Stories, Subcultures

Newtown After Dark: The Testing Ground For Joburg’s Future

Featured Image - Newtown Subcultures

Much of Johannesburg’s identity has been cultivated in the dark. Its enchantment came from deep in the hollows of the mines, spilling over into night-time playhouses. In the early decades, Johannesburg was a city of bars, canteens and brothels: of drinking, gambling, racial mixing and transactional sex. Discoveries of gold drew diggers from the ‘Cape Colony’ and ‘Natal’; later skilled mineworkers from Britain, Australia, the US and Europe; and finally, labourers from across Southern Africa.

As in the mines, the dark has a way of unearthing things. Night-histories exhume uncut narratives of a city’s people, drawn together by cartographies of desire — for money, sex, escape, experiment.

Johannesburg’s urban night-times began in the spaces strung between what is now ‘Newtown’ and ‘Maboneng’: the vertical slice from Museum Africa in the North down to the Standard Bank Building in the South. In the late 1800’s, this area was called ‘Frenchfontein’, sometimes characterized as the ‘swinging city’. Business extended from the early morning till late in the night, with high revenues translating into higher rentals, ultimately pushing many working and lower-middle-class families out of the CBD.

The spaces in and around what we now call Newtown’ have had many lives, with whole communities buried and new ones taking root: cycles of burning and regeneration. Yet amidst the multiple iterations is an uneven thread that can be traced back to its origins: a collision of diverse peoples wrestling and re-imagining the meaning of the city.

It was a place of bricklayers and industrial workers; Chinese shopkeepers; Indian hawkers; Malays; Afrikaans peasants; and European immigrants. In 1904, Newtown’s ‘interracial slum’, then known as ‘Brickfields’, was evacuated and burned to the ground, following an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The relocation of Brickfields residents made way for a brand of racially-segregated ‘modernization’, aimed at transforming the area into a commercial and industrial zone. By the second half of the 1900s, forced removals from the inner-city coupled with slowly growing commercial centres in Randburg and Sandton contributed to Newtown’s decline, leaving a trail of industrial ruins.

From the mid-70s, squatters moved into Turbine Hall. The ‘decline’ sparked an artist insurgency, transforming Newtown into a site of cultural activism and artistic production, centred around the Market Theatre. Kippies jazz club, founded in the mid 1980s, became the most notable among several thriving bars.

In the 1990s, amid an accelerating exodus of white property owners and residents from the inner-city, young ravers occupied Newtown’s former industrial spaces. European cultural debris was again scattered through the dark: the old silos pumping electronica from London’s club scene. As racist restrictions on movement relaxed, black migrants rushed to the inner-city from across the province, country and continent, sometimes occupying abandoned property.

Post-apartheid ‘regeneration’, particularly in the lead-up to the World Cup, would instigate a wave of all-too-familiar evictions. Newtown, given its burgeoning artist community was identified as a site for renewal. At the millennium, squatters were evicted from Turbine Hall. Soon after, Nelson Mandela Bridge was built: now an illuminated landmark of our night-lives. Ten Newtown streets were named after the artists that had provided its after-dark soundtrack.

For a while, Newtown was a thriving tourist hub, propelled by its after-dark venues. Ko’Spotong played underground hip-hop. Sophiatown, celebrating sites of multicultural history, erupted with Jazz. The best of the city’s musicians performed at The Bassline. Kaldi’s Coffee (now Matlombe Lounge) provided the backdrop for live reggae. The parks bustled with cyphers and jam sessions; and the Horror Café gave platform to a palimpsest of musical genres. “Newtown was like a first step back into the city” said former party-planner and DJ Marc Latilla. “This was before Braamfontein or Maboneng as we know it today”.

The Johannesburg Development Agency set about ‘upscaling the area’, increasing upmarket accommodation, developing a new mall, and ultimately pushing up prices. The ‘Red Ants’ removals that led to this development were the backdrop to Steven Cohen‘s performance of ‘Chandelier‘. The cultural precinct has withered. While some blame neoliberal ‘regeneration’, others attribute the decline to a lack of private investment in Newtown, and too much publically-owned land. Either way, many of Newtown’s artists and long-term residents have left. Once-iconic night venues have closed: most recently, The Bassline.

Today, night-time on Gwi Gwi Mrwebi street reverberates its own history. Overlaying communities come to contest the inner-city and their place in it. As in the late 19th century, the story of Newtown after dark is one of a city-in-the-making — its future still up for grabs.

Each Thursday, up to 1000 followers descend on Admiral and Jah Seed’s ragga nights: recently relocated from Bassline to Carfax. Among the crowd are a strong contingent of African migrants: particularly Zimbabweans, for whom reggae has become the independence soundtrack — Bob Marley’s gift to the nation. Theirs is a history linked to Jo’burg’s population of African immigrants, although the high entrance fees create significant barriers to access.

Unparalleled in its versatility, Carfax has hosted a kaleidoscope of music genres, drawing partygoers from a widely-cast cartography. To the left of Carfax, And Club attracts a predominantly-white audience from the Northern suburbs, who come for techno immersion, engaged in a sonic dialogue with the electronic music scenes of London, Berlin, and historically, Detroit, in which the inner city has been a primary protagonist. To the right of Carfax is Antidote, with its largely Coloured audience. Here, the dancefloor is usually engulfed in commercial house and hip-hop: circles of smoke from standing hookah pipes ascending to its lofty VIP section.

Some who frequent And Club for Thursday night Drum and Bass told me they never even knew that African Storm’s Ragga Nights existed. These are two mutually oblivious contingents of proximate partygoers, like strangers passing in the night. But Carfax and its adjacent venues are spilling their audiences onto the street — amidst the cars, the barricades, the yelling night-guards. Audiences collide on the road, fall into an adjacent venue, meet in the queues, stand alongside one another waiting for their ride.

As inner-city gentrification takes hold across the globe, there are very few cities marked by encounters like this. Johannesburg still retains a multiplicity of significations: the Afropolis of Yeoville and Hillbrow, the students of Braamfontein, the hipsters of Maboneng, the working-class taverns, the high-end cocktail bars, the artists’ dens all still existing, in tension, alongside one another.

Newtown’s history can be weaved with a global narrative of inner-city contestation in which nightlife plays an indelible role. Club culture was born of the inner-cities: an assemblage of musical influences and abandoned urban spaces come together in response to the working-class condition: desire, danger and dissent colliding in capitalism’s feeder-neighbourhoods. But this (party)stry has also signaled the first waves of ‘renewal’ in inner-cities across the world. As in London and New York, many music venues become priced out of their newly-popular neighbourhoods. along with residents. And night venues, with their grime and noise, become ‘unattractive’ to commercial and residential interests.

In Johannesburg, many worry that the poor and working class will be increasingly pushed from the city, that the urban aesthetic will be homogenised, that commerce will supersede art, that the ‘safety’ of some will come at the cost of ‘terrorising’ others. Through the dance and music of Newtown, a spectrum of inner-city night-dwellers are again re-negotiating how to move with, and alongside, one another.

In doing so, they signal the possibilities and frictions of the city’s potential futures.

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