Even a place named Newtown can get old. Time’s wrinkles at this precinct on the western rim of the Joburg inner city are cruel reminders that urban revival has not been on the agenda here for years. Until now.
On Saturday 14 July, Newtown, the suburb wedged under the M2 motorway, is launching the Newtown Now festival. It’s a festival that’s part hurrah for putting the precinct back on the Joburg map, it’s also part experiment. It’s testing the shape of appropriate rejuvenation in a part of city that has lost its sheen and has increasingly being marked by people retreating into off-street bubbles of corporate head offices, malls and entry-fee access only places.
The “experiment” part is because urban living models have no blueprints. Tanya Hugo is one of the collaborators behind the festival and owns the pop-up creative studio 56 Pim located on Gwigwi Mrwebi Street. She says: “A lot about what modern urban living looks like and who really owns public space are question marks. But if we, as the people who work and live here, don’t engage with this and look for ways to collaborate then we’re missing out on opportunities to makes our city more liveable and more resilient,” she says.
Hugo says when she first made Newtown her workspace in February this year she loved the unique urban identity of this inner city space. She was however, also struck by the neglect in places and how disjointed the Newtown community was.
“People don’t come down to this part of town because of their preconceived ideas of crime in the inner city. They don’t know for example, about the classes offered at the Dance Factory or that there are communities of skateboarders and street photographers who use Newtown’s open spaces,” she says.
Long-standing Newtown institutions like AngloGold Ashanti’s head office at Turbine Hall, the SAB World of Beer, Sci Bono and the Market Theatre have little connection between them and almost next to no presence beyond their security-patrolled perimeters.
Mary Fitzgerald Square, named for the famous trade unionist, is empty most of the time bar the occasional concert or event and clots of homeless people smoking weed or soaking up the sun. Many of the once iconic wooden head sculptures around the square have been stolen, vandalised or battered by the elements and unmaintained.
In another time Newtown had vitality and a bolder personality. Eric Itzkin, head of immovable heritage for the City of Johannesburg, says even under apartheid, racial mingling here escaped heavy policing. The Market Theatre that was established in 1976 kept up progressive programming. Kippies Jazz Club, named after saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, was a space for musical and cultural exchange across racial lines. The Saturday flea markets that used to be held on the square, still occupy with affection a corner of many people’s memories. It was the original Joburg flea market till it was overrun with mass produced junk, forcing traders to seek out tidier alternatives in other parts of the city by the late 90s.
Itzkin says Newtown’s origin story, like its history from the 1970s onwards, is equally worth remembering. It tells of early Joburg’s history of power and politics, and also the inevitable cycles of change in a city’s life.
Newtown rose from a fire that authorities deliberately set in April 1904. For four days Brickfields and the area called the Coolie location were burnt to the ground on the excuse of controlling the plague in the rat-infested, unsanitary poor parts of town. The multi-racial groups of people were forcibly removed and when the last embers died, authorities had their prime development zone located near the railways. Here they could set up the city’s produce markets and build the nearby power turbines and processing mills. Newtown would become the commercial heart of Joburg in the early 20th Century, says Itzkin.
It’s a complex story and it is complex still as the city grapples with balancing competing urban needs as more people stream in and priorities keep changing and resources keep being diverted elsewhere.
“What’s needed now is regular restoration, maintenance and also collaboration to keep the momentum of rejuvenation in Newtown going,” says Itzkin.
The Newtown Now festival brings together City of Joburg agencies like Itzkin’s department, the Johannesburg Development Agency, big corporates and established institutions in the area, as well as smaller businesses and creatives. The idea is for the festival to be a catalyst for new vision and action, rather than a structured one-off event or a mere annual calendar fixture.
The festival will form part of the fringe events for the annual Turbine Art Fair (TAF) that also takes place this weekend. Newtown Now though is focused on getting people into the outdoor public spaces. It’s planned to be family-oriented with live music, markets, children’s workshops and free guided tours including at the Market Theatre, SAB’s World of Beer and on Past Experience’s graffiti tours. Exhibitions from Sci Bono will also spill onto the streets and be open to the public.
At the heart of the event will be the relaunch of the wooden head sculptures. Around 90 new heads have been installed and old ones that together total about 200, have undergone restoration by the original sculptor Americo Guambe. Storyboards telling Newtown’s story will be erected in the square along with a fabric installation created by the Imbali Visual Literacy Project. The Newtown-based creative skills and jobs initiative has been in existence for 30 years.
Guambe says his sculptures, from 18 years old and now, are inspired by the people who keep flocking to Joburg – maybe filled with dreams of gold and better lives.
“The heads represent different people, and the faces come to me in my mind. I’m very happy that we are fixing them now for the festival,” he says.
For Jennifer van den Bussche from Sticky Situations, the company facilitating the collaboration between the different participants, the one-day festival is not about glossing over inner city problems but rather is about finding connecting points to think about solutions for revitalisation relevant to Newtown.
“This really is about community development and a lot about this festival has been about getting people to know each other and to build relationships. For example, we’ve got all the established institutions’ security structures to work together for the festival – it’s the kind of collaboration that builds public trust that safety and security is being taken seriously and it’s this that ultimately convincing more people to come back to this part of town,” says Van Den Bussche.
Newtown is ready for its next new thing. Its collaborative festival this Saturday is a start; it’s also a way of asking the question of exactly what the “next new thing” is, and inviting more people to come up with answers. DM
For festival info and to book for the free tours, visit the Newtown Now Festival Facebook page
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