Monday, November 2, 2009

The new Jotspots (Jozi hotspots)

As every Joburger knows, you wake up in this city every morning with every hair on your head on end, glad to be alive with every cell in your body. The city has a survival code akin to the African bush, as the animals greet every morning as a respite from the predators and bloodletting which accompany each unholy night. But with its electric energy that reflects the summer thunderstorms Joburg is a gritty, exciting city that is intoxicating and addictive. Its origins as a dusty, gold-digging town with no pretensions of the Old World makes it brimful of soul, rhythm, life and colour and strangely generous and unquestioning towards those who come here with a will to survive and to thrive.

The inner city has been deteriorating since the early 1990s but R2,1 billion of the taxpayers' money has been set aside this year alone to improve the CBD. Finally, Joburgers are starting to claim their city back, inch by inch, and reinventing its history. One of the new developments is Arts on Main, on the corner of Fox and Berea Sts. To get there you have to drive through the inner city down the intestines of Market Street, past the beautiful old buildings of the city's early beginnings, some of which are in a state of sickening disrepair and some of which are being restored and re-interpreted. Tiny tailors' shops abound and the buzz is palpable. Looking around, one can imagine the entire city refurbished, cosmopolitan and full of restaurants, shops and urban prosperity. It's not as strange as it sounds ... the winds of change are sweeping through the city, cleansing its streets and blowing in fresh hope and energy. A year ago this was not to be felt, but now places further up Fox Street, like the old financial section of Marshalltown, are booming and attracting tourists and locals alike to the Darkie Cafe and the Mapungubwe Hotel.

Arts on Main is easy to find. A sign greets you as Market Street feeds into Commissioner, and you follow the fluttering banners to the DF Corlette Building which houses the space. The distressed exterior is deliberate and in keeping with the gritty downtown feel. The floors are bare concrete, and the bricks exposed. One is reminded of New York and its own reclamation of downtown, formerly unromantic warehouses. A narrow pathway, with a disused track for trolleys, leads into an Alice Through the Looking Glass space, full of checkerboard-like grass squares and olive trees. An old car is parked on the roof and turned into an installation. The resident restaurant Canteen was recommended to me by publicist and global traveller Jill Grogor who speaks of a meal from heaven. Cape Town designer Malcolm Kluk also loves Arts on Main. "I went for a meal at the restaurant and to see a play in the upstairs section the other day. The play was called 'Mouse', and was very weird, full of schizophrenia and nudity. But I loved the space!"

Today is not a good day, however. The suppliers have not provided their coffee beans and it is very quiet. Obviously it would be better to come back at a weekend or for a function. The finale of the Spring Arts Tour took place here with a party sponsored by Grolsch beer, and the place hops when it's full. Looking around at the adjacent spaces, I discover the David Krut bookshop which stocks an extensive range of South African art books and settle down for a good read.

A gallery next door has an exhibition of powerful black and white photographs of gritty cityscapes and political turmoil reflecting South Africa's uneasy history until 1994. Clearly one could lose oneself in this place alone for a few hours.

Besides all the arty spaces the offices are down another corridor and I see a sign for Black Coffee, where the designers have placed a pop-up store. Ad agencies would do their nut for this space, I think, it's so designy and trendy while maintaining its industrial strength. Suddenly the jacaranda-wreathed 'burbs completely lose their allure and the city holds out its hand again, waiting to be reborn.

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