Johannesburg's inner city is notorious – except for Maboneng. Creative artists live in this hip precinct, tourists stroll through it and the rich party here. But just a street away, abject poverty prevails.
On pastel-colored garden chairs under olive trees, young, well-dressed South Africans sit drinking smoothies. Passers-by of all ethnicities walk by, laden with files, shopping bags and selfie sticks – even though this is the middle of Johannesburg, one of the most dangerous cities in South Africa.
In the 1990s, the city's center was abandoned. Its decay is considered a consequence of the apartheid regime, after the end of which businesses moved to the suburbs and left many empty buildings. Many were taken over by squatters. To this day most people live in disgraceful conditions. In addition, a crime wave swept through Johannesburg and its center became a no-go area.
Then urban entrepreneur Jonathan Liebmann came along. Now 35, he began to buy property in the notorious city center in 2009, and created his own precinct between Jeppestown and the inner-city suburb of Doornfontein. He called it Maboneng, which means "place of light" in Sotho. It all began with the Arts on Main creative complex, which contains small galleries, boutiques, cafés and apartments.
In 2010, David Durbach, who owns the Afrosynth record shop, was one of the first to move in. "I didn't want to live in a traditional district, behind walls, separated according to origin and income. I looked for a place where the most diverse people live well together," he explains. "Maboneng has its own vibe, inspiring and almost magical."
The streets of Maboneng are especially full on Sundays. The Arts on Main food market is fragrant with the scents of regional spices; people push their way through the small hall, past the colorful stalls, enjoying freshly squeezed juices and ice cream. The market is so popular that another one has developed on Fox Street in front of it.
From no-go area to hipster neighborhood
Here in the heart of Maboneng anyone can take a carefree stroll past the many street artworks, drink a coffee In Living Room, a rooftop eco-café, shop for clothes at local designers in NewBrow, and enjoy typical African dishes in Pata Pata. You'll look in vain for major American chains. "We want to support local products and ideas," says Bheki Dube. At 26, he's an entrepreneur, hostel owner and member of the Maboneng Civic Association. "Because the city does nothing, several residents got together," says Bheki. He says the mayor endorses the association. "99 percent of the costs are borne privately, from street cleaning to landscaping to security guards."
They stand on every street corner here, including in front of Bheki's hostel, Curiocity Backpackers. The welcoming building is at the beginning of Fox Street, where Maboneng begins. In the hostel, Johannesburg industrial design meets the world: it's the first stop for backpackers and solo travelers. Just a street away, things look very different: shattered window panes instead of freshly-painted walls, piles of trash instead of tubs of flowers, scrap collectors instead of hipsters.
The other side of the coin: on this corner near Fox Street, nothing hints at the hip precinct nearby
The two faces of Johannesburg
"It would be a lie to say there are no tensions," says Bheki, who comes from this area himself and is the son of a single mother, "but they're part of the transformation. If we don't start projects like Maboneng, no one will do so and nothing will improve." Affordable rents aim to give people the opportunity to start their own businesses in Maboneng. The target group is young entrepreneurs and creatives. The traditional residents, who often live in vacated buildings, can't afford the rents.
"Gentrification is a sensitive issue in South Africa," says Robert Chifunyise, hotel manager in Hallmark House, a former diamond polishing factory from the 1970s. Now it's a stylish building with something different on each floor: a hotel, apartments, a jazz bar, a café and soon a rooftop bar. "There are many vacant and unoccupied buildings in Maboneng, Hallmark House was one of them. Nobody was thrown out here."
Although much has been done in the district, Johannesburg's inner city's reputation is improving only gradually. “Locals are more frightened than tourists. Europeans in particular like to come here,” says Robert. “They're used to walking through city centers.” They can do that in Maboneng.
After sunset the streets in Maboneng are still full. Stylishly-clad people flock to the bars and clubs, where they can party without worrying, and it seems as if the only problem is choosing the right drink. "Maboneng is a role model for all of Africa. Here we live in a community and everyone is welcome," says Bheki Dube. Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy.