Examining The Heritage Context And Significance Of Johannasburg Cultural Studies Essay

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Envisaged as a middle class suburb that even appealed to members of the Randlords, Bertrams as with surrounding Doornfontein, New Doornfontein, Bezuidenhout, Troyeville, Lorentzville and Judith's Paarl, is representative of the social, cultural and racial formation of early Johannesburg and the underlying economic system that gave rise to it. Johannesburg was indeed the first city on the continent where capital, labour and industry combined at an unprecedented scale (Mbembe 2008:39) and where, in the 'Valley suburbs', the upper and middle classes first established a suburban typology for the growing city, designed to escape the more insalubrious aspects of this colonial metropolitan experiment. Here then the nascent 'Villa suburbs' came to represent the aspirations of a ruling elite and middle class eager to avoid the working classes who tended to gravitate towards the western suburbs.

How Bertrams over the course of a century became associated with diverse immigrant and migrant communities from across the social and racial spectrum illuminates the manner in which the structuring of residential space in Johannesburg was, and still is, intricately tied to the production and reproduction of social relations (Gregory and Urry 1985:3). Keeping in mind that relations in the colonial and apartheid worlds were often highly contested and ambivalent.

The eastern suburbs came to represent some of the earliest attempts by Johannesburg's local government to racialise residential space through strictly demarcated areas for different races. [14] As Mbembe points out "[s]pace became both a social and a racial relationship, one that was additionally inherent to the notion of property." (Mbembe 2008:42). During the 1920s and 1930s a welfare state agonised not only about the 'poor white' problem and the 'urban native question', but fretted about large-scale Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, noting with alarm that by 1921, one in every seven citizens in Johannesburg were 'Hebrew' (Peberdy 2009:75).

After the adoption of the Slums Act in 1934, the clearing of densely populated slum yards proceeded apace and Bertrams was not spared. The clearances opened the way during the 1940s for social housing projects for a lower-working class white constituency. This constituency was undergoing rapid socio-economic change following the end of the Second World War and the rise of the National Party. By the 1950s concerns with 'poor whiteism' had made way for a new perceived social scourge as the media and politicians fretted about the increasing anti-social behaviour of urban white youth, with 'Ducktail' gangs and juvenile delinquency requiring urgent state action. Subsequently, Bertrams became the location for the establishment in 1951 of a hostel for 126 'lowly paid youths' - an intervention that was to be replicated in other areas and cities (Mooney 2007:82).

Council-led urban renewal projects led to a period of gentrification and during the 1960s a new wave of immigration saw many people of southern European descent settle in the area; some fleeing the collapse of Portuguese colonies elsewhere in the continent. In the 1980s as apartheid started to unravel these neighbourhoods ironically would in turn also become the first so-called 'grey areas' - where students, artists and activists from across the racial spectrum could live together relatively unmolested by the apartheid authorities (REF).

A City of Johannesburg report (City of Johannesburg 1997) mentions pre-Colonial, Iron Age archaeological sites at Judith Paarl, Yeoville, Bruma and Observatory, but most of these sites have been destroyed. Of its mid-19th century farming heritage only the historic farmsteads at nearby Bezuidenhout Valley and Dewetshof attest to the agricultural nature of the area at the time of the first gold discoveries. As a result, the heritage significance of the area is today understood to relate predominantly to the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries and coincides with a dramatic period in South African history. This was a time when a predominantly agricultural and rural-commercial economy was transformed into an industrial and manufacturing centre which rapidly altered a rural peasantry into an urban working class (Bundy 1979; Adler 1979).

In most heritage reports on Johannesburg, Bertrams, Judith's Paarl and Lorentzville are given a cursory glance with the historic 'Pepper Pot' houses and semi-detached row houses along Queen Street, Gordon Road, Derby Road and Carnarvon Road mentioned as sole points of interest. [15] In addition, a number of houses and walk-up residential blocks are cited for their architectural interest and the area contains notable examples of low- to medium rise 20th century residential architecture spanning the social and class spectrum. As the City of Johannesburg Heritage Policy Framework (City of Johannesburg Arts, Culture & Heritage Services 2004:8) acknowledges, "Bertrams encompasses a number of different architectural styles including Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco and Modern Movement which are indicative of the architectural history of Johannesburg".

