The Pendulum of Cities
Cities are moody. At times they are vibrant, colorful, exciting places to go travel. But then they fall off the band wagon. Suddenly they are dirty, dangerous and unpredictable. A few years later they’re back to their former glory, until the next dark patch rolls through. They exist on a pendulum that swings from extremes of wonderful to don’t-travel-there.
Detroit was once one of the largest cities in America, and now lives alongside more than its fair share of empty lots and broken buildings. Johannesburg was once known for its gold and is now barters primarily in crime. The good news is that a pendulum, by its very nature, swings two ways. The cities that are down on their luck today will come back – eventually. Just a few decades ago New York City was a red light pit of grime and gross. Today it is the ultimate destination for millions of global travelers.
And so as the pendulum swings Detroit is slowly filling its abandoned pieces of land with communal gardens and enacting some of the most environmentally progressive changes anywhere in the world. Its music scene continues to earn worldwide respect and we have some damn good food. Maybe this is home town affection speaking, but Detroit can be back on top one day.
Johannesburg has also seen some dark days as of late. Entire buildings have been hijacked by drug lords who are nothing short of mean. People who can avoid town, do. I have spent maybe a total of eight months visiting the Johannesburg suburbs and have been into the downtown exactly once. I’ve had no reason to go and plenty of reasons not to go.
Until last weekend.
I’d heard the rumors that Jo’burg is changing. There was that Johnny Clegg show on the public art going up around the city. A few friends went to some sort of night market sponsored by the city. But tucked away in my happy Cape Town I struggled to imagine Jozi as anything but terrifying. Then a friend moved to town. Real town. Right, smack in the middle of the Scary Jo (just made up that nickname, don’t think it will stick). He swore up and down that he was not crazy. He was part of the new wave of South Africans who see art in broken windows and find rhythm in chaotic streets. So I went bravely in to see this for myself (and by “brave” I mean clinging to my boyfriend like an oversized koala bear).
And for the first time in my many trips to the area, Jo’burg made sense.
This is a real city with real people, real families and its own way of life that doesn’t care what the suburbs think of it. It wasn’t all peaches and cream. Most people are still poor. The streets aren’t exactly clean and there’s still crime-a-plenty. Our night included one almost, sort of, kind of mugging and a run in with a lipstick smeared prozzie. But it also included crazy amazing views over a city that had previously seemed forbidding. It included an energy from town that can only be described as addictive. We had drinks at the city’s oldest bar for a third of the price as the generic chain bars of the suburbs. We met my friend’s new neighbors who insisted we come in and join his friends for a dance. For once I appreciated the gritty gray city that contrasts so sharply against the world’s largest man made forest that constitutes Jo’burg suburbs.
Cities will continue to swing away on their pendulums into dark eras, but they will come back. Eventually.