In Joburg’s eastern suburbs, developers, residents and craftspeople are forging a new sense of neighbourliness and trying to do business in ways that do not exclude or marginalise people.

There’s a cappuccino divide – the worlds of those who can fork out for a fair trade cuppa and those who produce or serve up the brew but can’t splurge on foam masquerading as milk. But what if these worlds could collide and not collapse? What if cutting through the froth made it possible to imagine economy and profit not based just on production and sales, and value could be counted in something other than rands and cents?

These “what-ifs” and “if-onlys” didn’t preoccupy filmmaker and photographer turned property developer Brian Green two and half years ago. Then, he looked at the 20 000m² of yards and semi-derelict buildings in the gritty, overlooked suburb of Lorentzville in east Johannesburg and imagined Victoria Yards as a development opportunity that would be community-minded but had to be unapologetically commercial as rentals for galleries, studios and craft workshops.

Now, as Victoria Yards looks to its third birthday this spring, it’s clear Green has ticked his boxes – you can get a cappuccino here, you can pick up a bespoke something from an artist here and there’s even a craft beer hangout.

“It’s really a case of what Lorentzville did to us rather than what we’ve done to Lorentzville,” he says. “Vic Yards is in a very poor neighbourhood and the area commanded that we have a more gentle approach to making money that doesn’t exclude or marginalise more people,” he says.

Low rentals

The idea of “more gentle” for Green includes paying a minimum wage that’s not government’s prescribed rock-bottom figure and employing locals where possible. He set up free and low rental agreements for projects such as the social enterprises that work under the VY Commons – a Victoria Yards co-working space – banner.

Tenants are also people who are drawn to the space to earn money, not to chase it. There’s Timbuktu in the Valley, a learning and activity centre for neighbourhood children. Young Bucks is an artisanal bookmaking business that gives internships to local youths. The Whippet does custom-built bicycles as their money-spinner but is creating a “bicycle kitchen” where they offer tiered membership for access to mechanics and parts. In turn, membership fees are channelled into building resources and training, for a new community of cyclists and bicycle mechanics.

Victoria Yards is also distinctive in its edible landscaping, which has flourished into produce sold at an onsite monthly market day.

Please pick these vegetables

Outside of the Yards, kerbside vegetable gardens are being grown. These were started by Siyabonga Ndlangamandla, who does administrative work for Victoria Yards but says his passion is growing plants as nutrition and medicine and making them free for passers-by.

“We put up a sign to tell people to only pick when the vegetables are ready, but it’s all theirs. When I’m working on the pavement gardens maybe 10 people will come past, nine will walk by and think I’m crazy but one person maybe will be interested,” he says.

He’s talking about the time it takes to retrain the grab reflex when something is free, and the patience required to awaken the idea of community ownership. The idea of neighbourhood is key to making the ideals of a wellbeing economy work. It takes the shape of those who make up the partners of Makers Valley, a collective of many creative businesses found in the Joburg suburbs of Bez Valley, New Doornfontein, Troyeville, Bertrams, Lorentzville and their surrounds. It’s into this ecosystem that Victoria Yards now fits awkwardly in places because of the paradox of its “darling moment”.

The development’s success has created buzz and energy for this part of town. Media, hashtags and organised walkabouts bring the visitors, funders and sponsors. At the same time, Victoria Yards gets the spotlight at the risk of its neighbours and partners slipping into its shadow.

A different form of wellbeing

The wellbeing model demands equality and Makers Valley’s partners range from the big and established to the tiny and informal. There’s Nando’s head office; non-governmental organisations such as the Skills Village 2030 project and the Curriculum Development Project (CDP), a 30-year-old initiative aimed at finding innovative practices to develop training and curricula for the creative arts; and the Boys and Girls Club of Bertrams. Over the lip of the valley towards Troyeville are the Spaza Art Gallery in Wilhelmina Street and Art Eye Gallery in an apartment block in Voorhout Street; throughout the suburbs are individuals who are informal food and security providers and urban recyclers.

