New artisan development hub Victoria Yards is what its tenants hope all of Johannesburg – and indeed all of South Africa – could one day be like.
Pockets of rejuvenation and innovation are now springing up across the once run-down Johannesburg inner city and surrounding suburbs, bringing hope of a new, sustainable and empowering approach to urban regeneration in the city.
Development projects spearheaded both by the city and by private investors have been underway across the city for several years, often focused on arts, entertainment and technology business development. But a recent addition to the east of the city is taking a new approach to urban regeneration, incorporating business space, an urban food farm, and a strong focus on artisanal skills development.
Victoria Yards, once a dilapidated factory precinct occupied by squatters, informal mechanics and chained dogs, has been transformed in only two years into a thriving community of artists, artisans and traders. For up-and-coming jeans manufacturer Tshepo Mohlala, founder of Tshepo the Jean Maker, his Victoria Yards base aligns with the soul he sought for his brand. “I already sell jeans abroad, and I might expand and open shops in places like Soweto and the northern suburbs, but the heart and soul of the brand lives right here at Victoria Yards,” he says.
It’s the latest addition to the ‘Makers Valley’ – a ‘corridor of solutions’ and series of independent urban regeneration and development projects stretching east from the vibrant inner city Maboneng precinct, including the non-profit Spaza Gallery in Troyeville, creative collective Ellis House in New Doornfontein, Victoria Yards in Lorentzville and finally, the Skills Village 2030 community campus precinct in Bez Valley. The Makers Valley Collective driving the progress in Makers Valley is based in sponsored premises at Victoria Yards, working with the various development projects and communities to bring about a clean, safe, productive and inclusive inner city through development nodes and new approaches to low-cost housing.
Building a community
With 30 000 m² of raw industrial space terraced either side of the Jukskei River, Victoria Yards offers large, cost-effective studio and workspace to artists, glassblowers, metalworkers, furniture makers, printers and empowerment projects. Food crops line the walkways between the stark brick buildings, where some of South Africa’s leading creatives have found a new space to call home. As one of the earliest tenants of Victoria Yards, Mohlala was sold on developer Brian Green’s vision early on. “Brian’s crazy – he’s a visionary. This place was a mess when I first saw it, but I trusted the vision and moved in,” he says.
It’s now primarily a workspace only open to the public on the first Sunday of each month, but streams of visitors spill through the gates all day, every day. Local children have taken to visiting one of the tenants after school, so she can read books to them. Customers wander in to be measured for custom jeans, and are still there three hours later – swapping stories with the tenants. Bees and butterflies drift among the young fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and medicinal plants, which are nourished by waste from the coffee store and carpenters. Tenants meet at the coffee shop to compare notes on the business of the day. For artisans fuelled by creativity, Victoria Yards is proving to be a tranquil refuge from the busy city outside its walls, but it’s also a hub of inspiration for like-minded people and a generator of employment and skills development for the surrounding community.
Victoria Yards’ owners note that they are property developers rather than social integrators. However, they embrace the concept of inclusive and empowering inner-city communities, so they collaborate with tenants Simon Mayson and Tumi Moroeng of the Makers Valley Collective, and support the overall community development ethos of the collective.
Brian Green, co-founder and the creative inspiration behind Group 44 Properties, which also developed trendy retail precinct 44 Stanley on the western side of Johannesburg, says the Makers Valley Collective association is proving to be a ‘plug in’ to Victoria Yards that has supercharged the project’s community development impact.
Mutually beneficial regeneration
“In the true sense of the word, I was an urban regenerator. If you look at 44 Stanley – and I didn’t even know what I was doing back then – I just wanted to make bricks and mortar beautiful again and give the place a chance,” he says. “With developments like these, you start to slow down the urban sprawl, stop crime, stop people sleeping rough there, and stabilise a part of the city that was degrading. But we are finding that the Makers Valley Collective next door is fast-tracking our impact by looking at the greater area and the social needs of the area. Together, we address progress, skills development, jobs and low cost housing, and I think that’s a very scalable business proposition when you look at the low initial value of the land that you’re starting to upgrade.”
