an aesthetic that cleverly exploited the mullet-haired, gap-toothed tattoo-trash look of the country’s poor whites as well as the mixed-raced “coloreds.” Meanwhile, in the city’s urban center, in neighborhoods that had been dodgy dead zones since the apartheid era, new creative life began emerging. For example, there was the revival of Braamfontein, a university district that houses, in a funky modernist tower with a flying-saucer roof, the newly opened Wits Art Museum with its eye-popping mashup of traditional and contemporary African art. On nearby Juta Street, the Co-Op gallery features the minimalist furniture of the young couple that goes by Dokter and Misses, in addition to works by the 31-year-old artist Kudzanai Chiurai, whose images of local black male celebrities done up in the flashy bling worn by African dictators recall the work of Kehinde Wiley. “This city has allowed me to express myself,” said Chiurai, a Zimbabwean living here in exile after he made art that was critical of the Mugabe government. His work was shown in an exhibition of South African prints last year at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
In nearby Milpark, at 44 Stanley—a former factory that is filled with restaurants, cafés, and shops—local designer Tiaan Nagel has a women’s boutique selling simple monochrome pieces that offer a respite from the flash that afflicts so much African fashion. “I try to give the local market a middle ground between High Street and Dries Van Noten,” said the baby-faced, bespectacled Nagel. “We’ve got Zara now, and we might be getting Topshop. So people are starting to understand contemporary fashion more. We once only had wedding-dress makers.”
But back in the true urban core—the area around the Main Street Life building—you can see that it’s possible to carve a multiracial creative-class utopia out of postindustrial blight. The neighborhood, rebranded Maboneng (“place of light” in Sotho, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages), is the brainchild of Jonathan Liebmann, 29, a cocky, good-looking “randlord” (South African slang for entrepreneur). In recent years, Liebmann, with a silent partner, has bought about 20 buildings and is slowly but surely turning the area into a mixed-use district, complete with loft units, a hotel, a performance space, and countless cafés and shops. It is here that the city’s young cultural universes cross paths—Tshepang Ramoba, the dreadlocked drummer for the local Afro-indie darlings BLK JKS (pronounced black jacks), saunters by the Chalkboard Collaboration Café with Floyd Avenue from the Smarteez, a group of friends from the nearby former township of Soweto who have attained local fame and an international cult fashion following for their whimsical, multi-hued getups.