Cheerful graffiti. Picture: Heather Mason

Hillbrow was a bustling middle-class neighborhood until the end of apartheid rule, when it began to transform. Similar to many 20th-century American inner cities, Hillbrow’s white middle class fled to the suburbs, making way for poor black South Africans (who were previously barred from living in places like Hillbrow) and immigrants from across the continent. The population soared and crime grew rampant; Hillbrow became a “no-go” area for visitors.

Heather Mason

Five years ago it would have been difficult (maybe impossible) for me to walk in Hillbrow and not get robbed. But the times, they are a-changin’. I slung my camera over my shoulder and joined the Joburg Photowalkers for a jaunt through what most people consider to be Jozi’s meanest streets.

Our group met up at the Lutheran Community Outreach Foundation, a community center on Edith Cavell Street. This place deserves its own post so I’ll save it for later.

At the center we met up with Tim Rees-Gibbs, a lifelong Hillbrow resident and member of the South African Police Service Youth Division. Under Tim’s watchful eye, we wandered a few blocks of Hillbrow and shot photos of what we saw.

I must admit, though, that I was often having too much fun to take pictures, but here are a couple:

Bananas for sale — R4 a plate. I bought some and they’re excellent.Picture: Heather Mason
If you look carefully behind the woman walking by, you’ll see a “referee” in a lab coat holding up a red card. Fabulous. Great graffiti and an important message. Picture: Heather Mason
Vegas, baby! Picture: Heather Mason
The buildings in the background have been “hijacked,” meaning that criminal gangs have forcibly taken them over from legitimate landlords. Tim told me that a one-bedroom flat can have a dozen or more people living in it. The tall building on the right does not have a functioning elevator. Count those fire escapes and imagine what that means. Picture: Heather Mason.

Johannesburg Revisited

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