Hillbrow, Jo’burg’s inner city Tenderloin district, was never a nest of angels…
In the late 1970s and 80s, it was the most cosmopolitan piece of real estate in South Africa.
You had your excellent Hillbrow Records, your Mi-Vami shawarma place, Estoril Books, your globe-trotting tattoo artist down in the basement shopping area on Pretoria Street and your Chelsea Hotel, where newcomer musicians like David Kramer and Roger Lucey used to launch their latest songs.
You had folk clubs and late-night hangouts like L’chaim! on Kotze and an all-round superstar spot called The Summit Club – more about that fun spot later.
The Haunts of Hillbrow
There were all manner of restaurants on balconies, where you could sit out under an umbrella in summer, drink beer and watch the crazies down below. Become one yourself, from time to time.
You could spend all day playing backgammon and drinking coffee at the Café Wien.
I had a particular love for a low dive called the Café Florian, which reminded me of similar spots in old Lourenco Marques (now Maputo).
Then came democracy, and Hillbrow turned into an African version of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, for a decade or two.
There was already so much freedom there, you see, that when you introduced more than 100 000 foreign residents all looking for a gap into that human stew, you were adding some serious pepper spice into the mix.
For the rest of South Africa, it became a voyeuristic sport to watch Hillbrow on New Year’s Eve on telly, as the fridges would come tumbling down onto the streets from the dilapidated flats high in the sky.
A Reporter’s Notes
My notes from back then:
Hillbrow. The young crime reporter has been out all night on a suicide story. Some kids smoked one white pipe over the limit and threw themselves out of the window of a flat on the 20th floor.
They left no notes. Even the cops and ambulance men go green when they spy the remains. The reporter pukes his heart out in an alley, files his story from a pay phone and goes in search of an endless cup of coffee.
Mother Hillbrow is a filthy bitch at sunrise.
It’s dawn, and he’s been sitting in the warm cocoon of a first-floor Hillbrow coffee shop all night. The caffeine and aftershock have set in and his teeth are chattering, his heart is fluttering and his hands are trembling.
He watches the mad backgammon players three seats away as they click-clack, click-clack their tiles on the table top.
Outside, yesterday’s newspaper shuffles down through a narrow side street, gently prodded by the winter wind. It wraps itself around a hobo’s takkie as he huddles in a doorway, so close to death he doesn’t realise it.
Mother Hillbrow is a filthy bitch at sunrise.
Some shop fronts have been vandalised, jagged glass lies everywhere and the owners are staring into space. They are still in their gowns and slippers, their hair dishevelled.
Grey, pre-stressed dwellings claw up into the sky at random, and the lift shafts hum as people descend from their shoe-box homes to buy milk, or go to work.
The night’s excesses lie thick on the streets. In the distance, you hear the council lorries with their trash collectors in orange overalls swinging from the tailgates like noisy, cheerful Knights of Mardi Gras. They have come to wipe the bitch’s nose.
The Famous Brown Chicken
Hillbrow. No piece on this area can be complete without a short eulogy on the Fontana brown chicken and the man behind it all, Taki Xenopoulos.
Hillbrow made Taki a millionaire, simply because everyone loved a late night brown chicken from his 24/7 shop called Fontana.
By providing all-night services at his outlet in Highpoint, the geographical centre of Hillbrow, and baking always-fresh bread rolls, Taki has created a money-spinning cult which now sees Fontana as the last stop after a long session of carousing.
To the hoboes and slobs it provides a well-lit forecourt where they can be safe, away from the human beasts who hunt in the small hours of the night.
“When we officially opened [Fontana], I threw away the front door key.” – Taki Xenopoulos
To the Hare Krishnas in their flowing saffron robes and Yul Brynner haircuts, Fontana provides a nightly stage for their mystical chanting.
“People from as far away as the East Rand will easily drive all the way to Hillbrow for a pack of smokes because they know we’ll be open.
“When we officially opened and had a little ceremony, I threw away the front door key. I said we would never need it because we were never going to close.
“I got pessimistic forecasts from all sides – people said I wouldn’t make it. I was happy and still able to spend fifty percent of my time on the shop floor.
“People gather around Highpoint out of loneliness. They like to see a friendly face.”
And after many years of corruption, sleaze and bad behaviour in general (who needs a fridge landing on their heads on New Year’s Eve, of all occasions?), there are moves afoot to regenerate Hillbrow.
Like most of South Africa, Hillbrow is a work in progress. And it is never to be written off.
This is an extract from The Journey Man – A South African Reporter’s Stories by Chris Marais.
“It’s like sitting in a journo bar listening to old hacks tell their funniest, sauciest stories.”
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