Previously on Newtown
In a previous article on Newtown, three workers involved with this cultural precinct for over 4 decades, questioned the City of Johannesburg's (CoJ) recently proposed urban development framework, arguing that what the site actually needs is more effective implementation of those plans already developed.
Such a strategy, they contend, should be underpinned by sustainable state support for agencies in the cultural ecosystem of the Newtown Cultural Precinct (NCP) - specifically institutional subsidies and incentives, underpinned by good urban management. They call for a renewed effort to engage with cultural and not just spatial planning. Decisions should be informed by relevant data and stakeholder engagement. In particular they call for "an independent review of the cultural impact" of the project to date, including the value brought individually and collectively by the organisations in the precinct. These writers argue that a lack of research undermines the effort of long term planning for the site.
They further raise concerns about the poor level of consultation with the Arts Culture and Heritage (AC&H) Department who manage important spaces in the vicinity (notably Museum Africa - a central and major City owned space), and who were the originators of a cultural district policy tool in 1991? Correspondence with the AC&H department suggests it was not involved in the development of the brief for the current project, the procurement and oversight of consultants, nor were its inputs acknowledged and given a response in the plan. They became just another "consulted" stakeholder - a legal requirement to which the South African government, as researchers show,often only pays lip service.
Thus they open the space for important questions to be asked, including:
How can we quantify the value and impacts of state investments – local, provincial and national - into Newtown as a cultural precinct, over the last almost 3 decades (1991-2019) and what have we learnt?
What are the roles of different spheres of government currently, and what could they be in the future?
Why has the cultural sector been so little engaged in the proposed new plan, and what could be its value if there was greater collaborative governance?
Unpacking Newtown as a Memory
In the only other media coverage of the issue, a radio talk show held on Power FM, entitled Unpacking the Newtown Urban Development Frameworkthe Mayoral Committee Member (MMC) for Development Planning in the City of Johannesburg, Rueben Masango, was given the space to present the City's proposition. In the show he listed what has been communicated by the city -
a) the failure of Newtown means that it cannot only be a cultural precinct, seemingly because it is not seen as a sustainable concept
b) that the spatial plan will inform the site’s future purpose.
Yet, when pushed by the presenter, guest speaker and cultural activist, Sipho Mantula, and listeners, about the research which underpinned this key assumption - that the time for the cultural precinct is over - Masonga was unable to provide answers to the missing question – ‘Have you diagnosed the problems?’
After the various contributors pointed out that authentic stakeholder engagement seems to have been missing, and gave valuable inputs, the MMC shifted tone – saying he was open to talking about the issues. The interview confirmed that the City's Development Planning department has made a decision about what Newtown should be and its spatial plan is simply about implementing this, not to explore a range of alternatives. The MMC did not articulate the way in which a spatial plan alone - without the inclusion of a cultural analysis of how and why the area has been in decline - is deemed adequate for making a major decision about a long standing city-owned initiative. Such a glaring omission ignores the almost three decades investment (cash and in-kind) by the state, international agencies, cultural agencies and private sector into the area. He was not asked why it was only his Directorate (one dealing primarily with the built environment) that was driving the decision making and vision shifts and why his counterpart - the MMC for Community Development, under which AC&H sits - was not part of this dialogue.
Key Missing Links
Mantula’s input raises a few important points worth noting. Newtown has ‘intangible’ heritage value which is still relevant today.
Firstly, it was a highly significant site for the generation of ideas, knowledge and cultural development which speaks to the African context. Some of these values are still evident in current organisations. Mantula noted the importance of the nonprofit Kippies Jazz Club as a critical space for musical experimentation. It is now an empty shell with only a heritage plaque outside but is sorely missed. Similarly significant is the Workers Museum and Library (now mainly aimed at visitors) but once a space for developing critical thinking, and Xarra Books (a bookshop promoting African writers and literacy). These and many other agencies furthered a progressive African agenda – they included Shivava, Horror Café's Reggae Night, Film Resource Unit and the Afrika Cultural Centre.
Secondly, it was a place of gathering which promoted diversity and inter-culturalism - something from which all South African cities desperately need to learn.
