The tail end of a fire smouldered in the middle of Lily Avenue, whose surface hadn’t seen a maintenance crew in years. As the Merc negotiated crevasses and stop signs, I took in my surroundings; satellite dishes hanging off the balconies of fading apartment blocks, cavernous grocery stores that discouraged further inspection, and a backlog of rubbish waiting to be taken away. A pall of neglect hung over the area like a temperature inversion in need of a stiff wind.
Earlier in the day my brother-in-law, whose car we were using, had waved away our concern about any risk to the Merc. ‘They won’t be interested in it. You’d be more vulnerable driving a newish four-door Golf in a place like that.’
That place was Berea, where today – a Monday – the street scene oozed idle time. I scanned the quantum of humanity leaning against low walls, chatting in small groups, or just staring at nothing in particular. Those who crossed the road seemed to be moving in slow motion. Most were men. They are not from here, I’d thought.
The inner Johannesburg suburb of Berea was subdivided for housing in the 1890s, its proximity to transport links, the city centre and job opportunities making it a desirable place to live. An aspirant Jewish middle class moved in during the early twentieth century at a time when detached dwellings were the predominant housing form. It stayed that way until new zoning laws in the 1960s opened up the area to high rise. Apartment blocks started to creep in among the low rise, creating a bar-chart landscape of residential development.
While many had moved out to larger and leafier properties, a core group of the Jewish community remained, anchored by the familiar props of family life: the school and the place of worship. They were joined by an influx of European immigrants, a cohort accustomed to renting and high density living. These artisan dwellers added a flourish to the cosmopolitan culture that would make the adjacent suburb of Hillbrow the entertainment magnet for white Johannesburg in the sixties and seventies.
Towards the close of the 1970s the inner city’s demography started to change. The vacancy created by Europeans and white investors moving out of suburbs like Berea was filled by a steady stream of coloured, Indian and then black people. With this shift came predatory landlords, rent hikes, and overcrowding; and a cavalier attitude towards building and infrastructure maintenance.
Twenty years later a new rush of immigrants – this time from outside South Africa – arrived on Berea’s doorstep. It was these people I’d seen on the streets: Zimbabweans, Congolese, Nigerians, Somalis, drawn to South Africa and the city of gold – eGoli – by the promise of political and economic salvation. Many came without papers. It didn’t matter that South Africa’s unemployment rate – anywhere up to 40% depending on whom you speak to – meant that the best step up they could hope for was a rung on the informal sector ladder.
I reminded myself that I didn’t really need to be here. At my Sydney desktop a few weeks earlier, I’d keyed 73 Alexandra Street into Google Maps. The Street View image had shown a pale pink stucco façade where once naked brick looked out to the street. The original iron roof had vacated for an expanse of dull brown concrete tiles and I saw that the capping on the western ridge line terminated a few feet short of the gutter.
Several decades ago someone had knocked out the timber window frame in the front bedroom and installed two steel-framed casement windows on either side of a central fixed pane. The whole lot was guarded by an alternating pattern of criss-cross and grid-like bars, behind which one of those thin lace curtains – the kind that allows undetected surveillance from within – was loosely drawn across the width of the windows.
In place of the mesh front gate was a two-level metal ‘barrier’ with rectangular gap at eye level, fortified by another metal grid that conjured up Hannibal Lecter’s mask in Silence of the Lambs. Whitewashed walls flanked the gate; they could have done with a lick of paint.
The only remnant that dated the house was the front gable. Even this had been tinkered with; a panel of vertical slats had been installed above the stucco wall with its inverted widow’s peak, a design feature that didn’t quite pull off the intended symmetry with the gable’s form. One of the fascia boards was missing, revealing an interlocking network of roof tiles. The other hung on forlornly, as if knowing it would soon suffer the same fate.
I’m cheating a little. I have a photograph of the house that was my grandfather’s last address in Johannesburg. And while this image from almost a hundred years ago doesn’t show the front of that house, it does show the one next door.
I love this blemished and scratched photograph as much for the story it tells as the fact that it is the only one I have of Harry’s little family together. They are standing in the front yard of the house at 73 Alexandra Street, squinting into the afternoon sun. Opposite them I imagine a photographer peering through the lens of one of those foldaway cameras. I’ve dated the photograph at around 1920.
They have dressed up for the occasion. My aunt Julia, barely a teenager, has embraced the knee-high fashion of the post-war period, while my grandmother is more comfortable in a long-sleeve blouse and ankle-length skirt. Harry, who stands several inches shorter than his wife, is in a work suit with a handkerchief peeking out from a breast pocket. His face is creased with worry; I wonder if it is a financial problem or the nephritis that would have by now colonised his kidneys? My father, a flop-haired boy of seven or eight, wears the hint of a smile, providing some relief to a portrait of an otherwise sombre family. In Dad’s arms is a shaggy dog that could pass for one of those hybrids people pay a small fortune for today.
I felt the pressure of my seatbelt as the Merc misjudged a rut in the road. We turned left into Alexandra Street, a one-way going east. I counted the numbers from the intersection, the Street View etched in my memory. I hadn’t anticipated that number 73 would look worse than it did when the Google Maps camera went past in 2010. ‘No photo necessary. Let’s get out of here!’ This place had been humiliated enough without having me add to its shame.
We crossed a freeway named after Joe Slovo and double backed over it into a one-way street bearing Barney Barnato’s name. Both Jewish, I’d thought, and yet so different; a communist hero of the apartheid struggle and future minister in the Mandela government, and a British entrepreneur who made a fortune out of diamonds and gold, and then lost it. Both had humble beginnings. Perhaps not so different.
We turned back onto Lily Avenue. The smouldering fire had dwindled and, if anything, so had the humanity engaged in their daily ritual of passing time. I totted up the stop streets as we approached Louis Botha Avenue, a permeable thoroughfare that would transition us out of this world and into its polar opposite. Six stop streets for a 500-metre stretch of pitted and potholed roadway. They hardly seemed worth it.
I’ll confess something else: I lifted the title of this post from a book I read a year or two ago. I would have liked to have called it Lost and Found in Johannesburg, but Mark Gevisser got there first with his poetic and, at times, melancholy memoir about the city of his youth. Our respective journeys intersect in many ways. We both grew up in apartheid South Africa, children of comfortable Jewish families. Each of us had a grandmother called Gertie; his was one of the key catalysts for Mark’s interest in why Johannesburg developed the way it did. Both of us left to go and live somewhere else. Neither of us has let go of the country we once called home.
While Berea has fallen from grace, the value of land close to city centres dictates that it won’t be that way forever. Urban renewal may take years or decades to fruit, but it will happen. Green shoots are already visible in the Maboneng district, a few kilometres to the south. With its funky cafés, slick art galleries and recycled containers, Maboneng is a sign of things that may be to come for suburbs like Berea. Repairing urban infrastructure and giving new life to ailing buildings is the tonic that makes people want to go there for work, to live or just for a coffee. In such transformations the incumbent population is almost always forced to look elsewhere for shelter. This is one of the less benevolent byproducts of gentrification. I’ve seen it happen before.
Unlike my Federation-era Sydney house and street, protected by a swag of conversation controls that are at the same time both a blessing and a curse, there is nothing that should prevent the eventual demise of 73 Alexandra Street and the houses around it. Other than as a nod to the precinct’s social history, they possess no intrinsic physical qualities that warrant their preservation. I am reconciled with the fact that I may have seen the house where my grandfather – and father – once lived, for the last time. And I prefer to remember it thus.