Ponte City – a beacon of hope in downtown Johannesburg

Towering over the Jozi skyline, Ponte City commands attention like a beacon. The vast cylindrical structure, 54 stories high, is loved and hated in equal measure.

The iconic Ponte (r) lights up Johannesburg nigh sky. (Image: Julian Schroeder)

Melissa Jane-Cook

It is tough to ignore. A massive flashing advertisement for mobile phone company Vodacom tops the building – though ironically there is no signal in Ponte itself. The ad contains 11 kilometres of neon tubing and will dominate the skyline until 2015. The contract reportedly brings in R500 000 a month.

Ponte has had a chequered history. Once the home of the elite white, hip and young urban dwellers, it fell into disrepair along with the rest of Joburg’s flatlands in Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville. It became a haven for crime, and a home for desperate refugees escaping their country’s strife. But after several failed attempts at rejuvenation, today, Ponte is an upgraded and positive space.

Watch Philip Bloom’s mini-documentary on Ponte:

It may have been a no-go area, but two white guys with a dream, journalist Nickolaus Bauer and strategy consultant Mike Lupak, moved into Ponte’s penthouses with a plan. They are part of the area’s metamorphosis and want to change the way people not only view Ponte, but the inner city as a whole. The suburb of Hillbrow rests on a massive ridge that snakes its way to Constitution Hill, along the northern edge of the CBD.

Together Bauer and Lupak created Dlala Nje, a games arcade for the youth. They also run guided walks out of the arcade around this infamous territory. Through this, they hope to dispel the negative perceptions of Ponte that still linger.

Signs of promise and growth

Standing at Ponte, waiting for the tour to begin, tourists had their cameras at the ready, eager to take photographs of the round building that was once arguably Johannesburg’s most notorious space, tossed aside like a discarded mistress. Not any more – it has been renovated and revitalised. No longer a haven for drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes and others who trawl the underbelly of society, Ponte is showing signs of promise and growth.

Ponte is the tallest residential building in Johannesburg, and is architecturally significant. It is cylindrical in shape, with an unusual hollow inner core, and is one of the city’s most striking urban landmarks. It was designed by architect Rodney Grosskopff, who also designed other landmarks such as the Johannesburg Theatre Complex, and was completed in 1975. The building is finished with a rough, grey concrete look, called hacked concrete, and is in a style referred to as New Brutalism. In its prime, Ponte City was one of Joburg’s most sought-after addresses.

Lupak, the guide and co-owner of Dlala Nje, says this space is where the magic happens. “Unfortunately Hillbrow and Ponte still suffer a barrage of negative publicity. There is still a lot of angst and animosity and people are told to steer clear or they will be robbed, hijacked or worse. We just want to change the perception of this building in the eyes of the rest of Joburg.”

Africa’s New York

In the 1970s, while the black youth were fighting for a right to education, Ponte City was housing the elite. The six penthouses came fitted with wine cellars, saunas, patio braai areas and roof decks. Under the Group Areas Act, Hillbrow was a white area, and only white people were legally allowed to stay at Ponte City, although the region itself was a grey area, so-called because the act was less strictly enforced here by the apartheid government.

The building’s black staff were the only people legally allowed to live in Ponte. But they lived on the very top floors – the highest point in the city – with tiny windows out of which it was impossible to see. “We had some mad by-laws in those days,” says Grosskopff. “The [window] sills had to be above six foot [1.8m] so that they [the black staff] couldn’t look out at the white apartments.”

Ponte City was built with convenience and accessibility in mind. The ground floor housed shops, hairdressers, a bowling alley, and a concert venue, and whatever was not available in the building was just a short drive away. And for a while it was a popular place to live. But in the early 1980s investment in the suburb dried up and maintenance stopped. This led to an exodus of middle class residents and the decay of major buildings. By the 1990s, the whole of Hillbrow was a slum.

Just before the transition to democracy, as the apartheid laws were revoked, the suburb became home to many young black South Africans, who were entering the city after a lifetime restricted to the surrounding townships. Hitting rock bottom, these once grey areas were now populated by migrants earning minimum wage, or no wage at all. The buildings were hijacked and severely dilapidated; they were breeding grounds for crime and grime. Gangs controlled streets, buildings, drugs and prostitutes.

Reconditioning derelict building

Residents of that era claim the 11th and 12th floors of Ponte City were stripped bare. Both were brothels and drug dens, used as a thoroughfare for those in search of anything ranging from an acid trip to a blow job. Then, in 1995, Kempston, a trucking and logistics company, bought the derelict building in the hope of reconditioning it and returning it to its former glory. But sadly, as time went on Hillbrow went from bad to worse. It became known as Africa’s first vertical urban slum.

It presided over the death of dreams as tens of thousands of migrants flooded into the city in search of an elusive better life. And Ponte had more than its fair share of suicides. The exact number of people who have jumped from the 54-storey building since its construction in 1975 is unknown, but at one point Ponte was known as “suicide central”.

