Date: November 15th, 2016 4:49 PM
tbf, it sounds like they rehabbed it within the past few years:
“On the 13th and 14th floor you could get anything from a blow-job to an acid trip in a few minutes. Essentially, the building was hijacked.”
In his penthouse apartment on the 52nd floor, Mike Luptak is talking about the bad old days when Ponte, the tallest residential building in the southern hemisphere, fell into the hands of drug dealers, gangsters, pimps and prostitutes. The inner core of this 173-metre high concrete cylinder became a giant rubbish tip piled up as far as the fifth floor. Among the refuse and junk were, so legend has it, the bodies of residents who took a suicidal leap.
A great deal has changed since then. Featured in newspaper articles, photography exhibitions, documentaries and movies, Ponte has come to symbolise the rise and fall and rise again of South Africa’s commercial capital. It is part of an inner-city renaissance in recent years that has seen previous no-go areas turned into gourmet food markets, artists’ studios and trendy apartments.
The young middle class are moving back into Ponte 40 years after it first opened its doors amid a surge of optimism and wall-to-wall shag carpeting. Johannesburg, an economic engine and magnet for immigrants, can claim to be the New York of Africa, so this audacious experiment in skyscraper homes, designed by 29-year-old architect Rodney Grosskopff, was the height of aspiration for apartheid’s ruling white minority.
“Through the 1970s, this was the crème de la crème of living,” says Luptak, 30, who gave up his job as a chartered accountant to run youth projects here. “If you had this address, you were part of the in-crowd.”
In those days the surrounding area, Hillbrow, was a vibrant multicultural hub of bookshops and cafes. But not for long. By the 1980s the middle class was fleeing to the suburbs, and by the 1990s Hillbrow – home to immigrants from the rest Africa – became rife with drugs, poverty, prostitution, gun crime and urban degradation, and Ponte was dragged down with it.
This was, perhaps, the tallest and grandest urban slum in the world, a gravity-defying dystopia that might have sprung from the imagination of a science fiction writer. It is said two floors were stripped bare and, along with the downstairs parking lot, became an informal brothel. Luptak adds: “From a kitchen sink, there was a tomato plant growing with tomatoes the size of tennis balls.”
By the late 1990s there was talk of turning Ponte into a prison. But then, in 2001, it began a journey to redemption. Its owner, the Kempston Group, hired a husband-and-wife management team, Elma and Danie Celliers, to set about its rehabilitation. A decade later, almost all 54 floors had been refurbished, many from scratch, with around 2km of electrical wiring and sanitary piping used on each. Eight lifts had been refurbished.
Quinton Oosthuizen, construction and maintenance manager for Ponte, who led the team clearing out its central core, told South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper: “It was nasty; we pulled out some very funny things. Anything from mattresses, rubble, loose steel, kitchen and bathroom fittings – even dead stray cats.”
To stand in the core today craning one’s neck is to feel like an ant gazing up the inside of a monumental concrete tree. At the top is a blue disc of sky. Ponte is now home to up to 3,000 middle- and working-class people including young professionals, students and Congolese, Nigerian and Zimbabwean immigrants.
Luptak’s 120-square -metre home is pleasantly furnished with porcelain tiles, wooden floors, a granite kitchen top, hanging plants, three chandeliers, a flatscreen Samsung TV with sound system and a framed picture of Jimi Hendrix. His north-facing window offers a stupendous view, including the FNB stadium that hosted the 2010 football World Cup opening game and final. For this he pays just 5,100 rand (£279) per month.
Luptak and his business partner, Nickolaus Bauer, have set up a social enterprise at Ponte called Dlala Nje, which organises cultural, educational and sporting activities for local children, taking advantage of the 2,000 square metres of commercial space and a swimming pool on the ground floor. They also run tours of the building and neighbourhood that they hope will challenge perceptions. “Most South Africans live in constant paranoia because of the crime issue,” Luptak muses. “They also live in bubbles. They spend the weekends at braais [barbecues] complaining about things. They’re the world’s best complainers but they won’t do anything about it.”
He admits, however, that Hillbrow is still not everyone’s cup of tea. Ponte has 24-hour security guards and biometric fingerprint access at all entry points to the building. “Hillbrow is still a very dangerous place but it’s changed a lot from five-to-10 years ago.”
Other parts of the inner city are forging ahead too, gradually shaking off Johannesburg’s notoriety for danger and violence. The past decade has seen urban regeneration projects including Braamfontein, the Maboneng Precinct, Newtown and The Sheds@1Fox, with light industrial buildings and warehouses converted to apartments, art galleries, cinemas, hotels, restaurants, theatres and markets featuring organic foods and craft beers. They attract a young, multi-racial crowd – a modern face of South Africa – although critics say they are islands of development surrounded by oceans of urban poverty.
Some of the shops in these nodes sell t-shirts and metal cut-outs portraying the Johannesburg skyline. The 54 storeys of Ponte, of course, loom large. “It has a sad story,” says Luptak, “but also a resilient one.”