From mansions built for the elite, to working class row-houses and cottages, to corrugated iron and wood structures (testimony to the slum yards of the 1910s, 20s and 30s), to municipal housing and the more recent gentrified properties bordering Bezuidenhout Valley, Bertrams (quite unique among the old suburbs of Johannesburg) has retained a 'sense of place'. This sense of place is manifest in the many architectural layers and qualities of the townscape that have survived more or less intact (Paine et al. 2005), despite the significant socio-demographic change over the past three decades and the visible deterioration of urban management and by-law enforcement in recent years.

In what is arguably the most comprehensive heritage survey carried out on the area to date, Paine et al. (2005) observes that, beyond the notable architectural qualities, the heritage significance of Bertrams also emanates from the positive urbanistic quality of the townscape in general. While the housing stock is showing serious signs of decay in the western portions (where the older structures are located) and at risk from further gentrification on the eastern side (where insensitive developments have been allowed over time), the houses were built of a high workmanship. With the necessary rehabilitation and maintenance these structures can provide quality housing that would be difficult to deliver today through normal public housing subsidies (Paine interview).

In addition, the street layout encourages service efficiency as well as relatively higher densities because the longer street blocks with narrow street frontages optimise the available space. Land use is also mixed, with some walk-up residential buildings catering for retail or home industry functions at ground level and apartments or offices at upper levels, while a retail strip runs along Bertram and Derby roads. In Jukskei River Park numerous early to mid-20th century industrial workshops and warehouses are still in use. In the residential areas the streets are tree-lined and the street scale enhances walkability (a rare quality in car dominated Johannesburg). Parks and gardens are also fairly well established (Paine et al. 2005). In addition, Bertrams is one of the first suburbs to be serviced by the new Rea Vaya BRT system and is in walking distance from the recently upgraded Doornfontein station at Ellis Park. Communal facilities and schools are easily accessible. Combined, these factors make for "almost ideal planning characteristics" (ibid), indeed almost as true an approximation of a Garden City on the Highveld as is possible (Paine interview).

Yet, the urban heritage of Bertrams also goes beyond just the built environment. As one of the oldest surviving suburbs, Bertrams is also a microcosm of almost a century of working class activism, racial segregation, displacement, immigration and the quest for decent housing. While Doornfontein, and later Hillbrow, were initially built for the 'patrician' classes, these and surrounding suburbs were decidedly more integrated than in their mid-century reincarnation under apartheid. According to Clive Chipkin,

"In the 1890s the eastern outskirts of Johannesburg were studded with new suburbs from Bertrams to Jeppestown. An 1897 description referred to rural Booysens in the south, grimy Fordsburg in the west, patrician Doornfontein on the north-east and domesticated Jeppe for the man of limited purse in the south-east" (C. Chipkin 1993:25).

Arguably then, Bertrams was somewhere in between Doornfontein and Jeppestown. By the turn of the 20th century, the 'patrician' classes would increasingly move north to escape the dust, pollution and 'unsavoury' social intermingling of the Inner City suburbs, a 'white flight' that would accelerate over the course of the century. As the rich moved on, the advantage of living in close proximity to the CBD meant that the eastern suburbs rapidly densified and became racially mixed, multicultural, and importantly vital to a growing working-class activism.

Johannesburg's lost tenements

The first stands, laid out in 1889 on a portion of the farm Doornfontein, were auctioned on 16 August 1889, with 'Bertram Township', 'Bertram's Town', 'Bertrams Township' and even 'Bertramsville' carrying the name of property developer Robertson Fuller Bertram. By 1898 the suburb consisted of 350 stands (Bruwer et al. n.d.:27) with solid terrace houses built for the mostly middle-class residents. The Randlords also took an interest in the area. Early notable residents included Lord Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scout Movement), Cecil John Rhodes, and American mining engineer, Joseph Storey Curtis, who built a substantial property 'Klooflands' (circa 1893) along Berea road.

