A blast from my past

During the 1980’s I lived in Johannesburg, South Africa. Towards the end of the decade I bought a four-bedroom apartment in Berea, a central suburb, and refurbished it.  It was a very nice place in a middle-class neighborhood that rapidly deteriorated under the pressures of the end of apartheid and the political struggle for South Africa’s future.  Crime and violence skyrocketed.  Towards the end of my stay there, a man was murdered in the small hours of the morning in the narrow side alley beneath my bedroom window. I was woken by the sound of the blows that crushed his skull, and called the police.  The bloodstains were there for days afterwards.

There was an infamous high-rise circular apartment building called Ponte City, just two blocks from my front balcony.  It had been built in the 1970’s as upmarket accommodation, complete with multi-floor apartments and whirlpool tubs, but rapidly fell into slum-like conditions as the suburb deteriorated around it.  During the 1990’s it became a haven for gangs, drug dealers and prostitutes, and its central well filled up with garbage, several floors high.  I understand it’s been cleaned up now, and is supposedly a better place, but I can’t help remembering it as it was in the bad years when I visited people there – the stench of urine, feces and unwashed humanity, the screams and cries of arguing people, and sometimes the slap and crunch of blows and kicks.

A South African film-maker has produced a documentary about the building, which brought back many memories for me.  It may not interest everyone, but I’ll include it here anyway, as a blast from my personal past.  (At 1m. 5sec., you’ll see a six-floor apartment building, the second from the right edge of the image.  I lived on the side of that building closest to the camera, on the fifth floor, in the front corner apartment.)

It was clearly very challenging having to film in such an environment, with its problems of light and shadow.  Mr. Bloom has written extensively about the technical details on his blog, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Watching that brought back many memories . . . the decay of an urban island that was built to serve a society founded on racial fraud and falsehood.  However, recent reports indicate that Ponte City has been refurbished (there’s a video report about that here), and is now a much nicer (and safer) place to live.  I’m glad to hear it . . . but I don’t think I’ll go back there to see for myself.  That murdered man beneath my window kind of spoiled the neighborhood for me, for good.


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