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Home truths and storied streets

- Beth Amato

Understand Johannesburg’s challenges, opportunities and intricacies through the cultural microcosm that is Orange Grove.

Cities, urban, streets. ©Mark Lewis |

If one aims to have a loose understanding of Johannesburg as a whole, 10th Street in Orange Grove is one of its microcosms that offers some insight. 

On the corner of 10th Street and Louis Botha Avenue, there is a charismatic Ethiopian church in a run-down building and a makeshift hair salon that shares premises with a junk shop. 

The corner has seen the remains of burning detritus as residents protested against the City’s lack of progress in allocating low-cost housing to them. Tenth Street and Louis Botha Avenue is also a busy one-way traffic intersection leading the BMW X5s and other expensive cars east to the richer residential area of Linksfield, to one of Johannesburg’s top private hospitals, and an abundance of “good” schools. 

On the opposite end of the street, which ends in a cul-de-sac and which is closest to affluent Norwood, there’s a Shul, a religious Jewish school and a Seventh-Day Adventist Church. In this cul-de-sac, there are a mixture of high walls with electric fencing, and low palisade fences – the latter amenable to neighbours enjoying late afternoon conversations, usually complaining of the washed-down rubbish from Louis Botha Avenue’s many informal activities after a thunderstorm, and the stray cat that causes havoc with the other beloved pets on the block. 

History in the ‘hood’ 

The history of Louis Botha Avenue, Orange Grove and Norwood is inextricable from the history and development of Johannesburg. Alexandra Appelbaum, as a researcher in the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning (SA&CP) at Wits noted in her report, Contestation, transformation and competing visions: a study of Orange Grove and Norwood that, “Much of the story of Johannesburg unfolds along its central artery to Pretoria and in some of the City’s first suburbs … The inner city ‘decline’ of the late 1970s and 1980s was mirrored in Orange Grove, and saw Norwood – which had often been considered the less desirable, lower-class equivalent of Orange Grove – flourishing … This historical moment marks a significant shift in the area that continues to influence the contemporary neighbourhoods.” 

Orange Grove has always been a place where immigrants and migrants have settled. After the First World War in 1918, Italian women (who packed dynamite for the military in their home country) moved to South Africa to work in what was then a dynamite factory in nearby Modderfontein. 

Orange Grove thus came to be known as “Little Italy”, with Super Sconto deli on 5th Street and the Italian Machinery shop just opposite on Louis Botha Avenue as its relics. The suburb continues to be home to foreigners, mostly from other African countries. Appelbaum notes that 47% of the residents in Orange Grove who responded to an SA&CP survey listed their birthplaces as outside of South Africa. 

Future urban inspiration 

The racial, ethnic and income diversity of Orange Grove, its proximity to a transport hub and to economic activity, and where residents mostly “work, sleep and play” is what the City of Johannesburg aims to emulate in other parts. While the area has experienced significant urban decay, there’s untapped potential for further social and economic vibrancy. Hence, Orange Grove was earmarked as a key node along the City’s Corridors of Freedom initiative, an ambitious project that, by 2057, would see Johannesburg transformed and apartheid-era spatial planning dismantled. 

The Corridors, which run along Empire-Perth Roads and Louis Botha Avenue, and within Turffontein, are designated for high-density development, efficient and cheap transport systems, and low-cost residential housing. The project is now known as Transit-Oriented Development Corridors (TOD). 

For 18 months, SA&CP at Wits University worked with collaborators Agence Française de Développement and the City of Johannesburg to imagine Johannesburg’s future. SA&CP Research Chair Professor Philip Harrison indicated that the collaboration brought together institutions around “a compelling agenda – that of building an urban future which meets the needs of and responds to the hopes of all segments of our society.” 

Thus, in August 2017, the Spatial Transformation Through Transit-Orientated Development in Johannesburg – Synthesis Report and eight other related reports were launched to assist the City. 

But while Orange Grove is already representative of much of what TOD aims to achieve, the area is also emblematic of the deep tension and fractiousness present in Johannesburg and, perhaps, South Africa as a whole. Indeed, Orange Grove is an area that has undergone considerable post-apartheid transformation and illustrates the complex effects of such a process. 

Appelbaum observes “the story of Orange Grove is one of many narratives and no single truth. Stakeholders in the area present their ‘truths’, which differ widely and cause conflict”. 

City fears and desires 

Italian journalist, Italo Calvino (1923-1985) writes that “cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else”. 

Nowhere are these desires and fears more evident than at Paterson Park, which separates Orange Grove from the more affluent Norwood. Paterson Park is City-owned green space earmarked as a City-led affordable housing development. The Park is simultaneously the site of possibility, and a deadlock between conservative residents worried about property owners, and progressive forces attempting to find new ways to integrate the City. Low-cost housing and mixed-use facilities are under construction. 

Dr Margot Rubin, Editor and Lead Author of the Synthesis Report, says that the clashes over the development (between the residents’ associations and the City) highlight that the “spatial and economic issues bedevilling Johannesburg are entrenched” and will be hard to shift. 

Yet, Paterson Park remains a significant opportunity for enhancing social and community infrastructure in the area and Johannesburg as a whole. The TOD plan envisages a “safe neighbourhood” with pedestrian and cycling paths, attractive streetscapes, calm traffic flows, mixed-use developments that encourage economic development, and a wide range of accommodation and transport options. 

The City of Johannesburg envisions “integrated spaces with rich and poor, black and white living side by side”. This could happen if we let go of trying to find a binding narrative in Orange Grove. 

Appelbaum’s report notes that, “The ongoing insistence of all stakeholders that a single truth is found is counterproductive; rather, the many truths, narratives and realities need to be understood and acknowledged before any accord will be reached in the area”. 

  • Beth Amato is a freelance journalist and a resident of 10th Street, Orange Grove.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the seventh issue, themed: #Ekhaya (isiZulu for ‘home’) about our homegrown research that crosses borders and explore the physical spaces we inhabit, where we feel we belong, where we’re from and what we identify with, including the physical/psychological space we may return to – or reject.