Sitting on a rooftop surrounded by leafy fronds that burst from an impressive living wall, sipping craft beer and grazing on meze wasn’t how I expected my first few hours in inner-city Johannesburg to be.
The Living Room is a bar that dubs itself “Johannesburg’s premier eco venue” and it is my final stop on a walking tour of Maboneng Precinct with Curiocity Backpackers. Some may baulk at the idea of walking in Johannesburg, yet guide Tshepo and I have strolled around some of the highlights including an industrial-style Argentinian restaurant, Ethiopian cafes – apparently garnering a dedicated following – quirky art galleries and even a new block of flats built from shipping containers stacked like Lego bricks.
The area wasn’t always such a hipster hub of arts and creativity however. I learn that when a period of uncertainty ensued following the end of apartheid in 1994, this part of Johannesburg’s east side experienced high crime rates as companies and middle-class residents moved out to the northern suburbs and buildings became derelict.
“You wouldn’t come here, it was one of the most dangerous parts of the city,” says Tshepo.
But in 2008, a young entrepreneur called Jonathan Liebmann, chief executive and founder of Propertuity, instigated a revolution, both in terms of the area’s physical buildings and the mindsets of Johannesburg’s residents.
Liebmann’s innovative property development company states its passion “lies in identifying and solving the urban challenges faced by African cities” and in this area now known as Maboneng it focuses on the arts. It even commissioned a mural of Nelson Mandela on a 10-storey building (pictured right) as a gift to the city.
Arts on Main was the first major development for Propertuity. Originally a stretch of five derelict warehouses, it is now a hub for creative talent. Tshepo says I should have visited on a Sunday when it is home to Market on Main, with food stalls and craft vendors that attract people from all over the city.
“On Sundays these streets are full of people drinking and dancing and socialising,” he says.
But Liebmann’s vision didn’t stop there. Propertuity redeveloped a couple of new buildings each year – careful to consider the area’s social fabric and encouraging creative talent to move into the area.
There’s Trim Park – a public outdoor gym – and Common Ground, a park with a playground for inner-city kids that repurposes pipes from Johannesburg’s mines. One of the latest developments is Hallmark House, home to a boutique hotel.
Maboneng means “place of light” in the Sesotho language and as I walk I can see it is illuminating a new view of Johannesburg – both for its own residents and visitors keen to experience the urban buzz of South Africa’s largest city.