(Featured Image by Andrew Berry for We-Are-Awesome)
Hayleigh Evans and I sat down at a picnic table outside of Chalkboard Cafe to chat about the pros and cons of gentrification. Propertuity, the company for which she is the Brand Manager, has been developing several blocks in downtown Johannesburg into The Maboneng Precinct, a thriving creative enclave, but economic revitalization led by artists often comes at the expense of the people living in the area prior to the development. So I asked Hayleigh, how is Maboneng handling these issues of gentrification responsibly?
Hayleigh Evans: In terms of the district, we do a lot of public art projects to do community upliftment through art. We’ve gotten really involved in doing mural project [I Art Joburg] through Ricky [Lee Gordon] and adidas Originals. We have done classes and murals with various artists, but it is difficult to find something consistent. We need more manpower to do it, and as artists, our schedules are hectic. And if we want to do classes with kids, the kids really need consistency. That’s what we are focusing on now by creating a community center. We want to provide a full-time care giver so that any time the kids come someone will be around, even if there aren’t art classes going on. Kelly Grevler has also been doing guitar lessons for underprivileged girls on Sunday afternoons on the street, calling it “Sidewalk Sessions.”
HE: Our programs are multidisciplinary and not just focused on visual art. But right now, we aren’t focused on getting people to think differently and haven’t been able to do the planning for that. I’m sure that broader conceptual focus will come once we can get logistics ironed out. Right now, we are focused on skills development (dance, guitar, drawing, etc) and mentoring.
Catherine J Howard: That seems to be a recurring thing. We as artists are all doing so many things that it is hard to focus on something long enough to get the project to a point where it is sustainable. That’s part of what I’m trying to figure out with this project — what are the methods for sustainability that artists can implement easily so that they can do the projects they want to be doing without completely losing their creativity and spontaneity.
HE: Recently, a Mail&Guardian article [“I am an island”] proposed that we used our community initiatives as a marketing tool. We’re not afraid of people having opinions, but these initiatives haven’t been developed by the property company but by the individual people who live here. Shruthi, who started One Creche at a Time, has a teaching background. The first thing she did when she moved to the area was to find these creches in various states of disrepair, and she wanted to do something about it. The same with Kelly. It’s not coming from the capitalist side of what this place is. But that said, we have received a lot of support. We’ve been given a community center space for free from the development company, and other nonprofits in the area have helped us with funding proposals. But the article does raise the issue that the biggest con is how do we make enough time to make these projects consistent and sustainable. That is a question we are asking ourselves.
HE: Most neighborhoods like this have started with a creative set of people who are eventually forced to move out. We’ve been quite conscious about the importance of the creative community here. Arts on Main, which started this whole precinct, was based on that. While we’ve made a conscious effort to expand and bring in entrepreneurs, innovators, and other like-minded people, we’ve still focused on keeping the cultural element of the precinct alive. When a place becomes too capitalistic, that element falls away. Our Artist Colony provides cheap space in buildings we are not currently developing. We are also making Maboneng accessible to artists as a canvas. My job is to bring cultural projects into event spaces and onto the walls to give the precinct flavor. That has been the most important thing to us since the beginning.
CJH: You are expanding out into buildings you didn’t used to own, so has there been any push back from other community members?
HE: We only acquire buildings that are empty and not residential properties, so we’ve never had to engage in evictions. From that perspective, there’s not been push back. We’ve had more positive than negative feedback from the neighbors, and the fact that we do engage with the kids is very important. We’re also supporting the local businesses not just in the district by building a directory of all the goods and services available in a 5 km radius for internal and external use to support the local economy. For us, it’s all about being conscious of the context. Being conscious is the most important thing.
Watch this great talk by Propertuity founder, Jonathan Liebmann, for more information about the history of the precinct and lots of great photos:
A big thanks again to Hayleigh for being so open and easy to talk to!
And now, what are your thoughts on Maboneng?
Check back on Thursday for my take on Maboneng.