Life, etc

Remember Newtown? When development depends on security guards on the block

By Andrew Miller 12 March 2015

Open Newtown takes place this weekend. The initiative is an effort from the district's NGOs, arts organisations and artists to 'remind the public what Newtown is all about'. But why do we need reminding? And what does Newtown's curious development trajectory say about Joburg's aspirations toward being a 'world-class African city?' By ANDREW MILLER.

Newtown no longer has street security. The blue and yellow street guards who played such an important role in keeping good-natured civic order in Mary Fitzgerald square and the Newtown Park are gone. It’s hard to pin down exactly when they vanished – some say two years ago, others reckon it’s been at least a year. There’s a lot of talk among Newtown constituents as to what happened, and most of it centres around the understanding that the government money that always paid the guards ‘hasn’t arrived’.

Thus, it’s every NGO and business for itself. When raves, Africa Day concerts and the like happen on Mary Fitzgerald square, there are guards everywhere. If you catch a gig at The Bassline, one of Jozi’s première music venues, you’ll utilise their secure parking. If you’re a mining person visiting one of the swish corporate blocks, the guards start waving you into your parking bay as you turn off the M1.

If, however, you’re a young artist, actor or photographer walking over Mandela Bridge to get to class, good luck. The disappearance of the blue and yellow guards means threading your way through Newtown’s streets is an increasingly perilous business. Best you get it done before the sun sets.

Ten years ago, Newtown was Jozi’s flagship creative district. The restaurants bordering the square and the park were full, Xarra Books was vibey and held regular poetry events and book launches. Horror Cafe was the place to be at night, and Couch and Coffee was a fantastically laid-back resting post for young artists on the move. Today, much of the above has been replaced by new office blocks and a new mall, while essential civic aspects such as lawn mowing and street repairs appear forgotten for quasi-epic periods of time. To say nothing of street security.

Newtown’s slumping creative profile has been long in the making. Tourists have been landing in Mary Fitzgerald square, brochures in hand, searching for the cultural precinct so eloquently described therein, since the 2010 World Cup. They haven’t been very successful. Increasingly, they are told by locals to head to Maboneng or Braamfontein. This is ironic, because despite its currently bleak veneer Newtown actually remains one of the engine rooms of Joburg’s creative scene. Many of the artists, sound technicians and creative figures making Maboneng and Braamfontein what they are today were trained at Artist Proof Studio, the Market Photo Workshop, the Market Theatre Lab, the Vuyani Dance Company or SA Roadies – to name a few of the training organisations operating in the area. Equally, a lot of the prominent fine artists currently operating in the city have their studios at places like Assemblage and The Bag Factory.

The most disconcerting thing about how Jozi has fallen out of love with Newtown is what it says about our general development mind-set. If we abandon the functional needs of this creative community with such benign ease, what does that say about how we will treat the poor and indigent and homeless as new zones of development pop up? Before Joburg is a tourist attraction it is a place of residence, business, transport and education for millions of people. A genuinely world class city – whatever that really means – should surely take pride in its ability to take care of its own, be they street sleepers, hip hoppers, tourists or anyone else.

Yes, Jozi urgently needs to offer Newtown some security and a little bit of love and attention. This is a valuable community, and we abandon it at our peril. As many of us as possible should visit Newtown over the Open Newtown weekend, not only to buy art and craft but also to familiarise ourselves with the educational and social activity that takes place there. It will be fun, and enlightening and of course – because it is a planned event – it will be safe.

But we should also take note of what Newtown’s current struggle tells us about our urban development aspirations. Security is a development deal breaker across the city because we have so many petty criminals because, well, we all know how the story runs from here: poverty, unemployment, terrible education etc., etc., etc. The uncomfortable fact beneath Jo’burg’s largely positive recent commercial development is that no one – from government to private sector development players – knows what to do with our homeless and our indigent, other than to keep them out of tightly defined security zones.

‘The park was once run down and occupied by petty criminals and the indigent. It was, in other words, a dodgy area. Now it has an outdoor gym, play areas for kids and so forth. Which is great if you happen to be going over the bridge to visit the park. If, on the other hand, you need to walk right, past the big vacant lot beneath the monument that’s used for driving lessons during the day, the one without any blue and yellow security guards… well, chances are you’ll encounter one of Metro Park’s erstwhile residents en route.

Newtown’s story shows the limits of top-down development drives. New parks, creative zones and business districts will never create a world class African city when the areas immediately surrounding these places are buckling under social pressure. Metro cops can drive as many hawkers from the traffic lights as they want – we all know the hawkers will return as soon as they are able, thanks to the brute force of social circumstance.

Maybe we need to mirror the energy and budget currently being pumped into our various development zones to better understand what life is like on the fringes of those zones. The results will be shocking, of course, but possibly if we put some serious government and civil society effort into mapping just how shitty and bereft of basic social services these places are, we will then be able to think about how to take meaningful steps to plan social service delivery for the people who occupy them. Perhaps, in other words, we need to start thinking about development as a street level exercise as much as we think about it as something that can be engineered through setting up new zones of commercial/ cultural activity.

What is the daily experience of an 11-year-old nyaope addict in Fordsburg, and how can it be improved? What is the experience of a recycler pulling his trolley through the city, and how can it be improved? What is the experience of a mother of four moving through Noord taxi rank every day, and how can it be improved? Answers to these complicated questions could hold the key to Jozi’s ability to reach a state where development and extensive security aren’t bound together as two sides of the same strategic coin.

Yes, it all sounds pretty pie-in-the-sky, but we need to bear in mind what Newtown is telling us. Namely, as long as development success is contingent upon the number of security guards on the block, we’re likely to remain trapped in a vicious circle of delicious coffee, crime and loosely defined social intentions. DM

Photo: A young man walks past a newly-developed housing project in Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 February 2011. EPA/JON HRUSA 

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