Mariapaola McGurk of The Coloured Cube is also part of the Makers Valley collective. Her company, based in Benrose, uses art and creative thinking as a toolkit for problem solving, especially in public spaces. She says it is a challenge to get people to see the neighbourhood beyond the dazzle and soft landing that Victoria Yards provides for many.

Women create safe spaces to free their creativity

“Victoria Yards has planted hope, it is easy to see why people come to it and we [are] all blown away by what has been achieved there. But visitors mostly only engage within Victoria Yards, not with the people of the valley, so they don’t often see the complexity of problems or the potential in the wider community,” McGurk adds.

“Drugs and alcohol abuse are massive problems in the area, for example. Sometimes we can be painting a wall in a park or having a meeting in the park and people are shouting at us while they’re getting drunk or having a knife fight. Sometimes people just don’t care about what we’re trying to do.”

McGurk’s reality check is a caveat against formulas and assumptions of what people need. It’s also a reminder that there’s no getting away from disparate agendas, skewed power imbalances and differing perspectives. The trick for Makers Valley is to find more common ground, she says.

Building neighbourhood ethos

“There is room for ‘ethical gentrification’ because gentrification is a reality, it will come to the valley. I don’t see gentrification as the picture of doom or polarisation either if we have a better understanding of the dynamics of the area, make everyone a fair and responsible player – from property developers through to small informal businesses, residents, the city council and funders. We also need to build stronger relationships between people,” McGurk says.

These collision points and tensions are part of what University of the Witwatersrand PhD student and changemaker Simon Mayson is interested in. His immersive research looks at opportunities and challenges in these social spaces and situations while building new economic models that are locally appropriate and can translate as wellbeing for more people.

“We’re not hung up on differing opinions,” he says, “more about letting more voices be heard”. Mayson was drawn to working and living in the Joburg east valley in 2017 because he says even with middle-class flight and decades of neglect, the valley has retained a degree of diversity. There’s also a mix of industrial, retail and residential properties that include the odd mansion, semi-detached homes and private and council-owned flats.

The infrastructural mix, he says, can help throttle runaway gentrification as properties can’t be bought out en masse easily. Yet Mayson is not naive about the constant threat of displacing people when revamped neighbourhoods cause rental spikes. But he says that the Makers Valley network offers an inclusive platform to thrash out tension points so that the community gets to define a neighbourhood ethos.

Mayson was given free rental space at Victoria Yards to support his work in 2017. “The beauty of many of these projects is that I’m no longer the driver. When you support people, equip them and trust them, mostly things just happen,” he says.

Mayson also shifts gears as his own insights and learnings deepen. In 2018, he bought a house in Lorentzville and named it the Changemakers Residence. He moved in and at one point shared the home with three single mothers and five young children. This living arrangement made him realise the dearth of early childhood development support in the area.

Magic uncles

So he started Magic Malumes. The malumes (uncles) are a band of young men in the neighbourhood who commit to showing up, being positive male role models and helping to create safe spaces and instilling values for the children.

“It’s been proven that the most effective way to make a positive change is by making a change with children early in their lives,” says Mayson.

Hector Mgiba is a Magic Malume. He and his school friend Sibusiso Zulu started as volunteers at Victoria Yards, then through their initiative, Sneakers 4 Change (collecting shoes for the underprivileged), became part of the Makers Valley network and now share the sponsored VY Commons space.

Mgiba explains that he and Zulu literally stumbled into Victoria Yards more than a year ago, half expecting to be shooed away. Instead, they have been able to grow their business, 94 Colours, and enhance their entrepreneurial skills through a network of training and access to resources. They used to share the VY Commons space with entrepreneurs such as Sobae Sorbet and Nazo Accessories but now sublet from another Victoria Yards tenant because their business is growing.

Growing is the key word in the valley. Multiple seeds for a wellbeing economy are being sown and people in their different ways are stepping up to fertilise them with intention and right action – not silver bullets and wishful thinking – so that what breaks through the soil has the best chance to emerge as harvest and hope.

  • This article was first published by New Frame
  • Photos supplied