The Newtown Cultural Precinct, established by the City of Johannesburg as the city's "cultural heart" has recently gone through a significant slump and a near decade of neglect. The city has plans to reassess it, but is the cultural district concept dead?
The Newtown Cultural Precinct (NCP) which I introduced at length previously, started as an artists led initiative in 1976. The cultural quarter developed naturally over 14 years as various arts bodies clustered around the Market Theatre, creating a unique area of cultural dynamism and artistic excellence rooted in an anti-Apartheid and non racial ethic. In 1990 it became a project of the municipality's Arts, Culture and Heritage Department and was the site of Johannesburg's two Biennales. Then it became an investment node to further urban regeneration in the inner city.
A Project of Urban Regeneration Challenged
From 2000 NCP was taken over by Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), a municipal entity tasked to regenerate the inner city and later to manage the city's capital projects. The land itself was owned by the Johannesburg Property Company (JPC) another municipal entity. At that time the municipality was going through extreme financial challenges - the inner-city had experienced major capital flight and was in a state of urban decay with high crime and a vast numbers of squatted buildings. NCP and other major projects, such as Constitution Hill, was a way for the City to reposition the inner city, and create spaces that would attract investment, businesses and tourism. The R344m invested by the state into the project was geared primarily to entice private sector property investments, and so increase the City's rates base. Large tracts of state land and heritage buildings were sold in the process. Mary Fitzgerland, the central events space was upgraded to host major events, and NCP was heavily branded. A consumption heavy approach emerged to attract the middle classes back to the area, to visit the remaining arts bodies and frequent new restaurants in the newly built 1 Central Place.
However, very early the project hit a number of significant set backs and was forced to function with very little funding from 2006. In 2010 it had slight resuscitation and investment as the main Soccer World Cup Fan Park for the city. Then began its decline. Many of the areas small arts or entertainment businesses had been leaving the site as early as 2007, citing insecure leases, poor communication by JDA and JPC, with many feeling the space was no longer conducive for innovative cultural projects. Nonetheless, the JDA has touted it as recently as 2014 as a success, citing 4 large property investments (worth just over R2bn cumulatively), decreases in crime and increased audiences. It indicated, also, that it had completed its withdraw process and was to hand the site over to the Newtown Improvement District (NID) and to the City's Arts, Culture and Heritage Department. Around the time of this report, another municipal entity, Pikitup, the city's waste management body, decided to base a waste collection site on the edge of the area. This led to a bruising battle with the NID, representing the organizations based in the area, who rightly saw the major negative environmental impacts that it would bring. But the NID lost the battle, a last straw in an increasingly difficult process of maintaining the area as a cultural space. Today Newtown appears to be less of a functioning cultural district than a place where cultural bodies happen to be based, and even that is challenged.
Cultural Spaces Under Threat
Although the new Market Theatre Square building recently opened - bringing together the Theatre Lab, the Photo Workshop and the Market Theatre Foundation administration into a new award winning space, other cultural spaces in Newtown are under threat. In 2016, Baseline, a midsized music venue and recording space, which has been based in the area since 2005, left its space owned by the city amidst uncertainties about the lease. It is the only music space in the area and has hosted top local and international acts. Today the venue is closed and fenced off. Around this part of Newtown the area feels rundown and unsafe. Many of the bollards, topped with wooden sculptural heads have been vandalised, although there is reportedly a plan to fix these. The park is unkempt. 1 Central Place nearby, which once hosted Xarra Books, has no cultural tenants. Mary Fitzgerald Square looks as desolate as ever. Across the square is the Museum Africa which has suffered years of poor management and underinvestment.
The Bus Factory (pictured below), a craft development hub set up in the early 2000s, is also at threat. Initially a vibrant environment, it faced challenges of maintenance, leading the JDA to set the space up with its own plush headquarters to "help subsidize the space". Existing tenants in the space at the time complained about the lack of consultation and vastly different organizational cultures between the JDA and themselves, describing a deep divide with the corporatized city entity, which has largely kept to its own side of the building. This year the tenants were informed that the City had decided to move municipal offices into the space and that they were all being placed on a month to month lease. Access to the site has now been restricted and as a result clients coming to buy art and crafts have been impacted. The long established Imbali Visual Literacy Projectand the Artists Proof Studios, who has been in the area since 1985, have been placed in very precarious situation in terms of accommodation. Both have successfully provided training opportunities and livelihood opportunities for emerging black artists and are dependent on the reduced rate that a government space can provide. More worrying is that information about what is planned, and who is responsible for the decision, cannot be found.