As neighbouring Doornfontein and New Doornfontein transformed to middle class and lower-middle class suburbs, the Randlords having forsaken these suburbs for Parktown, so too did some of the other so-called 'valley suburbs' become decidedly more mixed-class. Historic photographs from the Museum Africa collection taken between the late 1890s and 1930s show the growing densification of the area and by the 1930s many houses had in effect become dilapidated slums due to the subdivision of larger properties. (Often, the elegant Victorian and Edwardian street frontages hid backyard slums (C. Chipkin 1993:25)). Many tenants were of Eastern European, Jewish background with families taking in boarders and extended families. This contributed to rising densities.

Between the 1890s and 1910 an estimated forty thousand Jewish immigrants mainly from Eastern Europe settled in South Africa. Many of these immigrants moved to Johannesburg where Doornfontein, New Doorfontein and the surrounding suburbs provided a welcome entry point for the new arrivals. While the main centre for Jewish settlement was concentrated in Doornfontein and New Doornfontein, by the 1930s there was a growing Jewish settlement east of these suburbs in Judith's Paarl, Lorentzville, Bertrams and Bezuidenhout Valley (Rubin 2005:153). Segell, for example, recalls the Jewish characteristic of the area,

"... how one felt at home all the way through to Beit Street down through Doornfontein to Judith's Paarl. The Yiddish 'word' was heard on every street corner. The feeling of loyalty and identification with Yiddishkeit and Zionism was so strong and natural... this particular sense of belonging - this little bit of 'home away from home' in Eastern Europe - the 'shtetl'" (Segell quoted in Rubin, ibid, 151).

Even in the 1940s, "Doornfontein during the war and immediate post-war years was the hub of working class Jewish life..." (Chernin 2007:14).

Echoing later popular hysteria around migrant labourers, and even much later African immigrants, the experiences of these first generation immigrants were sadly not always welcoming. The 1920s and 30s in particular saw a rash of legislation passed to curtail Eastern European, Jewish immigration to South Africa. As Sally Peberdy demonstrates, Jews, in particular from Eastern European, communist countries, while technically 'white' were considered 'undesirable' because they were simply put, 'the wrong race' and liable to compound the 'poor white' problem while potentially destabilising "relations between employers and employees, between whites and blacks, between white and white, and between the Union and foreign countries" (Peberdy 2009:78).

Despite such official anti-Semitic immigration sentiments, between 1924 and 1930 there was a noticeable rise in the immigration of Jewish refugees from Lithuania, Poland and Latvia to Johannesburg (Adler 1979:71). That a high percentage of these immigrants settled in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg is clear from a 1936 survey which listed Doornfontein, Bertrams and Jeppe as home to the single largest Jewish community on the Witwatersrand (ibid). What makes this significant is that almost twenty percent of workers in the area were manual labourers (ibid, 72). This was predominantly then a community of workers, not owners.

"Thus it can be established that between 1920 and 1940 there was a concentration of Jewish immigrant workers living in the Johannesburg suburbs of Doornfontein, Bertrams and Jeppe. Their greatest significance however lies in the fact that they were immigrants and that a large proportion of them were manual labourers of the artisan class" (ibid, 74). [16] 

Grounded in the working class experiences of Eastern Europe, they would bring to South Africa a rich legacy of working class socialism based on the implicit "acceptance of the political primacy of the Russian Communist Party" (ibid, 76). Unlike earlier craft unions in South Africa, the unions and industrial organisations they established would not only significantly contribute towards labour activism but as Adler makes clear would also set about breaking down racial distinctions within worker organisations based on the premise of equal wages (ibid).

Culturally, the community also played an important role not only in fostering a rich Yiddish cultural tradition in Johannesburg, but also in creating social networks where members of different social and racial groups could interact through dances and other social activities (ibid). Culture and religion intersected forcefully in the eastern suburbs,

"[t]he reality of the enclaves and conglomeration of the Jews on the cityscape of Johannesburg is a powerful example of how geography and culture interacted to create spaces of meaning that ensured the continued survival and success of the Jewish community of Johannesburg..." (Rubin 2005:166).

By the late 1940s the rich legacy of what had become a politically radical, ethnic district entered a period of dramatic change as,

"most Jewish workers passed from being artisans to becoming small independent businessmen. Their children became either professionals, or businessmen in their own right. In addition, the cultural needs of the immigrant community changed, as Jews became more acculturated. The dominant political traditions of South African Jewry became those of a commitment to Zionism, and an attempted aloofness from political questions concerning South Africa" (Adler 1979:92).

