Gentrifying Jo’burg

The Architectural Review
23 December 2014

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“Gentrification is a deeply contested term. Its interpretations are incongruent and its applications liberal. In a recent paper for the journal City, geographer Alex Schafran marked the 50th anniversary of the concept. Developed by Ruth Glass in response to shifting class dynamics in a part of London in 1964, Schafran exalts gentrification as, ‘arguably the most vibrant and contested source of debate in writing about cities over the past three decades’.

David Harvey writes famously about capitalism’s ‘spatial fix’, where crises of capital surpluses are remedied through investment in fixed urban assets. Though developers often favour building on green-field sites and urban expansion, investors often also turn to existing urban areas as prime sites of reinvestment. Herein lies capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’ where urban assets are destroyed to create space for new − often more consumption-oriented − investment. The city loses its true authenticity and its immeasurable ‘use value’ is exchanged for a refined urban consumable, accessible only to those who can afford to buy it.

Johannesburg is a complex terrain in which to read processes of gentrification. As a city that has reportedly rebuilt itself three times since being founded in 1886, ‘creative destruction’ is at the heart of its DNA. Fragmented and divided Johannesburg is the result of the need for urban infrastructure to support the industrial extraction of gold. Its Wild West roots remain entangled in the contradictory, contemporary city of speculative gambles and entrepreneurial fixes. Wealth is a golden ticket to a ‘world class’ and highly privatised existence, while poverty condemns the majority to a creaking public sphere...'