Finding a safe haven in Hillbrow

 

Transforming Hillbrow: Ekhaya Neighbourhood coordinator Josie AdlerTransforming Hillbrow: Ekhaya Neighbourhood coordinator Josie Adler THE heart of Hillbrow is being strengthened as the eKhaya Neighbourhood Improvement Programme changes gears to grow its cause.

From small beginnings on Pietersen Street, between Klein and Claim streets, eKhaya Neighbourhood now straddles 16 blocks around Pietersen, Klein, Claim, Ockerse and Smit streets in Hillbrow, an inner city suburb largely known for its notoriety - a reputation that is waning.

"The neighbourhood has been extended three times since it was started," said co-ordinator, Josie Adler. This year it won the Johannesburg Development Agency's Halala Joburg Award in the category Sustaining Joburg.

And plans are advanced to broaden the neighbourhood to northern parts of Esselen Street soon. "It's gone over to BG Alexander and it has to go up to Joe Slovo [Drive]," said Adler.

A rejuvenated building in HillbrowA rejuvenated building in Hillbrow

The programme, started under the auspices of the Johannesburg Housing Company (JHC) in 2006, is being strategically engineered to improve safety, cleanliness and the renewal of Hillbrow's public environment.

Members include property owners from the profit and social housing sector and cover about 30 residential buildings. They are mostly buildings that represent the regeneration of Hillbrow.

It's a community-centred project with building social cohesion among its goals. "What we're doing is building a neighbourhood where we as citizens can make each other feel safe," explained Adler.

"The city is our house; that's the feeling that needs to be developed among residents. We value it and we'll protect it. That's the message we're sharing with people in the neighbourhood."

Adler, who was instrumental in the founding of eKhaya, said more than half the buildings in the neighbourhood were part of the programme. But "there are some people left behind" as "there's a big difference between eKhaya and some sides".

eKhaya is in the final stages of establishing a formal city improvement district (CID), which will make it compulsory for all buildings in the neighbourhood to contribute to its running and the services it provides. "Every building around here will have a responsibility to pay for the CID."

The City of Johannesburg would play a significant role in the facilitation of the CID, she added.

Cleaning

The programme is driving cleaning campaigns in one part of Hillbrow that was beset by grime. Under it, pavements, lanes and passageways have been cleaned up, while others have been closed as they were easy escape routes for criminals.

Passageways separating buildings that are not part of eKhaya bear testimony to the differences about which Adler speaks so ardently. Driving along Quartz Street, she pointed to one that was filled with grunge. She pointed out that the programme could not do anything to clean such public space as their owners also had a responsibility.

Carol Morris, part of the eKhaya Cleaning management team, said she had seen "big change" in the public environment of that part of Hillbrow since she joined the programme in July 2007. "We go around cleaning the spaces ... It used to be very dirty in front of all the buildings. Now everybody is happy about the cleanliness."

And John Gololo, the manager of Cresthill, a residential building on Pietersen Street, remembered the bad old days: "Before eKhaya took over, the lanes were full of rubbish ... You used to find all sorts of things in the lanes."

Safety

Patricia Msebele, a trainee co-ordinator at eKhaya, said she now felt that her security was guaranteed when walking the streets of Hillbrow, thanks to eKhaya Security. "I feel safe around the eKhaya Neighbourhood ... [the eKhaya guards] are always there in each and every corner."

Indeed, the guards are a common sight around the neighbourhood, manning strategic points such as corners and passageways. Crime has dropped drastically in the neighbourhood, according to eKhaya Security team manager, Rashad Mahomed.

Mahomed said there were two murders in the neighbourhood in 2008, and none this year. "We caught the guys who committed the murders."

The guards had made more than 90 arrests since 2007, Mahomed said. "We hand criminals over to the police. We make sure that a case is opened and we follow it."

He was convinced that most of the criminals they arrested in the neighbourhood were not residents of Hillbrow, as "guys here know who we are".

"There were too many tsotsis around. Pietersen Street was one of the no-go areas," related Gololo.

eKhaya Park

eKhaya Neighbourhood was instrumental in the establishment of eKhaya Park, built on vacant land in Claim Street. The park, named after the neighbourhood improvement programme, was built with funds from the City.

Adler said it facilitated the construction of the park after tracing the descendants of the owners of the strip of land, who are in Canada, after there was confusion about its rightful owners.

The City gained ownership of the land, which was previously misused. "The sewer water was running down. It was an ugly site," said Adler. "I said to the council that the property could be a park."

And a colourful park it has become, with children's playing facilities and an AstroTurf soccer ground fitted with all requirements to host fantastic matches. The City will officially open it on 24 October and four football teams, including eKhaya FC coached by Timothy Rees and Isaac Nekhuzhiga, will compete as part of celebrating a milestone recreation facility in the heart of Hillbrow.

Buildings surrounding the park have been urged to contribute to its care. Morris said the programme had engaged the buildings' management on the need to protect the park. "We have to keep the park clean. We made them understand that," she reiterated.

The community was excited about the park, judging from enquiries they were being made, said one of the security guards, Clement Siziba. "Children and grown-up people are asking us when the park will open.

"I just hope that children will also be able to play soccer in this ground, now that you only find older guys playing the whole time."

Since its founding, eKhaya has been self-funded, mainly with cash from JHC and founder members. It is sustained by growing membership and additional grants from the City.