As the community became more affluent, those who could afford to moved to larger, more modern - and middle class - accommodation in neighbouring Hillbrow, Yeoville or the northern suburbs. A spatial model of the socio-economic structure of Johannesburg compiled during the 1960s shows that Bertrams and the surrounding suburbs were by the late 1960s populated by elderly residents of low socio-economic status. The study noted that most residents were of southern European, Jewish and Afrikaner backgrounds. The Bertrams Synagogue (at 54 Kimberly Road) closed in 1984, while the Temple Emmanuel in nearby Hillbrow continues to serve a small congregation.

Bertrams and the racialised welfare state

By the 1930s parts of Doornfontein, New Doornfontein and Bertrams had effectively become 'slum yards'. Stables, coach houses and domestic quarters were sub-let, and the large decaying properties subdivided to form an increasingly racially mixed community who were drawn to the affordable, centrally located accommodation these suburbs offered (see Parnell 1988, 2003; Posel 2005).

Even as early as 1915 almost as many Africans and coloureds lived in the suburbs of Doornfontein, New Doornfontein, Bertrams, Lorentzville, Judiths' Paarl, Troyeville, Kensington and Bezuidenhout Valley, as was then living in the 'Malay location' to the west of the city (Parnell 2003:622). The form of tenure in Doornfontein and Bertrams largely involved a mixture of employer-owned compounds and back-yard rooms either rented by the owner on behalf of employees or independently, and while many Africans had legal permits to reside in the area, many were technically illegal (ibid, 621). In the eastern suburbs, many of the 'private' yards were run by immigrant Jews (ibid, 627) while many of the white residents were Afrikaans language speakers.

Up until the 1920s, the Inner City of Johannesburg with its suburbs to the west and east were marked by racial mixing - if not open integration (ibid, 630). Despite official policies to the contrary, this was largely as a result of a massive shortage of housing stock with both black and white artisan classes competing for limited accommodation in the City. This situation was worsened by the passing of the Natives Land Act in 1913, which resulted in wide scale rural dispossession and left the landless and unemployed with no alternative than to head to the towns and major industrial centres (C. Chipkin 1993:196). The effects of rapid population growth were exacerbated by restrictive land development, increasing racist rhetoric within the City council that sought more restrictive conditions for urban Africans, poor urban planning, as well as poor building construction. Klipspruit, the only official African location set aside by the city, was twenty kilometres away from Johannesburg, while compounds offered little attraction to the majority of migrants (Parnell 2003:620). By default, slum yards became the preferred shelter for most Africans living in the city (ibid) and Rooiyard in Doornfontein was one of the City's most notorious.

Ironically then, what had been intended as the 'villa neighbourhoods' for the rich had become contested zones around which many of the key themes of a racialised welfare state of the 1920s, 30s and 40s would play themselves out, the overt obsession with family, health and poverty, and the urgent need to find 'solutions' to the 'menacing' 'poor white problem' and the 'urban native question' (Posel 2005:64). How these slums became associated with the 'urban native question' and discourses linking the African presence with criminality, disease, drunkenness and miscegenation has been well documented (see Parnell 2003, Posel 2005, Koch 1983). What is of interest here is how this shift in policy, given legislative form by the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923 and later by the 1934 Slum Act, played itself out in Bertrams and surrounds.

As Parnell argues, the Inner City slums of Johannesburg and slum yards such as were found in Doornfontein and Bertrams were significant as,

"[i]t was from within the cosmopolitan spaces of Johannesburg's multi-ethnic Inner City of the 1920s that Marabi music was forged, that the non-racial Communist party flourished, and the black urban elite would emerge. More negatively, it was in response to the experience of racial mixing in the industrial heart that more systematic strategies of racist urban control would be sought and patterns of rigid segregation initially devised under the oppressive regime of the mines would be reasserted" (Parnell 2003:616).

In the 1930s Bertrams with Doornfontein and New Doornfontein, experienced some of the worst urban forced removals in Johannesburg since 1904. (This followed in the wake of more repressive legislation.) Albertina Sisulu for example recalls how Walter Sisulu used to help his mother, a washerwoman who lived in Doornfontein, deliver laundry to white households in Bertrams, Yeoville and Bezuidenhout Valley. The Sisulu's were forcibly removed from Doornfontein to Orlando Township in 1934 (Sisulu 2003:68). In 1937 a similar fate would befall the coloured community.