Taking responsibility for Newtown?
Who is in charge of the Newtown Cultural Precinct project? Once the JDA washed its hands of the project post 2010, continuing only on specific property initiatives or eventing, it became increasingly unclear who was responsible for NCP. Was it the JPC as the property owner? Was it the Newtown Improvement District - the body that was meant to deal with urban management and marketing which included on its board some stakeholders? Or was it Atterburys - the developer who had the biggest commercial stake in the area by virtue of its development of Junction Mall and the new Nedbank building? Certainly it wasn’t the Arts, Culture and Heritage Department, a city department which had been systematically deciimated over the years and was running at around 50% capacity just last year.
The fact that no one organization or department has been able to claim responsibility for the cultural precinct project, nor can one individual be identified as responsible within the city administration, is extremely worrisome. A cultural district project needs constant attention - with at least one person having institutional knowledge, holding regular coordinating meetings with stakeholders, managing shared projects, connecting people internally and externally, marketing, managing research, evaluations and planning amongst others. This has been a missing link in the project for at least 5 - 8 years. In the absence of a state nurturing and capacitating a project for public good, in an area where property interests have been facilitated, its not surprising that developers have been driving agendas in the area.
Working with a Cultural District model
If the state is serious about using a cultural district model as a policy instrument, it does require a clearer understanding what this means in practise, of how such an approach fits into a broader framework and who benefits in the longer term from its use. Many municipalities internationally have initiated cultural district models as far back as the 80s, and there are therefore numerous cases studies to draw on The academic literature on cultural districts/clusters/quarters suggests that governance arrangements are critical for the success of spatio-cultural initiatives. This can be sharpened with the state having a robust local cultural policy framework that speaks to the city vision and its key economic, social, spatial and sustainability strategies. In the South African context, this means a clear link to the city's Integrated Development Plan (IDP) and a strong long term transformational agenda.
An understanding of the cultural context is critical, especially of the cultural district's role in the broader urban cultural ecosystem. Firstly a sense of the "assets" of place - not just its tangible, but more importantly its intangible features is needed. The project needs to be understood in terms of its heritage beyond the typical "identity" and "visual markers", going to the heart of what the site means to its users - working with this as a generator for action. Secondly stakeholder engagement is vital beyond mere "consultation" or "public participation". Cultural stakeholders are critical not just to the final activation of a place, but also in its inception and its ongoing making and can do that best when their connective abilities are strengthened. Thirdly the reach of the project needs to be understood: is it a neighbourhood project or does it serve the broader city - and if so how, who is important to speak to and involve and why, what further research is needed before planning can happen?
So where to Newtown Cultural Precinct?
Its good news to hear that the city is again beginning to rethink the NCP initiative - The City's Development Planning Department has begun to review and revision the Newtown Urban Development Framework (UDF) and a specialist internal city team has been appointed. Some stakeholder consultation has started. This is building, to some extent, on a recent report commissioned from Stark and Debhnem, two British consultants who were involved in the project in the 2000's. A number of city departments are involved, including Arts, Culture and Heritage. But can a built environment approach (and lead department) shift what should ideally be approached as a project of cultural development and public good? One of the tensions the team seems to have currently is, how to balance the developer interests with those related to the remaining cultural groupings. It still remains unclear how this tension will be resolved without loosing the broader developmental agenda which was part of the initial space pre 2000.
The success of Maboneng and Braamfontein, two mixed use developments, to attract cultural tenants and crowds away from Newtown has been much spoken about. The reasons for this are many - both push and pull factors were involved. The State is not an ideal developer, it is not agile and cannot engage in the same way as entrepreneurially minded and culturally savvy developers can and its procurement processes do not necessarily bring to the fore the kind of dynamism needed for placemaking. Its attempt to act as developer (2000 - 2010) has arguably damaged the cultural project of Newtown and only furthered developer interests. Its actions marginalized and disempowered the cultural entities who were critical to the optimal functioning of the space. Newtown today is more of a property project than the cultural district it started as. The developer voices are strong, the cultural sector weak and divided. Moving forward, how will the State manage its role as facilitator, and critically in whose interests will it act ultimately? This remains to be seen, though the signs have been contradictory. Asking cultural tenants in the area however, the need for a state subsidised cultural project is as vital as ever, even if it is functioning below expectations.