Alright, so this week’s Picture of the Week is really a setup for next week’s picture.  I enjoy telling the story of my photos, but I’m also a firm believer in the fact that an image has to stand on its own – meaning the story doesn’t make the photo, but is rather more of a footnote, or meant to give extra context to the photo.  That said, there are two stories I want to tell here from this one location: one with this week’s photo, and one with next week’s.

This week’s photo was taken from high atop the Ponte City Apartment tower in downtown Johannesburg.  I started my series on South Africa with a question: when you think of Africa, do you think of penguins?  This week I’m asking the question, when you think of Africa, do you think of large cities?  I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t.  I think of all the animals and the crazy landscapes.  The reality though is that an estimated 40% of all the people living on the African continent live in urban areas, and that number is projected to grow to 50% over the next 10 years.

From the top of the Ponte City Apartments, Johannesburg looks like any other city.  Tall buildings, maybe some areas that could use some cleaning up, some green areas… trees… a city, perhaps even unremarkable.  The truth, however, is the picture above is looking down at two of the roughest neighborhoods in Johannesburg: Hillbrow and Berea.  I had two different Uber drivers point out Hillbrow as we drove by on the interstate and comment how notorious the area was.  One of the buildings you see in the foreground is currently hijacked; the owners live somewhere else, likely unaware that people are living in the building (or unable to do anything about it), while gangs charge people rent to stay there.  Across the street is an abandoned building where other people are living illegally. 

Most notorious of all, however, is the building I took the picture from.  The Ponte City apartment tower was completed in the 70’s and was, at the time, considered one of the premier places to live in Jo’burg.  Due to mismanagement of the building and a deteriorating neighborhood, by the 80’s it was wrought with gang activity and by the 90’s it was completely overrun with gangs.  For the better part of 20 years the building was hijacked and so dangerous the police wouldn’t go near it (the police supposedly would fly over in helicopters just to see what was going on).  At one point in the early 2000’s, the government actually discussed barricading the building – locking *in* everyone inside the building – and turning it into a prison for whomever happened to be in there at the time.  The story of the building is like something out of a novel or a crazy horror movie – except its all true.

The obvious question to ask here is what in the WORLD am I doing in it… and if the neighborhood surrounding it is so bad, how did I even get to it?  If you’ve followed along with this blog for a while, you know that I’ve done some crazy things for a photo in the past.  This is no exception… and is perhaps one of the crazier things I’ve done.  The good news is that in the late 00’s the Ponte City Tower was sold and cleaned up / out.  It is now middle income housing.  The city is working to clean up the surrounding neighborhoods, and while they’re still dangerous, to an extent, their reputation is a little worse than reality.

Did I mention we did a – walking tour – of the building and surrounding neighborhoods?  Why?  Well, that’s next week!

–Dan Thompson

Title Address Description
Ponte City
Ponte City Apartments, Berea, Johannesburg, 2198, South Africa

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