The Native (Urban Areas) Act of 1923 and the Group Areas and Population Registration Acts of 1950 became the primary means through which racially integrated residential suburbs were inhibited during the middle half of the 20th century (Rule 1989:196). Bertrams and other Inner City suburbs thus became largely confined to the white lower middle class, while their more affluent counterparts moved to the greener northern suburbs, well removed from the Inner City and its industrial areas. Blacks, coloureds and Indians were consistently evicted from the city until eventually a landmark ruling in 1987 effectively ended three and a half decades of apartheid forced removals (ibid). Despite such evictions the slum yards persisted and it was only by the 1980s that some of the last 'slums' were cleared with much of old Doornfontein demolished to make way for the Ellis Park sports precinct.

'Ducktail boys, teenage gangs and dagga smokers'

The slum clearances of the 1930s paved the way for the establishment of a white working class housing scheme, the Maurice Freeman housing scheme, consisting of the development of seventy houses and forty-eight flats (Rule 1989:198, Parnell 1988:311, Du Plessis 2004:886). At the time, many of the white beneficiaries of schemes such as these had lived in slums that had been condemned in the clearances of the late 1930s. In fact, mobilisation around 'poor whiteism' following the release of the Carnegie Commission Report in 1932, took on urgency in the late 1930s and 40s. In the context of the multi-racial slums of Johannesburg, 'poor whites' in particular were seen as an "aberration and therefore couched in the language of disease and contamination" (Du Plessis 2004:883). Being white and poor necessarily also meant being an Afrikaner, a constituency that had to be 'rescued' and even secured for the Afrikaner nationalist cause (ibid, 882).

Slum clearances thus went hand-in-hand with the provision of alternative accommodation for poor whites, a strategy meant to avert the re-establishment of interracial slums elsewhere (Parnell 1988:309). The development of white municipal housing projects such as Jan Hofmeyr, close to Brixton, and Maurice Freeman in Bertrams can therefore be read as an experience inverse to that of the black and coloured population where Council was not left "with any obligation to find alternative housing for the displaced population within the city limits" (ibid, 311). In fact, what the state attempted to achieve was to transform poor whites into fully subsidised state tenants, while conversely, housing provision for black people was premised on full-cost recovery (Parnell 1987:27, Du Plessis 2004:885).

In many ways the slum clearances of Bertrams were significant,

"[t]he Bertrams incident confirmed that the Johannesburg Council would act to remove blacks if land could be secured for white housing... The precedent set in the Bertrams removal was... endorsed as the Johannesburg Council sought to clear land already in use by other race groups and to reserve land in good locations for white housing" (Parnell 1988:311).

Bertrams prefigured the mass forced removals of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, while Council housing schemes such as Maurice Freeman and similar urban regeneration projects became an important strategy for racially segregating Johannesburg's poor (Du Plessis 2004:885).

During the 1940s and 50s, concerns about the 'poor white' problem persisted despite visible progress having been made in reducing the number of 'poor whites' by the late 1930s (ibid, 883). As Mooney (2007) and Grundling (2008) emphasise, the nature of the discourse had by now shifted, firstly to a concern with post-War reconstruction, austerity measures and the privileging of ex-servicemen, and secondly to voice a rising panic as white youth adopted popular culture, and in particular took to 'ducktailism' (Mooney 2007:48). For much of the 1950s many cities in South Africa were gripped by a moral panic of 'ducktails' and 'juvenile delinquents' fuelling urban crime and violence (ibid, 80). In Johannesburg, the older Inner City suburbs, notably Jeppestown, Belgravia, Troyville, Doornfontein, New Doornfontein, Bertrams and even Hillbrow were notorious 'dens'. According to a member of the Johannesburg Council, nearby Jeppestown in particular was fast becoming a "breeding ground for ducktail boys, teen-age gangs and dagga smokers" (ibid, 80).