Thirdly, it was not an island in itself - it played a role as a regional arts development hub for the Gauteng province - connected to, fed by and nurturing in turn, areas all around the province. There is no other space quite like it and as a result it has had a big impact on the creative economy of the region. This is especially important because the country's national arts and culture policy focusses heavily on the economic aspects of culture through the Mzansi Golden Economy. Newtown institutions have been the main recipients of this funding over the years, as mapping research by the SA Cultural Observatory has shown.
Because of the above sentiments, I differ with the writers of ‘Yet another plan for Newtown’. Shand, Stoltz and Mkhize ask for better management of the urban development process - land release, planning approvals etc. and are implicitly calling for the old plan behind the JDA project to be reinstated, but implemented more effectively. What they don’t do is critique that earlier plan, which research by Pieterse and Gurney (2012) suggest, is based on an unsound set of values. A property led initiative exposes the City’s lack of deeper understandings of culture and the ways its worked with in urban change. I would suggest that what needs to be asked is - What was successful about previous approaches to Newtown? Are these still relevant today? And most importantly - what do we want a cultural district to do for the city? What alternatives are possible?
The Case of Missing Years
It is interesting to note that in all the documents about the NCP produced to date by the JDA, the period from its beginnings as a state project under Christopher Till in 1991, (the city's first Arts and Culture Director), to his resignation in 1998, has been written out of history. This was the period of (amongst others) the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Johannesburg Biennale which can be credited for triggering the outstanding growth of the contemporary art market in South Africa today and for its role in shifting the discourses about art and its role in society (see the research done by the DAC on the country’s visual arts market). Similarly the mapping work done by local cultural management and policy consultant Avril Joffe during the period of the Johannesburg Inner City Office until 2001 when the JDA took its place, is missing from their picture. This work was critical to the development of the Bus Factory as a craft hub - more adequately supported earlier by the state - a vision which has been significantly eroded by the ways in which the JDA populated the building and seemingly marginalised its cultural projects tenants.
Why was the period of cultural dynamism written out of the Newtown story post 2000?
There are a number of reasons for the JDA's erasing parts of Newtown's story, but a key one, I would suggest, was that the JDA in 2001, wanted to position itself as the originator of a ‘new idea’. As such it felt compelled to develop a narrative which turned the past into a simple story - that once upon a time Newtown was important in the cultural struggle - and that time was over. The JDA's plan for the Newtown Cultural Precinct was a project to regenerate the inner city by attracting property investments and to serve as a site for tourism led consumption, not as a cultural development initiative. It was put in place because of the dire economic situation of a then bankrupt city council, the rapidly decaying inner city and the unsound governance arrangement in place before the unicity was established. It was part of an income generating strategy of the city to raise rates.
This vision of Newtown as a cash cow for addressing urban challenges was to be measured by only two success indicators during the JDA era –
1. How much property investment was garnered and
2. How many visitors came to the site?
These figures were still collected as late as 2014. At one point, the JDA did begin talking about the project as an educational one (Newtown as a "University"), but this was a short lived narrative and no indicators were ever developed for it. Production, which was key to Newtown's history to date was, to a large extent pushed aside - it was not measured at all. Newtown's significant past - its struggles for freedom and its emphasis on innovation and connectivity - was reduced to an element informing the new brand, not as a key value in itself - one that was still very much alive in the area when the JDA took it over. This vital element was never properly acknowledged, nor understood and no indicators ever built around it. Thus as the JDA tried to make Newtown, an area rich with state owned property, an instrument for attracting investment, the area’s value add - its cultural development potential especially in respect to producing a new African city in all its complexities, drawing on broader definitions of culture, was to a large extent ignored. Youth culture, for example, where Jozi’s dynamism and future is, was often marginalised.
Whose in charge of Newtown?
The proposed spatial plan is too narrow an instrument to ‘re-vision’ such an important project as the Newtown Cultural Precinct, and the Development Planning department should not be the only major stakeholder to decide its fate. I repeat calls for relevant research, greater stakeholder consultation and a revisiting of the earlier successes and failures of Newtown. Any planning for Newtown requires not just the involvement of built environment specialists, but critically, cultural management specialists informed by the cultural sectors most impacted by the project - those in the area as well as those who recognise its value as a regional hub for cultural development.
