The Newtown Cultural Precinct, which was covered in two earlier pieces, is an over four decades old cultural district in the inner city of Johannesburg. After years of neglect, the City of Johannesburg, the local municipality, through consultants, prepared a draft urban design framework and have called for public comment. In this piece former workers involved in the Newtown Improvement District question this particular intervention.
Why is there yet another plan trying to solve the problems of Newtown?
Money is again being spent on a plan without any real acknowledgement of what is actually needed to allow Newtown to fulfil the promise that was always implicit but never allowed to flourish. Our government has injected millions upon millions of Rand into Newtown, not that you would notice if you walked around there today. But it’s not just the money; there has also been a huge investment of human effort and commitment, and dare we say, love. Newtown was supposed to have been a flagship National cultural precinct and yet the authorities – chief amongst them the national Department of Arts and Culture – have singularly failed to hold and sustain this vision. What could be a valuable, vibrant and transformative space, is a disgrace – marked by urban neglect and decay.
Newtown doesn’t have a hope without a proper safety and cleaning plan, and sustainable arts funding. Theatre cannot happen. Dance cannot happen. Visual Arts cannot happen. Training in the arts cannot happen. Tourism cannot happen. Small businesses cannot happen. Pavement cafes cannot happen. Museums cannot happen. Acting and dance classes cannot happen. Events cannot happen. Parks cannot happen.
Even large developers won’t invest, if urban management services aren’t in place, if land isn’t released efficiently, if planning approvals are endlessly delayed and if billing remains a Kafkaesque nightmare.
What Newtown needs more than anything, and certainly more than yet another plan, is effective urban management and government subsidies for the arts and culture institutions and organisations that continue to exist and function (with varying degrees of success) in the existing precinct - despite the appalling urban environment. They include the Market Theatre, the Market Lab and the Market Photo Workshop, National Arts Council, Museum Africa, Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Workers Museum, Moving into Dance, the Dance Space, the Dance Factory, Vuyani Dance Company, SA Roadies Association, Imbali Visual Literacy Project and Artist Proof Studios. This list is not comprehensive but is intended to illustrate that the precinct is an extraordinary and vitally important conglomeration of arts, culture, science, teaching and learning - a cluster with an international footprint.
No amount of new investment in soft or hard infrastructure will solve Newtown’s problems. There is only one solution – reactivate (yet again!) the Newtown Improvement District (NID). Newtown once had a coordinating structure that was able to facilitate urban management services AND undertake cultural programming, precinct marketing etc. The NID was essential to the functioning of the cultural precinct because agencies like Pikitup were singularly unable to meet the needs of Newtown. Almost a decade has gone by since the closure of the NID and the City and its agencies have shown that they are incapable of managing the precinct.
The City, as the major property owner in the precinct, should be forced to contribute financially to the city improvement district thereby ensuring its sustainability. Why is there a call for yet another plan that, if implemented, could cost the City millions of rand, if there isn’t an appetite for a long-term sustainability project that is properly financed?
A proper cultural mapping study needs to be done, as well as an independent review of the cultural impact of the Newtown cultural precinct. Questions should be asked, such as; What is the real cultural output and value of the institutions and organisations listed above? Why hasn’t the Department of Arts and Culture, provincial arts department and the City ever done such research? And in the absence of such research, how can the City be committing to a new long-term plan for Newtown?
Some of the ‘catalyst’ projects mentioned in the latest urban development framework just cannot work. For example, the new concept and design for Mary Fitzgerald Square, which proposes the introduction of “smaller softer green spaces, movable furniture, more seating and shaded areas, and a performance area/stage” is unworkable. If the consultants had engaged with the people who actually manage events on the square they would have found that maximum flexibility is required for staging large events. We also don’t think anyone would sit on the square to have lunch when there is a much safer and more convivial space at Newtown Junction. There is interesting small business activity taking place in the area, most noticeable is the ever-growing second-hand clothing trade. Imagine if we had the largest second-hand clothing market on the African continent here? And as for opening Museum Africa to the north; how will this fundamentally change anything when the museum hasn’t seen any real investment since opening in 1994?
Safe, clean spaces with lighting are needed. And where lighting is concerned – there has twice been considerable investment in lighting infrastructure in Newtown that City Power cannot maintain. Standard lighting specifications please!
There cannot be a solution for Newtown without engagement with the arts and culture sector and it seems unclear whether this engagement did in fact take place. Surely the fundamental point is not another plan with yet more new initiatives and costly infrastructure - but rather to acknowledge what is in the precinct, what has the potential to work and then to provide the conditions which allow these to flourish. Let’s get back to safe and clean spaces and long-term sustainable support for the arts. The City’s own Directorate of Arts and Culture claim that they have not been consulted. If this is true who’s to blame? The Department of Development Planning or the Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage? And how can such a thing even be allowed to happen?
Until there is a concrete commitment to urban management, any further money spent on Newtown, be it plans or infrastructure, will be fruitless and wasteful expenditure and the City should be charged accordingly.
Perhaps Newtown as a cultural district has run its course. Maybe. However, the latest Newtown Urban Development Framework does leave one wondering if the City of Johannesburg has a vision at all for the arts and cultural sector. The pitiful neglect of Newtown, (and other key institutions, such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and other critical cultural spaces) suggests not. Updating plans for the sake of updating them won’t result in better outcomes. No amount of pretty pictures illustrating how to transform Newtown by softening of hard edges and public spaces, pedestrian walkways, an outdoor amphitheatre, children’s parks, picnic areas with braai facilities, piazzas, green spaces and water features - will change the reality of Newtown’s precarious situation.
Written by Kate Shand (Consultant and previously Newtown Improvement District marketing manager), Jacques Stoltz (Place Matters) and Manqoba Mkhize (Akwande Productions, previously Newtown Improvement District events manager)