Mooney (2007), Grundling (2008) and Du Plessis (2004) paint a vivid picture of a white community in flux. As Mooney confirms the 1940s and 50s saw "certain sectors of the white community... faced with an acute shortage of cheap housing, overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, social displacement, increasing unemployment, deficient social services, inadequate educational provision, escalating crime and the contestation over urban space" (Mooney 2007:96). The corruption of urban, white youth became a central theme, ironically echoing earlier concerns around miscegenation,

"white ducktails in jeans and colourful shirts have been known to take their - tarts to brothels in African areas. Here they meet the African tsotsis [gangsters] dressed in zoot suits and their black molls [women] dressed in 'Suzie Wong' skirts. They are sometimes joined by Indian boys and girls from Fordsburg. - Rock and roll records are played, to liven up the party and when brandy is taken and 'giggleweed' smoked, the colour line in sex is speedily forgotten.' We were informed that this experience was supposed to represent a 'new sort of thrill for the degenerates of both sections of the population'" (Grundling, 2008:155).

Responses to the 'scourge' varied. In 1951, for example, the Johannesburg local authority built a hostel in Bertrams to accommodate 126 'lowly paid youths' (Mooney 2007:82). Other urban reconstruction projects targeted areas where gangsterism was rife, although "[m]ore often than not, the implementation of urban planning policies and redevelopment incentives resulted in rehousing and the breaking up of neighbourhood links and networks" (ibid, 97).

The scourge of the ducktails petered out in the 1960s when the government introduced compulsory conscription for white youth in 1962. By then the economic conditions of Afrikaners had also significantly improved while the,

"National Party exercised its support and control over 'poor whites' through regulations with regard to job reservation and protected labour legislation, welfare support, housing schemes and social grants. By the 1960s, the nationalist government had delivered on its promises to improve the material conditions of Afrikaners..." (Du Plessis 2004:883).

'Grey Suburbs'

From the 1970s onwards Bertrams would undergo significant changes as it became one of the first so-called 'grey areas'. According to Rule (1989:198) the 1970 population census indicates that eighty-two percent of the residents of Bertrams at that time were white, the remainder being Asian (11.6 percent), black (6 percent) and coloured (0.4 percent). Although fifteen years later, the 1985 census reflects minimal growth in the black, coloured and Asian population, it is noteworthy that the number of whites had decreased by more than a third (ibid).

During the 1980s Bertrams was very much a suburb in transition with new townhouses located next to dilapidated and rundown Edwardian units (ibid). Research by Rule conducted between 1986 and 1988 shows that the suburb had become racially integrated. Most residents were also renting from absent landlords.

By the 1990s Bertrams had fallen into neglect as white businesses and more affluent residents moved away from the Inner City. This 'white flight' coupled with a collapsing urban management system, 'red lining' by the banks, and increasing incidents of crime, meant that the area experienced rapid decline. By the 2000s Bertrams had become notorious as a slum area with Neil Fraser, the founder of the Central Johannesburg Partnership, recalling that he once found seventy-five people living in a three-bedroom house in Bertrams. The tenant was collecting two-hundred rand rent from each person and paying one-thousand-five-hundred rand rent to the owner of the property (Fraser 2004).

This experience carried echoes of an earlier period in the United States,

"[f]or a brief moment in the late 1940s and early 1950s, working-class urban neighbourhoods held the possibility of integrating white Americans and African-Americans in roughly the same social classes. This dream was laid to rest by movement to the suburbs, continued ethnic bias in employment, the decline of public services in expanding racial ghettos, criticism of integration movements... and fear of crime" (Zukin 2003:145).

As in the US example, a 'cultural view' of the Inner City took hold,

"made up of four ideological domains: a physical environment of dilapidated houses, disused factories, and general dereliction; a romanticized notion of white working-class life with particular emphasis on the centrality of family life; a pathological image of black culture; and a stereotypical view of street culture" (ibid).

