Johannesburg's iconic tower mirrors city's ups and downs

AP News
Posted: Mar 12, 2015 11:41 AM
Johannesburg's iconic tower mirrors city's ups and downs

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Visible from many parts of sprawling Johannesburg, the 54-story Ponte Tower is one of the tallest residential buildings in Africa. The distinctive circular tower was once a symbol of this city's modernism, then its decay and now its struggle for regeneration.

The building's architects placed the striking glass and concrete tube on Johannesburg's Hillbrow ridge in 1975 when the city was striving to show that, despite racist policies, it could rival the world's major metropolises.

After apartheid, Johannesburg's downtown became eroded by crime and neglect and so did the Ponte Tower. Following a number of attempts to reclaim the building's glory, a new strategy focusing on security, rather than luxury, is restoring confidence in the building.

On a Saturday morning, about a dozen tourists gather in the ground floor courtyard, eager for a look inside the once notorious 167-meter tall (nearly 550 feet) skyscraper.

"My memory of the building was that it was a really dangerous place to go to," said Christine Louw, a Dutch immigrant who lived in South Africa during the building's rise and fall.

The tour is led by Nickolaus Bauer, a South African journalist and resident of the building since 2012, who has become an advocate for the tower's renaissance. He guides visitors from Europe, the United States and South Africa to the top floor and down to its hollow core. As part of the tour, Bauer shares the sweeping view from his own apartment.

"Where else am I going to wake up and have the whole city laid out before me," he said, boasting that on a clear day he can see Pretoria, South Africa's capital, nearly 60 kilometers (about 40 miles) away. He pays $543 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.

The tower's Hillbrow neighborhood is crime-ridden and Bauer concedes that he rarely wanders around at night. While pockets of Johannesburg's inner-city have been gentrified, Hillbrow has not. In its heyday, Hillbrow residents sipped espresso while playing backgammon. It was one of South Africa's first gay-friendly areas.

Then, the Ponte Tower featured three-story apartments. Some had saunas and carpeted walls, chic at the time. The tower and Hillbrow attracted foreigners. Inter-racial relationships were common, although illegal under apartheid.

The regime cut off basic services to Hillbrow. As the neighborhood deteriorated, so did the Ponte Tower, which became known as a vertical slum.

Gangs took over, stripped the 11th and 12th floors and turned them into a brothel and drug den. Some people committed suicide by leaping down the building's hollow center, according to the South African Press Association.

"Although it had a bit of a trying past, bricks and mortar wise it was still a solid structure," said Jason Kruger, spokesman for the Kempston Group. Kempston, a trucking company, bought the building in the early 1990s, and began a two decade-long restoration. Initially, the vision was to return the building to its 70s-era glory, but now the group focuses on basic security.

Ria and Jaap Breedt "manage the building with an iron fist with a very thinly veiled glove," said Bauer.

Ria Breedt, who monitors security screens from her ground-floor office, conducts surprise inspections in the apartments and demands that all overnight visitors are registered. Johannesburg's center is a hub for immigrants, both illegal and documented. Breedt insists that foreigners show a valid visa.

"That is what the people are looking for, that their children are protected and even they are protected," says Breedt. When the Breedts began managing the tower in June 2009, only 79 out of nearly 494 units were occupied. Now the building has a waiting list.

Desire Seko moved into the Ponte Tower in 2011 and shares a three-bedroom apartment with another single man and a young couple with two children. Seko, 24, moved to Johannesburg in 2006 from a village, eager to be a photographer. At first he squatted in crumbling apartments but now he has begun to build a life, with the renewed order of Ponte Tower as a foundation.

Seko runs a photography studio on the ground floor, where a supermarket, a hairdresser and a restaurant have also opened. Next, he plans to rent a studio apartment of his own and is on the waiting list. For Seko, Ponte Tower is a symbol of success.