Colour and life run riot in Adam Levy’s reimagined ‘playground’

Colour and life run riot in Adam Levy’s reimagined ‘playground’
‘There’s the dog, part of another building’s graffiti landscape. It’s a bar, with food, called the Great Dane.’ Adam Levy commissioned the mural. (Photo: Supplied)

The new-new Playground takes over where the old Neighbourgoods left off. With improved eating and drinking. And quite a bit else.

I often wonder about some activities being really, wholly sometimes, about the eating and drinking. Oh, and the buying. That is the expectation and we go and do them for that reason. We want it like that. We go to a market or even go on a tour by bicycle or ox wagon and it’s often not so much about the where and how as it is about the whats, the expected comestibles or refreshments as they’re delicately called.

Sometimes it surprises me, even concerns me that we seldom do or visit anything without putting things in our mouths. Not for long it does. But it’s not that we are necessarily hungry at the outset.

Of course, it’s going to be about eating and drinking. (Photo: Supplied)

So I consider things a short while before going to The Playground. I want to experience it and see how it compares with the previous Neighbourgoods market that used to occupy the same airy semi-indoor venue, also on Saturdays. What I do know is that, of course, it’s going to be about eating and drinking. Am I up for that? Damn sure. But what else? 

I don’t hesitate once I get going, even asking a friend, the type from the “north” as we call Jozi parts past Rosebank, beyond which people live distantly and differently, a friend would never usually hang around, say, Braamfontein. That is part of my “what else” because it might be fun to surprise someone with preconceived ideas about an area. Along with the eating and drinking.

I tell him it’s recommended he come by Uber. Yes, there is street parking but this part, especially, of Braamfontein is encouraged to be pedestrian by the developer. Parked cars kind of spoil it and though many men, particularly, and their cars are tricky to separate, this will be the first surprise. You can do it.

However, besides a few inevitable cars in De Beer Street, a big truck is parked here too, seemingly packed with tables but with its engine running. On the pavement Laurice, a friend who is also involved in this Playground project, is explaining to people wanting to enter to hang on for a bit because an ambulance needs to go in, up the entrance ramp. A man, a stallholder getting ready for the day, has taken a turn and no, it’s probably not anything serious but best not to take chances.

“Never mind,” I say to my friend, Uber-deposited, there are other places here that we could visit so long. He looks doubtfully unwilling, though the area, apart from the noisy truck, looks pretty appealing this sunny day. So I mention coffee. 

“There’s Andrew Bannister’s hotel. Well-known photographer otherwise. No, we’re not going there now. And there’s the dog, part of another building’s graffiti landscape. It’s a bar, with food, called the Great Dane. I’ll tell you about it over coffee. And here’s Jozi’s second oldest bar, built in 1906, that’s right, you can see by the Edwardian architecture, the old Kitchener’s, now dotted with new and snazzy paint effects. Yes, it’s quite safe here.”

The Playground is on the corner of De Beer and Juta streets and Juta Street, for five blocks round here, is lined with the very lovely metal trees designed by local artist Claire Regnard. Once gaudily coloured, they’re all white now. I lead the way through an entrance that opens into a little courtyard. I’m enjoying this.

Up is via a vertical metal ladder recently covered. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

A friendly man welcomes us and asks if we’re “going up” and can he take the order so long. Up is via a vertical metal ladder, recently covered by a kind of chute or cage, maybe to make people feel more confident with the short climb. I choose some coffees and head for the ladder. It goes up the side of one storey. We can have coffee up there. It’s a very tiny farm, very pretty.

The friend is adamant about “never going up there. And neither should you!” I blink but climb up anyway. The JFF Rooftop Farm is the size of the roof of a small shop, which is what it is, growing houseplants, also selling teas and coffees among the greenery. 

I peer down through greenery to see the coffees being taken to a table in the courtyard, instead of coming up here in the dumb waiter. 

Down again to be hospitable, coffee drunk, the cups lusted after by me, I show the friend a new, small park at the edge of Braamfontein, the bottom of De Beer. It’s recently been cleared and planted. There’s a wire coathanger taxi installation by Gordon Froud and the words P, L, A, Y in wire too, these latter created for the developer, Adam Levy of Play, and situated by another artist friend Happy Dhlame. Happy is better known for huge canvases that often comment on the fragility or spectral occupation of urban spaces. 

The throbbing truck’s somewhere else. The ambulance must have come and gone and it’s open Playground time. Past Dokter and Misses planters, someone still painting a mural, we enter the airy space. It already has a kind of fair buzz. More coffee is had as a sort of relocation celebration and especially since it’s from TILT, a great little Melville coffee place. The friend starts to sweeten his day with two kinds of brownies. He’s complimenting the chef, whose gorgeous carrot cake, frosted with caramelised oranges, I’ve also had the good fortune to taste before today.

Pastry chef Lauren Hazell of Afters, she of the caramelised orange cake and oozy brownies. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Opposite TILT is a chilli store. Yes, South Africa’s filled with them. At this one, Heat by Kali, the owner sells two kinds of chilli relish, both good. The coriander and green chilli one is better than the other just by dint of being the more unusual. It’s obvious Thabo Mashile knows his product and ingredients well and talks as fascinatingly as a TED Talks speaker. It turns out he grows his own chillies and herbs. I’m curious and terribly envious, with two kinds of cayennes, a habanero, ghost peppers and a bird’s eye bush, all currently dying on me at home.