The government approached Kempston with an idea to turn Ponte into a prison. It was quickly rejected as no-one liked the idea of the Joburg skyline boasting the largest residential building converted into a prison.

In 2001, Kempston managed to drag the building back from oblivion. Employing the services of Elma and Danie Celliers, a husband-and-wife management team, Ponte was given new hope. They moved in to clear up, clean up and renovate. Residents had spent years throwing their rubbish down the inside and a rubbish dump piled three stories high; dead animals and humans were discovered in the filth during a massive clean-up in early 2002.

The Celliers made substantial headway and Ponte became a safe, low-cost living space with 97% occupancy.

Second attempt

In 2007, at the height of the property boom, developers David Selvan and Noor Addine Ayyoub arrived on the scene. They knocked out and stripped floors 11 to 34, moved 1 500 residents out and were ready to completely renovate the building. But their soaring ambitions came crashing down in the 2008 financial global meltdown. Several contractors, as well as a handful of would-be residents or investors who had bought into the venture ahead of the planned first-phase occupancy, were left out of pocket and were forced to jump ship.

The end result was that Ponte was left in yet another mess.

Reclaiming Ponte City

Of the 467 flats in the building, just more than 40 were occupied when reconstruction finally ceased. By 2009, Kempston wanted a sustainable return on its investment. It took an active stance and refurbished the whole building. Now, for the first time since 1976, the building is 100% occupied.

By late 2011, almost all 54 floors had been redone, many from scratch, with approximately two kilometres of electrical wiring and sanitary piping used on each floor. Possibly the toughest task fell to Quinton Oosthuizen, the construction and maintenance manager, as he led the team clearing out the notorious core.

The biggest financial burden was the installation of eight new lifts to replace the decades-old death-traps that stalked up and down the building. Strict security was implemented, such as around-the-clock guarding and diametric fingerprint access at all entry points. To gain access into the building you have to get through turnstiles, which are very strictly monitored to control who comes in and goes out, who comes up and goes down. One thing that has not changed, though, are the utterly magnificent 360-degree views of the city from the 52nd floor.

“Hillbrow is re-energised,” says Lupak. “It’s a very different place. It is still dangerous but the focus is on the fact that it is so greatly changed.”

Ponte City is becoming a beacon of hope in a deprived area. Lupak says it is run very tightly. These days, the building is occupied not by criminal gangs and brothels but by ordinary people, South Africans and immigrants, with hopes and dreams of a better future. There is a range of affordable flats to rent – you cannot own property in Ponte. It is home to more than 3 000 black people, between 500 and 600 children and about 12 white people.

There is a mix of families and single professionals ranging from waiters to administrators. Rentals vary from R2 000 a month for a pad on the 11th floor to R3 700 for a three-bedroom flat on the 34th floor and R4 500 for a two-bedroom penthouse on the 51st floor, complete with marble tiles and modern kitchen with granite countertops. A weekly newsletter is circulated to all residents informing them of the latest developments in the building as well as suggestions on how to keep things tidy.

They are needed: the core may have been cleared out but residents continue to use it as an informal rubbish dump, throwing out their used condoms, empty KFC buckets, tatty weaves, stale pap and razor blades.

Ponte has become a safe, low-cost living space with 97% occupancy. (Image: fiverlocker, Flickr)

Let’s just play

Dlala Nje, which means “just play” in isiZulu, created by Bauer and Lupak, is devoted to the children of the Ponte community, as well as to turning around perceptions of the much-maligned building and surrounding suburb.

Up to 800 children live in the block during the week. Until Dlala Nje opened, there had been no focus on recreation for children. The centre is buzzing, bright and cheerful. Children can play pool, football or video games, or just hang out. The walls are covered in art and on one a chalk-drawn advertisement invites them to join the karate lessons on offer. In summer, there are swimming lessons at the Ponte pool, which for years was unused.

Lupak and Bauer want to explore activities from which children can benefit. Their mission is to provide an under-resourced community with a platform and exposure that will ultimately facilitate social change through education, art and support. They are both keen to immerse themselves in this under-resourced community and change people’s ideas through their youth empowerment programme. They want to offer projects that will unlock creative talent, so people can have a better life and get off the streets.

“We are just two guys with a dream,” says Bauer. “We created a place for the kids to play, though it’s not solely about that. Dlala Nje is about changing the perception of this building in the eyes of the rest of Johannesburg. That’s why we have tours every weekend and have special events in the surrounding area. There is a massive metamorphosis going on. Everyone is coming back to the city.

“Communities are the lifeblood of any city. If they are incorporated in an inclusive and diverse manner, they can be beneficial to a city’s fabric,” he adds.

Ponte is integral to the regeneration of inner city Johannesburg. (Image:fiverlocker, Flickr)

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