THE historic Diagonal Street facade resembles something out of a funfair playground, in bright purple, pink and orange.

The row of Victorian shops in Diagonal Street, running around into President Street, is housed in Nathanson House and Carmel Building, dating back to the 1890s. There are some 15 shops facing the street, selling household goods and hardware, clothing and hats, shoes, fabric, luggage, and books and stationery. Shopkeepers have been doing business there for the past three generations.

The purple, pink and orange facade is the result of a Dulux advertisement, painted like this three weeks ago. The facade was previously painted white. Most shopkeepers don’t mind the colour scheme, saying it is attracting more attention to the building.

Urban Ocean, the owners of the buildings, agreed to have the facade painted, says CEO Herman Schoeman.

“The tenants like it – a lot of people have complimented us on it. Dulux have asked if they can paint the whole building for the next four to six months,” he says. He adds that there is a clause in the contract with Dulux that the facade has to be re-instated after this time.

But Eric Itzkin, deputy director of immovable heritage in the City’s arts, culture and heritage department, says Urban Ocean should have applied for permission to paint the facade, in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999. “In terms of Section 34 of the act, any alterations, even cosmetic, need heritage permission.” Because the buildings are older than 60 years, they have automatic protection under the act.

He goes on: “We need to acknowledge this heritage building, it’s very iconic, its preservation is important. It is part of the whole precinct.”

Shops and flats

Above the shops are 24 flats, which traditionally housed the shopkeepers and their families. The flats still retain their pressed-steel ceilings, Oregon pine doors and small fireplaces, and are occupied by some families who have lived there for generations.

Arnold Benjamin in his 1979 book Lost Johannesburg described the shops of Diagonal Street: “Busy little shops stood row upon row. General dealers, fruiterers, and tailoring-cum-outfitting shops predominated, but essentially it was a big Oriental bazaar where you could buy almost anything, and if it wasn’t in stock they would get it for you before the day was out.”

The merchandise spilled out on to the pavement – crates of fruit, tables laden with hats and fabric, while skirts, blouses and dresses hung above the doorways.

Joburg city champion Neil Fraser says of the street: “I love Diagonal Street and its immediate surroundings. It is probably one of the most eclectic precincts in the city jumble that we call Joeys. The precinct that encompasses Diagonal Street teems with strongly contrasting building types and styles and communities that span our history.”

The 19-storey Franklin, immediately behind the row of shops, was built on the demolished ruins of 12 small shops, plus a fruit alley. The shops were cleared and the fruit alley re-positioned behind the row of shops, taking on a new name – Gardee’s Arcade.

The old fruit alley was described by Benjamin as a “charming unnamed alleyway of fruit-festooned market stalls and grocer’s shops [which] forms a quiet, intimate world of its own”.

Now, although the shops along Diagonal Street still operate, the colourful pavements and busy people traffic is gone, and business is slow. All but two of the shops in Gardee’s Arcade – a chemist and a greengrocer – have closed and the alleyway is bare and windswept.

Urban Ocean bought The Franklin in 2005, and has converted the offices into residential units. It owns 19 buildings in the CBD, including the historic Corner House in Commissioner Street.

Unique street

Diagonal Street is unique in the city as it is the left-hand axis of the original triangle that made up Randjeslaagte, the piece of left-over land on which the tent town sprung up in 1886 when gold was discovered on the Rand.

If you follow the line of the six blocks that make up Diagonal Street northwards through to the corner of Boundary and Clarendon roads, you get to the apex of the triangle, marked by a beacon. The eastern axis of the triangle is End Street in Doornfontein. The horizontal axis is Commissioner Street.

The development of the street goes back to the beginning of the town, when the Indian community moved into the area outside and to the west of the triangle, making it a so-called “grey” area – one which was declared white under apartheid but remained Indian.

The area beyond the western boundary became no man’s land, said Benjamin. So the town’s Indian population settled there, opening up shops, living above their shops, and despite various laws to remove them, trading licences were still issued. The town’s boundaries shifted eastwards, again leaving Diagonal Street undisturbed.

One of the traders, Imtiaz Limbada of Limbada & Co Bookstore, stocks schoolbooks that have been translated into many South African vernacular languages.

His grandfather, Ebrahim Adam, came to South Africa from India in 1903. In 1920, he opened a store as “general agents and produce dealer”, according to The South African Indian Who’s Who of 1938-40. Over time he also became a news agency.

Limbada says that the only thing that has changed about the business is the phone number – it still has the same post box address.

Topsy-turvy history

Diagonal Street has a topsy-turvy history. The Asiatic Land Tenure Act of 1936 legalised the status of Diagonal Street, and led to a substantial investment in rebuilding and new buildings by Indian property owners, explained Benjamin.

“Modern blocks of flats, offices and shops appeared in President, Market and Commissioner streets, particularly during the post-World War II building boom.”

But it didn’t last. In 1950, the Group Areas Act came about, stripping Indians of their rights to live in the area. In 1965, the area was declared white, and gradually Indians began selling their properties to whites.

“More than 150 traders were said to have lost their businesses and homes through one large development, Edura House, between Fox and Commissioner streets,” said Benjamin.

In 1973, the Life Centre went up between Commissioner and Market streets, causing further large-scale demolition. Two arcades disappeared in the construction – Barkly Arcade and Cassim Adam Arcade.

The Newtown Coloured School was demolished to make way for the new Johannesburg Stock Exchange, which had outgrown its Hollard Street premises.

Benjamin said that rickshaws were to be seen in the streets until the 1960s. “Diagonal Street teemed with life and colour, noises and smells … One could buy silks, saris, samoosas or African muti.”

The smells of spices and incense wafted in the air, with the sounds of Indian and African music floating over the heads of the shoppers. But the reclassification had a disabling effect – owners did not upgrade their buildings and did minimal maintenance, allowing the whole area to deteriorate.

Reminiscent of colourful 14th street in Vrededorp, which was flattened by the apartheid government in the 1970s, Diagonal Street fought off attempts to flatten it or redevelop it.

In 1979, Benjamin summed up the street: “Were it not so lively still, you could say that what remains of Diagonal Street is in a state of suspended animation. Johannesburgers should savour its pleasures while they can.”