Dutch immigrant falls in love with inner city Joburg

The Franklin Building in Pritchard StreetThe Franklin Building in Pritchard Street in downtown Johannesburg. (Image: Google Maps)

Josine Overdevest first fell in love with South Africa over 13 years ago. But it wasn't until three years ago, when she quit the leafy northern suburbs for an apartment in the inner city, that she really learnt to love Johannesburg. Rudo Mungoshi chats to her about her move.

Josine Overdevest Josine Overdevest at one of her regular coffee shops in Newtown. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi)Every morning, Josine Overdevest wakes up to idling buses, the morning call to prayer from a nearby mosque, and the laughter of a hawker who sets up her stall close to the building that previously housed the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Overdevest lives in inner city Johannesburg, on the border of Newton and Marshallstown. She finds the early morning sounds of her neighbourhood comforting, joking that she does not need an alarm clock to wake her up.

Inner city regeneration drive spearheaded by JDA

She is one of a growing number of professionals who are taking up residence in an inner city that is undergoing a major revival as property developers, banks, retailers and other businesses increasingly respond to the inner city regeneration drive being spearheaded by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA).

The Dutch national, who moved to South Africa 13 years ago after falling in love with the country on her first visit as a tourist, says she finds it impossible to tire of a country and a city which keeps offering her places new she has never been.

Metro Park in Newtown, JohannesburgThe JDA and Joburg City Parks opened the R16-million Metro Park in the midst of the commercial and residential hub of Newtown in September 2014.The inner city in particular she loves for its quirkiness, buzz and cultural diversity - and the infectious energy of its people. "I just love the hustle and bustle of the city, the sounds and latest developments."

Having spent her first 10 years in the country living in Centurion, between Midrand and Pretoria, and then in the northern Johannesburg suburb of Parkhurst, she is feeling more at home than ever - and closer to the life of the country - in the heart of the city.

More connected to life - and more secure

"What is great for me is that I have become much more aware of life in the country. I feel much more part of South African life, and this has broadened my knowledge."

Not only does she feel more connected - she also feels safer. She grew tired, she says of her years in the suburbs, of "living behind walls" and not having a view.

"I am very much aware of the security issues, but I have never been a big fan of living behind walls; I believe it provides a false sense security. I don't think those walls can protect you. It can be even more dangerous.

"I feel much safer living in town because there are always people around, I always feel as if I am part of life the moment I step out into the street."

Overdevest stays on the tenth floor of the high-rise Franklin building on Pritchard Street.

Now a modern luxury residential apartment block, the building used to house the local head office of Ernst & Young, before the accounting giant joined the JSE and other financial heavyweights in their flight from the inner city in the 1990s - a trend that the City of Joburg and the JDA are in the process of reversing.

Newtown JunctionThe R1.4-billion Newtown Junction mixed-use development. (Photo: www.dhk.co.za)She considers herself to lucky to have her own corner wing that faces both north and west, giving her views of both the highway to Soweto and the Nelson Mandela Bridge - a flagship JDA development, completed in 2003, that signalled the seriousness of the City of Joburg's intent to revitalize the inner city.

'Always a feast to look down from my window'

"It is always a feast to look down from my window to see life happening and the city regaining the confidence it lost after many decades of decline," says Overdevest. "The Magistrate Court is also close by, and it is always very interesting to see the advocates walking around in their robes."

A self-employed ICT in education consultant who travels around regularly to other provinces, she often finds herself pining for home if she stays away from Joburg for too long. "I always know that I am back home whenever I hear the sounds from the streets coming in through the window."

The massive Kazerne construction siteConstruction site of the latest inner city project being overseen by the JDA: the R400-million Kazerne Intermodal Transport Facility.The city is also unlike any city in the Netherlands, she says. “Johannesburg is in a league of its own; only its new architecture and industriousness sometimes remind of Rotterdam.

"Joburg is a truly amazing city with so much to offer, no matter what your interests are," Overdevest says. "It's difficult imagining living elsewhere with so many conveniences."

She chats enthusiastically about the unusual shops she now frequents, especially along Diagonal Street close to her apartment, and the new friendships she has made with people some of whom have lived in the street for more than 60 years.

'I have discovered wonderful new places'

In the past three years, she has kept herself busy exploring the inner city, and now feels she knows some of its secret corners - as well as the restaurants that serve the best coffee and food.

She walks often to Fordsburg, to the Standard Art Gallery in Simmonds Street and to Braamfonein, where the JDA has spent tens of millions of rands on public environment upgrades.

"There are a lot of things to do and places to see in the city. I love walking, and tend to venture further and further. I have discovered wonderful new places and met so many interesting people."

Her favourite jaunt at the moment is the Newtown Junction mall, a R1.3-billion development that opened in 2014 and an example of the scale of private sector investment that has begun to flow back into the inner city.

For Overdevest, it is important that Newtown Junction is an inclusive development. "I think the Newtown Junction is a nice way to open up the city. If these developments were not happening, people would not be coming into town, and hopefully at some point it will spread out."

She hopes this development will continue to take into account all types of people who want to live in town.

"I think regeneration should be an inclusive development and not exclude the poor. That is why I believe Newtown is much more inclusive, because there are so many different places to stay and there is such inspiration there."