This week afforded more adventures both with GRIND and in and around Jeppestown and Troyville. I will share three experiences with you now: my new “Community Cube” project, visiting the home and neighborhood of local legend Bheki Dube, and meeting and discussing urban ideas with Boundless City founder and co-director Alexandra Cunningham.
The “Community Cube” Concept: A Maboneng Living Museum Exhibition
In a neighborhood development context, community spaces need to be flexible and welcoming for all. I also want my community projects to be sustainable and “owned” by community members themselves. As a part of this goal, Alice Cabaret (GRIND Director) and I have thought of the “Community Cube”: a 1.5m square cube that showcases local talent and potential, functions as a space for events and performances, and ultimately boosts social capital. It is owned and managed by community members, who will also assemble and construct the cube, and help design it.
When the cube is closed, it serves as a meeting table and gathering place. A cube design logo (designed by neighborhood residents) marks the top, and the sides include participatory chalkboard spaces, areas to post about local events and career resources, and spaces for crowd funding initiatives.
Cubes are known for their pronounced, sharp edges. Places like Maboneng are beautiful because of their edges, their boundaries. People of different races, classes, and backgrounds come together and meet, and the result is not separation but intersection and diversity. Maboneng’s cube brings hundreds of living faces together to illustrate the diversity—and commonality—of South Africa’s ultimate urban experience.
On the inside, the cube opens and includes spaces to showcase local talent and civic leaders through ethnographic testimonials. The inside top also includes a whiteboard space for presentations. Small foldable two-board chairs are stored inside the cube for civic events. The floor will include a neighborhood map.
A “community cube” is a light, mobile, and innovative site of collective neighborhood memory. On the inside, the community cube documents an area’s “story” not merely through traditional historical accounts, but through ethnographic testimonials of a great diversity of community leaders, residents, and workers. Such testimonials will take the visual form of a “Faces of Community” exhibition that shows faces and stories of neighborhood leaders, and also shows neighborhood talent, like art, poetry exhibitions, or music. As a light and mobile object, civic leaders can move a community cube to different events and functions. The cube can be located in outdoor public spaces and in museums with sufficient space. A cube is the simplest and neatest of shapes, and a community cube reflects the many complex stories and the messiness that exists in even the most even of shapes. Ultimately, a community cube empowers a district’s local residents to consider not just the spatial dimensions of their neighborhood, but the faces and histories of a local conglomerate. The cube can later be expanded as the basis for a larger exhibition or full community museum.
Adventures with Bheki Dube
Bheki Dube was born and raised in neighboring Troyville, just a ten minute walk from where he currently resides. Now featured in countless magazine and newspaper articles about the Maboneng Precinct and serving as the official “neighborhood host” and known as an essential community broker, Bheki was once just an ambitious Troyville boy photographing his city. As we walked towards his original home, Bheki explained some of his history to me. He showed me where old restaurants stood, where neighbors had lived. It was an impressive experience. It still shocks me that Bheki is 22 years old. After his first job, Bheki began taking photographs of urban Johannesburg, of places no tourist wanted to visit. And Bheki’s photography caught on. Soon he started a highly successful Johannesburg touring company, Main Street Walks, that continues to give inner city Johannesburg tours on “Art and Social Justice,” “Public Art,” and more. Bheki’s company was recently featured in the New York Times; he now employs half a dozen other tour guides to manage his many tour operations. And, most famously, Bheki partnered with Jonathan Liebmann to start Curiocity Backpackers, a Mabondeng community institution and essential place for people like me to meet and engage with local neighborhood residents. We passed the Jeppe Train Station, and then walked through to Jeppe Park. Bheki had grown up playing here, and today it was filled with eager youngsters surrounding the skatepark. Skatistan, an American NGO originally serving Afghanistan, had just built a new skatepark and American volunteers were helping local kids learn to skate in the dying sunlight.
Jeppe Station from above.
Skateistan in Troyville Park.
Johannesburg skyline from Troyville.
Behind us I saw one of the best views of the city’s skyline. As we continued walking, I was ever more impressed with Bheki’s acute historical knowledge of the neighborhood. “See these house foundations?” he told me: “This is old Johannesburg, that’s why they have foundations of old stones, not bricks.” Finally, we arrived at Beryl Court, where Bheki grew up and where his mom still stays. Bheki enthusiastically greeted neighbors. Bheki introduced me to neighbors of all backgrounds. From there we went to the roof of his building. “This is the best view in Joburg,” he said enthusiastically, and he was right. We continued walking, and he showed me a small art gallery, the Spaza Art Gallery, run by a local artist and antique dealer.
Meeting with Boundless City Founder Alexandra Cunningham
Yesterday, I also had the chance to meet with Boundless City founder and co-director Alexandra Cunningham. Alex is another American, born and raised in San Jose, who runs a people-based urban development nonprofit (http://www.boundlesscity.com/index.html). We met at her newest operation, a community café, bar, and gathering space. It was beautifully built and is located right in the heart of Johannesburg’s CBD. Alexandra and I talked about urban development techniques, event and performances, and more generally how to make positive social change at a neighborhood level. Alexandra and Boundless City also produce dynamic consultation reports for neighborhood products. She ensures that neighborhood residents conduct all surveys and gather data and are compensated for their time and efforts. Our conversation was very inspiring and I look forward to working with Boundless City more in the future.
More updates to come in future weeks. I will tell you about the status of my community cube project and will highlight more adventures from the City of Gold!
Arts programming at Bounless City
Collaboration Cafe space at Boundless City.
Friends of Boundless City