Book Review: Jo’burg for secret agents

Paul Ash of TImes Live reviews Gerald Garner’s book Space & Places Johannesburg; this is an account of a passionate lover of the city and an ardent supporter of it’s regeneration.

While you were sleeping, somebody chopped down the Top Star drive-in screen. Can you believe it? Somebody also took the mine headgear at City Deep with its orange winding wheels – it was one of Johannesburg’s nicer landmarks, which you would see from the M2 highway. The big mine dump at Cleveland has also gone, carried off in trucks for reprocessing to extract the gold left behind the first time.

I noticed all this driving out to Rand Airport in December. Whole pieces of the city’s skyline – which meant a lot to some of us – have disappeared in the night.

Gerald Garner’s book, Spaces & Places Johannesburg, has landed at just the right time. Garner, a landscape architect, says he felt compelled to write a guidebook to the city’s “hidden gems” after a French journalist, here for the World Cup and marooned at some soulless hotel out in the boonies, came looking for a guide.

As Garner rightly observes, Jo’burg is a city tripped-up by other people’s misconceptions and night terrors. We who live here have our own stories and no-go zones – and not all of them are right, either.

Johannesburg is a tough sell. So, when a local gets out of his comfort zone and goes exploring, it’s worth taking note.

Garner describes the city as a “conglomeration of a series of smaller villages and towns, each with its own unique character”. He begins his tour of the city in Craighall Park, where he lives, and moves north through the suburbs, into the city itself and on to Soweto, plus a foray north to the Cradle of Humankind.

The detail is as deep as the longing for downtown Jo’burg to shake off its doldrums and take its place as one of the world’s great metropolises.

The author has also taken his own pictures which gives the book its insider’s identity.

The confidential nature of the guide is both a good and bad thing. The good is that Garner writes about the places he has found with delight. The bad is that there is much that remains hidden, largely because the exploration is incomplete. The missing parts include other villages that make up this conurbation. I’ve always wanted to know, for example, just how nice – or bad – the bar is at the Brakpan Hotel. From the outside, it looks both like a colonial marvel and the sort of place where people might put a .357 on the bar counter to ensure they are left to drink in peace.

Still, the guide has shown me things I plan to check out for myself, such as Randlords, a rooftop venue with gorgeous city views from the top of the 22-storey South Point Towers, and bicycle hire at Main Street Life for an alternative, if hairy way of exploring downtown.

It’s good to remember, too, that Main Street has been pedestrianised and filled with artworks, such as the gorgeous, leaping impala sculpture – rescued from vandals in Ernest Oppenheimer Park – and a complete gold mine headgear. And every mining town worth its soul needs one of those.

You can take a tour of Jozi with Gerald  see his link: Space & Places  and read an interview with him about the book on The Pepper Express

Gerald Garner lives in a Craighall Park “countryside” home overlooking the Braamfontein Spruit. From there he has the pleasure of walking, running and mountain biking through Johannesburg’s green spaces. He enjoys this as much as venturing out to explore the urban spaces and village streets of the city – right from the skyscraper inner-city to the verdant green northern suburbs and vibrant Soweto. He finds the magnetism of Joburg irresistible.

As a professional landscape architect, and experienced writer and publisher in the field of the urban environment, specifically through the medium of business-to-business magazines, Spaces & Places – Johannesburg is his first book, published under his new venture, Double G Media.

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