Gritty, dirty, urban- a city that has its past written all over its streets. I walk down streets that resemble Harlem in New York, just broken down and without the diverse faces from around the world that make the urban hub so unique. I step over cracks, around trash, curiously looking at the empty buildings, the familiar graffiti art that adds character to the run down brick. I notice a guy following me, telling me about his penthouse down the street. He has been to New York once- Brooklyn, but can’t tell me where. I quickly duck into the only restaurant I’ve seen to lose my pursuer.
I have so many questions about this city I’ve heard so much about- New York compared to the California of Cape Town. Why are there so many abandoned buildings and broken windows? The smell of urine is so strong I choke on it. Eyes follow me as I aimlessly walk into an underground market- what is she doing here? I finally find a local who laughs at my curiosity and reprimands me for wandering around all day by myself. She convinces me to ditch my purse (she doesn’t have a gun to protect me if I get mugged) and we set off to explore.
There were white people in the City Center during apartheid (I was for sure the only one walking around today) but they left once it was abolished, leaving many of the buildings deserted and empty. People who had been exiled came back to Johannesburg, but didn’t necessarily have a place to go- hence squatters who have taken over abandoned buildings where possible and the overwhelming number of people living in parks. Children find small areas around the homeless who inhabit Joburgs parks to play ball.
I thought Cape Town was segregated, but I’m not sure about Joburg, I confide in my companion. Oh, Joburg is the most segregated people don’t mix in the city center like Cape Town, they stay where there are people of their own race. We walk to the Indian neighborhood, where signs still say no whites allowed- the Indian neighborhood was where colored and black people could find refuge during apartheid. I take in as much history of this city as I can, starting to understand the dynamics of this place I’ve heard so much about, my eyes replacing the images my mind has created.
Apparently I have a 50/50 chance of getting mugged at night. I leave my phone/card/ anything valuable at home to take my chances- it’s impossible for me to not walk around at night. Maboneng, the art district, my happy place, provides me with about 4 blocks I can safely explore at night. I found the East Village in Johannesburg and immediately feel at home. Sipping my warm drink in the cool crisp outdoors, I review my day in Joburg, and look forward to a new adventure in historic Soweto tomorrow.