A Turning 'Ponte' for Jo-Burg?

<p>Johannesburg's Ponte City, a once-exclusive whites-only address now at the center of a dangerous, abandoned part of the city, will undergo a major renovation project featuring affordable housing, with the aim of turning the neighborhood around.</p>
July 31, 2007, 5am PDT | Michael Dudley
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"Once upon a time, there was no more desirable address in perhaps all of the southern hemisphere. Certainly, there was no taller one.

They call it Ponte City: a 173-metre high, 54-storey cylindrical tower, the whim of a 1970s architect who created an iconic building that is to the Jo'burg skyline what the CN Tower is to Toronto's. When Ponte opened, it featured shag carpet on the walls, burnt-orange linoleum on the floors, chrome-covered wet bars, built-in saunas and, from each and every apartment, staggering views of the continent's most bustling city. People flocked to live here, just as architecture and style writers stumbled over each other to rave about its chic.

Back then, of course, only white people got to live in downtown Johannesburg. When the apartheid laws that segregated living spaces were repealed in the early 1990s, black and Indian people flooded into the city centre. And whites fled just as fast, taking their money with them. The metropolitan government largely abandoned the policing of the city centre and the provision of services.

Ponte City began a rapid decline. Within a year or two, its 11 storeys of parking garage were being used as a dimly-lit brothel, drug lords operated brazenly out of the lobby and three stories of trash built up in the hollow core of the building. Rent for the three-storey luxury penthouse fell to just $500 (Canadian) a month, as Ponte went from byword of style to epicentre of crime and urban decay.

Now, however, an unlikely pair of developers has bought the city icon, filled with dreams of restoring it to glossy urban glory; the latest, most audacious move in efforts to bring downtown Jo'burg back from the brink."

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Published on Monday, July 30, 2007 in The Globe & Mail
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