Green is hesitant to call it gentrification, since many gentrification projects have edged the original communities out of their homes as areas become more valuable. He hopes to find a balance, whereby the original communities are upgraded and given more dignity, without driving them out of the area. He says: “Gentrification is ultimately unavoidable in cities that work because of the proximity of these lower cost/lower income neighbourhoods to where the money is being made. Property developers can become greedy, but we are very aware of the potential evils of gentrification, although ultimately it is unstoppable. This area is pretty gritty, but once this area is safe and clean, you will see more money flowing into it eventually.”
He hopes to see the area become a vibrant, safe, clean neighbourhood fully representative of South Africa’s population, where a range of income groups live side by side – with dignity.
Fostering skills development
Victoria Yards’ first stage saw building repairs and the development of scalable urban food gardens throughout the precinct. Green then sought out tenants such as artists and artisans who were likely to offer jobs and skills development programmes. “I said we have to fill it with artisans – photographers, metalworkers and woodworkers who will fill that gap where this country so desperately needs skills training, and hope there would be some skills osmosis,” he says. This is proving successful, and one tenant, award-winning furniture maker David Krynauw, is already upskilling around 50 people – most of them from the surrounding neighbourhood. More formal skills development programmes are in the pipeline, across urban food gardening and artisanal skills.
“We are starting to attract formal educators, some tenants now have funding to launch training, and hopefully, one day people will say they were trained at Victoria Yards and this will have credibility and a stamp of excellence,” says Green.
A model for the future
“Projects like this are representative of what the whole of Johannesburg, or all of South Africa, could become,” says new tenant Tony Esslinger, who, along with partner Irvin Smith, is currently installing distilling equipment for their new vodka and gin distillery. The distillery, Primal Spirits, will soon open its doors and has longer term plans to extend the distilling coproduct, ‘supergrain’, into a local baking business. Esslinger, now back in South Africa after years of living in Europe, says the appeal of Victoria Yards is that it instils a feeling of well-being in its tenants, without it feeling like an ‘elite enclave’.
A logo fit for a king
Shortly after moving in, Mohlala met fellow tenant and renowned artist Ayanda Mabulu, who one day flamboyantly spray-painted a crown on the wall of his studio, saying Mohlala was a king and deserved a crown. The crown is now Tshepo the Jean Maker’s logo, inked into his arm and emblazoned in red on the pockets of his jeans. “I was waiting for inspiration for my pocket signature, and only found it because I was here – in such a creative community,” he says.
Victoria Yards is just one of several business and skills development hubs now re-energising Johannesburg’s inner city and surrounds. But its unique focus on inner-city food gardening and active skills development is inspiring tenants, customers and surrounding communities alike.
Growing international through small business incubators
From a small loan from a friend four years ago, to a trending exporter of custom-made jeans today, Tshepo Mohlala has come a long way in a short space of time. His Tshepo the Jean Maker range of denims is now sold in Amsterdam, with talks underway on expansion to other international markets this year. Twenty-seven-year-old Mohlala, who initially started his business from home, grew his label through careful brand building and online marketing, and expanded by moving into business development hubs in Johannesburg. He also opened a shop in Johannesburg’s Central Business District, but quickly realised a traditional retail outlet was not appropriate for his business at that stage.
“The shop was running at a loss,” he says. His move to the new Victoria Yards precinct aligned completely with the brand’s identity, and Mohlala says the premises is the perfect base for growth. Mohlala believes his customers appreciate the craft, detail and story behind each pair of jeans, and enjoy visiting his Victoria Yards base. “I have customers ranging from young professionals through to a 91-year-old – they appreciate the atmosphere of the Yards, and the personal touch they get from us. It’s what customers – especially my generation – want: alternative spaces, a return to real craftsmanship and bespoke products,” he says.
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