Maboneng Precinct

A Trendy Post-Industrial, Post-Apartheid Paradise?

Transformed city spaces can take abandoned areas and turn them into urban magnets--but gentrification has its flip side.

Maboneng, its name a Sotho word meaning “place of light,” has been rapidly growing at about 3 times the rate of South Africa's standard of about +6% annually. Located in Johannesburg's Central Business District (CBD), the district was cut from a section known as Jeppestown, and is situated between two major streets, Commissioner and Marshall. It served as a beacon of hope for the once-abandoned eastern margin of Johannesburg's CBD, now breathing with new life.

It still holds many uncertainties, since it remains in the fairly new stages of development after a decade-plus. With a rising demand for trendy, urban property, the threat of exile for those who cannot afford to live under new pricing looms overhead, and the initial boom has been tempered by liquidated investments.

Like many South African cities, apartheid's end had led non-whites to leave their mandated neighborhoods and migrate into the cities themselves. In Johannesburg, the industrial neighborhoods were an affordable option, since they had declined in the 1970s. As they moved in, demographics shifted further. Many whites who were living near, working in, or investing in these industrial areas fled, along with their money. Economic failure resulted from the closing of industries, resulting in dilapidated structures and a general rise in crime.

Jonathan Liebmann, the entrepreneur who headed Propertuity Development Company (backed by Jonathan Beare) when he was still in his twenties, instigated Maboneng's revitalization efforts. He bought some empty buildings in 2008/09, revamped them, and rented out small-scale studio space artists such as William Kentridge and Mikhael Subotzky, as well to design firms. The artists' followers started gravitating towards their studios, generating cultural buzz. The district’s growth as an attraction led to activities such as Arts on Main and Market on Main—weekly food, shopping, and art sales held in and around the warehouses let to Maboneng's founding artists. Liebmann privately developed most of "Maboneng"--38+ structures.

Liebmann's plan was to create an artistic, entrepreneurial, and social incubator that would bring together a mix of people with differing ethnic, educational, and economic backgrounds. Providing varied kinds of spaces where they could interact and form new connections fit with a new idealism in the post-apartheid era.

However, stylish new architecture and even the choice of signage fonts created a divide with an exclusionary effect on those not part of the integrated middle and upper classes. The Africanization of the district's name suggests a cultural blessing even as physical appropriation of space grows. The illuminated sign that stamps the Precinct with that name stretches across Kruger Street. It acts as a beacon for photos, reinforcing the curated characterization of the neighborhood and its trendsetting goals.

Local artists took most of the creative control in transforming the district, much as they did in industrial areas of New York City, like SoHo, Chelsea, or DUMBO. Not only were old industrial buildings being renovated and used by artists, but their exteriors served as canvases for street art. All in all, this “culture-led” revitalization offered innovation, collaboration, and development efforts that may have very well sustained the cosmopolitan, visionary neighborhood of modern desire—for some.

The neighborhood's retail investments increased demand for new or repurposed structures. With its close proximity to transportation, Maboneng became a booming retail center, equipped with fashion boutiques, malls, and houseware shops. Increased international travel to Maboneng for shopping day trips by Zimbabweans, Malawians, and Zambians brings in new consumers.

Many small, private businesses operate in the district, such as OPEN, a “co-working space” unveiled in 2012. Set up like a café. many young entrepreneurs, investors, and artists can order a cup of coffee, work alone, hold meetings, or network with others in a collaborative space, a practice growing throughout the world. Cafes, restaurants, and crafts also find niches.

Maboneng's reputation as one of Johannesburg's hot spots was reinforced by its use as a setting for the 2015 limited series "aYeYe" about three young black creatives sharing a Maboneng loft while working at an advertising agency. Paradoxically, this may have been an unintentional death knoll for the district. As has happened in other art-transformed spaces worldwide, many of the artists who pioneered the area departed as prices increased and the "coolness factor" attracted the bourgeoisie.

Growth in Maboneng continued, including projects like the Museum of African Design, transformed by Propertuity from an auto panel beater's shop to a non-collecting museum in 2013. Besides exhibitions, it hosts fashion shows and other events and includes a maker space with workshops. The Bioscope cinema (now closed) and POPart Performing Art Centre (no longer hosting full-scale performances) also provided both destination spots and employment. Proximity to the university helped fuel activities relating to the arts.

Murals and graffiti have been a strategic element in the district's branding. Not only are they ubiquitous, they are the focus of several tours. These are, however, restricted to the core sections of Maboneng, rather than its grittier outskirts, still perceived as somewhat dangerous for the middle class. Those highlighted are mainly commissioned, rather than spontaneous paintings, with both corporate and local government sponsorship.

Not all of Maboneng's residences are luxurious spaces. Many impoverished families live in informal housing within still derelict warehouses where frying oil buckets serve as furniture and milk carton labels provide wallpaper that covers holes. Some “apartments” are as small as 7' x 7' and house an entire family. Up to 150 families in Maboneng are fighting the rising cost of living and attempting to keep eviction at bay as the demand for more space continues to rise.

The general neighborhood depended on a cash economy, which unfortunately correlated with a rise in crimes such as burglaries of businesses, carjackings, thefts from individuals, and corruption in rent charges, especially in the informal housing sector. Cash usage also complicated research relating to the socioeconomics of the neighborhood, since cash cannot be traced like bank card purchases. An inability to track consumer patterns may have kept planners from predicting which investments would be soundest, and also prevented avoidance of declines in growth and expenditures.

The lack of a coherent management and development policy continues to polarize the neighborhood instead of unifying it through an inclusive vision. An insufficiency of hotels hinders development, but Airbnb fills this gap, as do a few boutique hotels, some extensively decorated by artists. London-based architect Sir David Adjaye designed a retrofit of a former diamond polishing business, transforming it into a combination apartment house (where he holds or held a flat) and the small Hallmark House hotel.

Maboneng suffered a major blow only a decade after its birth. In 2016, RMH Property bought into developer Propertuity, holding a large percentage of the company. In 2018, Propertuity's founder Liebmann departed, and the following year, RMH decided to fold the company, liquidating many of its properties for much less than they had been valued.

While this contradicted assurances that complete neighborhood renovation would be possible, a six-block development within Maboneng called Jewel City opened in 2020. In a fortress-like space once occupied by diamond and gold dealers, demolition allowed new structures rather than rehabbed buildings. It includes 2200 apartments, as well as retail space, offices, and a school. A pedestrian passage encourages strollers, and new murals vie with a McDonald's sign. While the original development of the Maboneng Precinct explicitly excluded chain stores and franchises, the Jewel City aspect includes not only fast-food places but supermarkets and other amenities, albeit some with mural decorations.

While some of its original creators have departed, there is still hope that the “Place of Light’s” ever-growing vision will not be extinguished. The recent injection of more than $141.5 million suggests that revitalization efforts have not ended, even if the district's cutting edge has dulled.