'Sometimes a fire'

By the mid-1990s the area, as with many other parts of central Johannesburg, had become home to a diversity of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Congo and elsewhere. Many migrants found shelter in 'bad buildings'. More often than not this happened with the full knowledge of a city administration that had turned a blind eye, and which had in any case been perceived as powerless given a justice system increasingly loath to grant eviction orders. Behind the 'slummification' was a massive, unmet need for transitional, low income and affordable housing. Simply put "[t]here is huge pressure on suburbs like Yeoville, Hillbrow and Bertrams because there's a shortage of cheap accommodation across the city. It's how buildings start to turn into slums and this is just not sustainable" (Lael Bethlehem, CEO of the JDA, as quoted in The Star, 20 June 2010). By 2009 it was estimated that there were one hundred and thirty-four 'bad buildings' in the GEPD area, housing an estimated population of nineteen thousand six-hundred people (Bénit-Gbaffou 2009:219).

Many buildings in Bertrams are considered too derelict to be upgraded (because of the hazardous living conditions and the extent of structural deterioration). Fires are also a regular occurrence. In 2006 artist and urban geographer Ismail Farouk exhibited a series of photographic images under the title 'Sometimes a Fire' depicting a fire at a historic house in Bertrams which had been caused by a paraffin heater. The house was completely gutted and eventually demolished by council purportedly to make way for a new housing development linked to the GEPD upgrade programme. According to Farouk the house had been suffering from structural problems and had been declared unsafe for habitation for quite some time. He estimates that forty people had been living in the building at the time of the fire (Farouk 2008, http://ismailfarouk.com).

Today Bertrams increasingly resembles the 'inherited city' by which the derelict, neglected and dilapidated are appropriated and old materials and buildings 'recycled' or 'pirated' for new uses (Simone 2005). Residents are perceived to be highly mobile and unresponsive to the upgrading of their local environments. In addition, the built environment is regarded as unstable as buildings are (often illegally) appropriated for new uses while left vulnerable due to a lack of maintenance and servicing. This then is the "unstable urban landscape where abandonment and neglect have left once-valued and stable parts of the built environment in decline and ruin..." (Mistry 2010:161).

A pervasive view in the literature is that many immigrants (and migrants it should be added) resident in the Inner City of Johannesburg show little interest in permanent settlement and hence by extension lack the motivation to invest in the upgrade of the dwellings and neighbourhoods they (temporarily) inhabit. Equally disconcerting households are "composed of highly provisional arrangements among unrelated individuals, with often complicated informal financial arrangements among them" (Simone 2006:362), while civil society is fragmented and highly volatile (see I. Chipkin 2005).

Faced with growing 'slummification' in a precinct that will come to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup the response of the authorities was seemingly to displace "the problem to more peripheral, hidden areas" (Bénit-Gbaffou 2009:218). With the 2006 announcement that South Africa would host the 2010 FIFA World Cup an area that had been marginal in inner-city regeneration policies found itself at the heart of a multi-million rand regeneration programme (ibid). With 2006 the poor of Doornfontein, New Doornfontein and Bertrams found themselves "not only forgotten but also unwanted in the Greater Ellis Park area" (ibid, 202).


The heritage of Bertrams extends beyond the architectural and built environment - significant as these may be, and is explicitly entwined with a history of Diaspora and the formation of a working class identity. The 'story' of Bertrams is also understood to be about displacement and the need to safeguard the rights of tenancy for resident communities - whether these be historical communities or more recent arrivals to the city. For more than a century a public discourse around the insalubrious qualities of urban 'slums' have masked the patent failure of the city to supply residents with a decent form of shelter - a failure that continue to persist into the present. As in other urban centres, access to housing is seen as a central leitmotif in the discourse around social exclusion, and Bertrams provide a powerful historic perspective on this.

This is not to suggest that the Bertrams experience can be reduced to a singular totalising narrative - a trap that has befallen so much of recent public memorialisation in the country. As Ashworth comments, "[t]he search for a single collective place identity is a chimera and the undertaking of such an enterprise is a serious denial of the social, ethnic and racial diversity of contemporary society" (Ashworth n.d., n.p.). What is of interest here is the very ordinariness of the Bertrams experience. While Bertrams experienced forced removals, this was never on the scale or even significance of Sophiatown and other areas. As a 1920s and 30s ethnic immigrant district, then a lower working class white suburb and later home to an immigrant African Diaspora, Bertrams is merely one of many similar suburbs across 'old Johannesburg'. That this experience of class, ethnicity and migrancy is so often left unremarked upon in public culture is to be expected given the central place Johannesburg has occupied in the struggle for liberation.