Importantly, it needs to be asked - Who is in charge of Newtown, how and why? Clearly there is a governance issue. In ‘Yet another plan for Newtown’, the writers suggest we reinvigorate the Newtown Improvement District (NID) to play a leading role - and it should be noted that this is currently being explored by the stakeholders themselves. I agree that a new governance approach is needed, but it must be developed and underpinned by research. The NID was put in place to realise the JDA vision - is it appropriate in its current form for what is needed today? This may mean a broader set of stakeholders are needed; a different configuration is required. Too much has been invested in Newtown over the years to continue to make poorly informed decisions based on inadequate data.
Drawing on Data and Debunking Cliches
When the JDA embarked on its plans for the NCP in 2001, the research done on clusters/cultural districts/cultural quarters was largely nascent. The first state driven cultural regeneration initiatives in the global North only started in the 80s. In the 2000s, ideas of the ‘creative city’ and the ‘creative class’ were relatively new buzz words. Major initiatives such as the Bilbao Gugenheim were less than 5 years old. Policymakers drawing on these trends often had little data to draw on and went into their initiatives with unclear objectives and weak success indicators. There have been many failures and a few notable successes although not without challenges. Today the research arena is rich with data from academics around the world and there is a growing body of practice based work to draw upon.
A global network of cultural districts only formed in 2013 - the first of its kind. Besides sharing practice based knowledge, it initiates research into, inter alia, governance and operating models, metrics of success and impact studies. While most members are based in the global North and the material therefore needs to be handled carefully in its application to the global South, much of it is still valuable (see some links below). The CoJ, it appears, has not engaged with these research or practice networks. The Pieterse and Gurney piece (2012) written by South African researchers on Newtown, which does consider the reality of the global south and is rooted in empirical data, does not appear to have been read. Much can be achieved by engaging academia on the next steps.
Culture and Spatial Justice
The CoJ still holds onto the clichéd belief that the private sector (more especially property developers and their capital) is what's needed to make the NCP project work - arguing that to release property to them will make it happen. It was this belief that initially underpinned the JDA plan. Today, the CoJ references the successes of the Maboneng initiative, in the east of the inner city, as proof of this belief. Yet it does not recognize that there are only a handful of property developers who have worked with culture in urban development in Joburg, and that these projects have not been without their own challenging dynamics (the Maboneng project for example has recently collapsed in a real sense). They have also been working in areas with different building stock and fine grain street life, unlike Newtown. These developers are relatively small, without the deep pockets of those in the North of the city who are more adept at working in the interests of a moneyed middle class and are less innovative. Importantly the profit driven approach does not readily take in justice considerations. How can the NCP speak to the Joburg of today with all its urban contradictions and challenges. How can we build on its strengths while addressing its weaknesses?
A new paradigm is thus needed - one which understands the picture more holistically and is focused on producing the conditions for a better, more inclusive, just and sustainable city of the future. An enabling environment would allow stakeholders, who live under these conditions, to better respond to the lived context. This is a cultural project in itself, rooted in participatory governance and not just one about the built environment.
Author: Zayd Minty
See an earlier piece for more: Newtown: Is the Newtown Cultural Precinct Project Dead.
Some Useful References:
Andres, L., & Chapain, C. (2013). The Integration of Cultural and Creative Industries into Local and Regional Development Strategies in Birmingham and Marseille: Towards an Inclusive and Collaborative Governance? Regional Studies, 47(2), 161–182.
Gregory, J. J. (2016) ‘Creative industries and urban regeneration – The Maboneng precinct, Johannesburg’, Local Economy, 31(1–2), pp. 158–171.
Mommaas, H. (2004) ‘Cultural clusters and the post-industrial city: towards the remapping of urban cultural policy’, Urban Studies, 41(3), pp. 507–532.
Montgomery, J. (2003) ‘Cultural quarters as mechanisms for urban regeneration. Part 1: Conceptualising cultural quarters’, Planning Practice and Research, 18(4), pp. 293–306.
Pieterse, E. and Gurney, K. (2012) ‘Johannesburg : Investing in Cultural Economies or Publics?’ in Anheier, H. K. and Isar, Y. R. (eds) Cities, Cultural Policy and Governance. London: Sage, pp. 194–203.