The confectionery tables nearby are arranged in a kind of island. I like this kind of arrangement or “curation”. The friend tells me that marketing of goods only works if there are sole suppliers of goods like confectionery for example, at markets or shopping centres. Here there are at least seven confectionary tables. I prefer that idea, I tell him, because, in my limited marketing experience I’ve found that four bookshops close to each other seem to sell more books apiece than would one, solo. It seems people like to come to a place, a node, where there’s a choice. They complement one another and they’re all different anyway. 

Thabo Mashile of Heat by Kali grows his own chillies and herbs. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

“What’s that?” he asks crossly.

“They’re all different!” I shout above the music, noticing just then that the music is good, quite different from the usual doom-ditty market schlock. People look round at me but it’s true for this event as well. 

To prove my possible marketing point, at least to myself, I go from one confectionery table to another. The professional is pastry chef, Lauren Hazell of Afters, she of the caramelised orange  cake and oozy brownies. Here are simply homemade cookies and iced cakes, a chocolate-only table called Taste the Dark and De Baba’s exceptional bakes, a vegan bakery, in among the crowded others. But here is also very different Serbian confectionery at Gaba’s, made by the ebullient Dragona Amidzi. “Like the dragon!” she says looking matter-of-factly unscary and explaining the berries and yoghurt used in and on her temptingly foreign-looking cakes, one purple.

Near the lemonade stand belonging to the woman whose hair matches the pink lemonade, I run into Happy himself. We first met when he was fresh from Switzerland, where he grew up. I was writing about the Bag Factory where he was in artist’s residence along with David Koloane, Sam Nhlengethwa, Kagiso Pat Mautloa and Diana Hyslop. I’ve followed his exhibitions ever since. 

My spirits have been lifted and I’m feeling particularly happy about seeing Happy of course, finding TILT coffee here and meeting Dragona. Another happy scene is that of Adam Levy surrounded by family and a couple of friends. I’m a great fan and have been since he turned an old Braamfontein office block into lofts and a penthouse right in the beginning of his property development and now area development career. It could even be the penthouse he lives in today.

Adam Levy has been reinventing Braamfontein to create an inclusive community that has joy. (Photo: Supplied)

Adam says he reinvents neighbourhoods, well this one at least. He tries to make a genuine, positive impact on place, community-building and is working at infusing this environment with energy of both kinds and want to bring, and people to take, joy in their ownership of their own city. It’s often a lonely business being Adam Levy against old, unsustainable systems.

Here’s also a Playground section of clothing and craft mostly. Desirable hats abound, bucket and coolie ones particularly and over here is the Dope clothing that iused to be in its own shop in the inner city. There’s not much of a range here today except for some pretty cool man-cardies. The logo is crossed tennis rackets and I remember finding in the shop a kind of longish playsuit patterned with rackets that I didn’t buy. But I wanted to take it on some trip. So in true bad shopper style I returned. Of course, the shop was closed and I could only press my nose against the window in vain, imagining myself zipping around in that tennis racket onesie.

I am working myself towards lunch and, difficult as it is to bypass steamy dumplings from Li’s Kitchen, Exotically Divine African vegetarian foods and Contessa La Cucina’s Mediterranean deli meze food, I know what I want. At The Shwarma Guys are more people with fat, squidgy, juicy shwarmas than I’ve ever seen. I also want one. While its still in my hand people ask me where I got it. My friend gets a hunky, fire-cooked steak meal from the famous Che Argentine Grill from Parkwood. He’s never been there so it’s quite a treat.

En route I’ve found the Champagne and oyster people who also used to be here in Neighbourgoods days. Then they were stuck between the loos and the staircase but now have a delightful spot. They and the coconut juice man with his machete have made it from there into The Playground.

I have the friend in a more receptive mood now and we take the steps up to the next level where there’s a long-long bar, an area being set up for a concert, and the balcony. This time, standing outside, he seems to be seeing the area with different eyes. He even says so and marvels that Braamfontein has “become so inviting and different.” Now. He’s very taken with what Levy has achieved in general. 

I’m impressed that so many surfaces around here have received the attention of so many different kinds of artists. A man who’s decorated an entire wall with black koki pens has even decorated the multi-domed ceiling of the ladies’ loos. That’s a feat.

The 1970s exterior decorative texture, designed by Eduardo Villa. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

What’s astonishing me most though, is that this standard of market style eating and drinking has wrought an entire mood change in someone determined to have a rotten time earlier. It’s a worthwhile surprise but I haven’t finished yet. There’s quite a bit else to this part of Braamfontein. 

Last, I point out the 1970s exterior décor, the cladding design of the building, easily seen from the balcony, designed by Eduardo Villa. All around us people are delightedly munching, drinking, chatting. The friend nods amicably, a cheerful smidge of chimichurri on his chin. I can be such an urban bore about Jozi. DM/TGIFood

The Playground, 73 Juta Street (though the entrance is in De Beer). Open Saturdays from 9am to 6pm.

Follow Marie-Lais Emond on Instagram @marielaisemond

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.  marie-


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