JOHANNESBURG — Johannesburg dates its beginnings to the discovery of gold in 1886. Its downtown, where skyscrapers tower over deep mines, was abandoned by business in recent decades, and squatters turned the office towers into high-rise slums. But now, as the city celebrates its 125th birthday, creative South Africans are seeing gold in warehouses and cheap office space, and they're revitalizing neighborhoods with galleries, museums, shops, studios, clubs and restaurants.
When Fiona Rankin-Smith was making plans to renovate an office building to house a major new museum, she thought she'd be building a lonely outpost for art in gritty central Johannesburg. But nine years and 38 million rand (about $4.7 million) later, as she prepared to move nearly 10,000 African paintings, sculpture and other pieces out of storage and into the sleek new Wits Art Museum, she finds South Africa's economic hub is returning to its roots.
"There's this whole groundswell," said Rankin-Smith, the Wits' curator, as she surveyed the lively street scene on downtown's west side from her building's glass walls.
When the museum opens early next year in the Braamfontein neighborhood, its neighbors will include private galleries drawn to the area in part by plans for the Wits, which is owned by Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.
One side of the glass and concrete museum features brickwork that resembles basketweave. Brass knobs dot another facade covered in blue tiles from the 1970s-era building's original exterior, a pattern inspired by Zulu beadwork from the museum that incorporated British brass buttons.
Like much of downtown Johannesburg, Rankin-Smith says the museum is inspired by its past, and optimistic about the future. "There's these subtle references that refer back all the time," Rankin-Smith said.
Johannesburg's nickname is Egoli or "city of gold," and antiquarian book dealer Jonathan Klass says downtown draws its resilience from the energy that made it a mining capital and from "'its ability to change."
"People are accepting the change and trying to create the change and go with it," he said, "rather than trying to live in the past."
Collectors Treasury, the shop started by Klass, his brother Geoff and their late mother, has had homes in several buildings in and around central Johannesburg since 1974. The brothers have seen other attempts to revive downtown, and praise the latest because it is bringing back residents as well as business. An area that was a business district for whites under apartheid now is home to a vibrant multinational, multiracial community, including Africans from elsewhere on the continent.
Collectors Treasury's home since 1991 is a hoarder's paradise, eight stories of books and other antiques in the former headquarters of a company that imported printing presses. It's located at the gateway of an eastern downtown neighborhood developers call Maboneng Precinct. Maboneng means "place of light" in Sotho, one of South Africa's 11 official languages.
Renowned South African artist William Kentridge, whose grandfather once had law offices in downtown Johannesburg, has moved into a studio in a complex of Maboneng warehouses that now houses hip shops and apartments. The neighborhood has an art house cinema.
New York-born musician Joao Orecchia organized a series of concerts in Maboneng over the last year in not-quite renovated buildings. Audiences climbing six stories to a rooftop for one concert could see the rubble of what had been the elevator from the staircase wrapped around the shaft. Once on the roof, they were captivated by the view, Orecchia said. And while the site was forbidding then, the building will soon be renovated into homes and studios for musicians and artists, he said.
Artists "aren't afraid to come and find a space and do something," Orecchia said. "As an artist, you almost have an obligation to contribute to that picture of what Johannesburg is."
Trendy clubs and restaurants are popping up to serve gallery hoppers. At Randlords, safari chic decor of antelope skin rugs and beads is livened by flashes of humor, like framed lacy panties at the ladies' room door and framed briefs at the men's.
The club on the roof of a 22-story office tower was named to evoke the mining magnates who made their fortunes on the rand — or ridge — of rock underpinning Johannesburg. It opened as a bar when the World Cup soccer games came to South Africa in 2010. Now it hosts private parties, and the occasional cocktail evening open to the public.
Margeaux Swartz, a 27-year-old Johannesburg native who works for South Point, the property company that developed Randlords, said she's seen wary looks on the faces of guests who park in the building garage and are whisked 22 stories to the club in an express elevator.
"Your initial reaction when you're coming into the area is, like, 'Lock your doors. Be careful,'" Swartz said. "But the minute you come up here ... it's so inspiring. And you're at ease."
Randlord's walls are glass, so visitors feel they can almost step into the sweeping view. To the south, almost blending into the man-made mountains of mining waste, is the 90,000-seat stadium the shape and color of a traditional African clay pot built for the World Cup. Just beyond the stadium is Soweto, the township that was a dormitory for blacks under apartheid, with its iconic sites tracing the history of the struggle against racist rule, including a former home of Nelson Mandela.
The Nelson Mandela Bridge stretches from the foot of Randlords across a river of railway tracks to Newtown, a performing arts hub. Newer dance and concert venues have been established around Newtown's venerable Market Theatre, where political plays for interracial audiences once challenged apartheid thinking.
All these sites are easy to reach thanks to a rapid bus system known as Rea Vaya that got up and running in time for the World Cup. Soon a central station on the bus routes will be connected to a new light rail to the airport.
Laura Vercueil, spokeswoman for Johannesburg's tourism promotion agency, traces the city's renewal to 1994, when apartheid ended, and planners began dismantling strict regulations that had zoned the city center for whites and for business. Now, business, residential and entertainment mix along with the races.
Vercueil encourages foreigners and locals alike to discover the city, either by hopping on and off Rea Vaya buses, or on foot with one of the city's new walking tour businesses. Urban pioneers can shop for everything from African herbal remedies to high fashion from local designers. They can marvel at the array of art deco buildings, take in a show at the Market or Braamfontein's civic theater, and lunch at Guildhall, a pub that's almost as old as the city.
"A lot of the reluctance to venture downtown has to do with perceptions of crime, and some of those are quite real," Vercueil said. But she said local government is "working to clean up the city and make it a safe and more desirable place."
Rose Sizini, a 27-year-old bank marketing manager, was recently browsing a local designer's clothes at a market in a garage near the soon-to-be-completed Wits Art Museum. She said she was drawn by an "artistic flair" she hoped more people would experience.
"They need to come here and explore it," she said.
Johannesburg, like cities around the world, is struggling to get the balance right, making a city center that is comfortable for the affluent as well as the poor and struggling middle classes who have made downtown their home since apartheid ended. And there is still plenty of work to be done.Comment on this story
Curator Rankin-Smith nodded at broken windows in the floors above the space she has renovated for the Wits Art Museum.
"Hopefully," she said, "we've started something."
If You Go...
WITS ART MUSEUM: http://www.wits.ac.za/wam/2826/wam.html
DOWNTOWN WALKING TOURS: http://pastexperiences.co.za
COLLECTORS TREASURY: http://www.antiqbook.com/bookdealer.phtml?o=collectorstreasury
Associated Press Writer Anita Powell in Johannesburg contributed to this report.