Saturday, January 30, 2016

In Praise Of Melville Johannesburg, South Africa


I receive lots of messages from people seeking advice on moving to Johannesburg from overseas. The most common question is: “Where is the best place to live in Johannesburg?”
It’s a tricky question to answer. Johannesburg is a huge, sprawling city with dozens — maybe hundreds — of suburbs. And by “suburb” I don’t mean what you probably think I mean. Unlike in the United States, where a suburb is a commuter town outside of a big city, in South Africa a suburb is a smaller neighbourhood that is beyond the city center but still inside the city limits. Although there are also some more far-flung suburbs that are more like suburbs in the American sense. Confusing, right? Anyway, I digress.
As I said, Joburg is ginormous and the best place to live depends on where you work and what kind of person you are. If you’re a banker or an advertising executive or a Porsche salesman, then your workplace is likely in Sandton and you’ll want to live in the northern suburbs. If you’re a university student or an edgy tattoo artist, then it might make sense for you to live in the CBD (central business district). If you need to live near public transport, Rosebank is your place. If you want a big, brand-new house and don’t mind being out in the sticks, try Midrand.
If you’re a quirky American travel blogger who works at home, naps a lot, likes boxing, and has a boyfriend and a cat, then you should definitely live in Melville.
Private Property, a South African real estate website, asked me to write a post on the best place to rent in Johannesburg. (Actually they asked me to write a post about the best place to rent in Gauteng Province, but I’m limiting myself to Joburg because that’s what I know.) Rather than try to answer this question for everyone, which would be impossible, I’m going to answer it for myself. I’ve lived in Melville since the day I arrived in Joburg and I’ve never considered living elsewhere. Here’s why:
1)  Location. Melville is close (within 10 to 25 minutes’ drive) to the CBD, Braamfontein, Rosebank, Sandton, Soweto, Fordsburg/Mayfair, the M1 and M2 highways, the West Rand, and Joburg’s near-eastern and -southern suburbs. Although we don’t have a Gautrain or Gautrain bus stop (which is a pity), Melville does sit on a Rea Vaya line and provides easy access to taxis and tuk-tuks. Melville is adjacent to both of Joburg’s major universities.
Joburg-skyline-January-16The Joburg skyline as seen from the Melville Koppies.
2) Neighborhood. I live 5 to 15 minutes’ walk to dozens of restaurants and bars, dozens of bed-and-breakfasts (perfect for out-of-town visitors), three grocery stores, a shopping mall, a doctor’s office, several banks and hair salons, a hardware store, two petrol stations, bookshops, charity shops, and coffee shops. If you want to live in Joburg without a car, Melville is one of your best bets. Melville also has particularly beautiful, interesting properties and there is a wide range of houses/cottages/flats available for rent.
New-house-outsideMy Melville house.
3) Natural Beauty. Melville has beautiful, tree-lined streets, large back gardens, and its own nature reserve,the Melville Koppies, which has one of the best Joburg skyline views in town. It’s a great place to walk, run, and cycle. Melville is also a great place for pets, as the Melville Cat can attest.
Conehead in garden
The Melville Cat enjoying the beautiful nature in my old back yard (a couple of years ago when the Melville Cat had a cone head).
4) People. It’s nearly impossible for me to walk up the main thoroughfare in Melville without seeing at least three people I know. As a general rule, people who live in Melville are interesting and friendly and a little weird. I felt instantly at home when I arrived here and that feeling has never gone away.
Bread-and-Roses-teamThe staff at Bread & Roses Café, one of my favorite Melville hangouts, on the corner of 7th Street and 4th Avenue.
A final thought: Ever since I moved here in August 2010, I’ve persistently been told by Melville-hating Joburgers that Melville is dangerous, trashy, crime-ridden, or the vague “not what it used to be”. I have one word for these haters: Whatevs. Melville is no more dangerous or trashy or “not what it used to be” than any other place in Joburg. (Although Melville’s 7th Street does get rowdy on Friday and Saturday nights. I recommend living at least two blocks from 7th Street if you want to sleep in peace on weekends.)
Melville is, however, the most vibrant and friendly place in Joburg, as least in my biased opinion. So don’t let the haters sway you: Come check Melville out for yourself.
This post was brought to you by Private Property, which I can personally attest is a great way to search for real estate in South Africa. All opinions expressed are my own.


  • ReplyVIOLETONLINEISONLINEJanuary 5, 2016 at 6:16 pm
    feeling proud that I live in Melville too!
  • ReplyTIMMEEJanuary 5, 2016 at 6:52 pm
    They have good bananas in Melville
    • Reply2SUMMERSJanuary 5, 2016 at 6:53 pm
      Yes. And olloclips grow on the Koppies.
  • ReplyAUTUMNASHBOUGHJanuary 5, 2016 at 7:49 pm
    Trees! I must live near trees. Melville sounds lovely.
    • Reply2SUMMERSJanuary 5, 2016 at 8:32 pm
      I often say that Joburg is a lot like LA. You’d find it familiar, I think.
      • ReplyAUTUMNASHBOUGHJanuary 5, 2016 at 8:48 pm
        One of my sisters lived there for a few years and said the same thing. Similar climate and all. I’m run into any number of South Africans here. Of course, in LA you run into any number of anythings.
  • ReplyNAMZJanuary 5, 2016 at 8:30 pm
    I love coming to Melville and just walking down the street…its quirkiness makes it so interesting!
  • In Praise Of Johannesburg

    #InLoveWithAfrica: Finding Love In Johannesburg

    This article is not about dating in Johannesburg, or about finding love for any particular person. Rather, it’s about finding love for a place.
    I first came to Johannesburg, or Joburg, on a three-day business trip in July 2008. During that trip I visited the Apartheid Museum, had dinner in Parkhurst and Melrose Arch, and bought souvenirs at the Rosebank African Craft Market. It was a pleasant trip. But I gained little insight into the city’s soul.
    A year-and-a half later I decided, abruptly, to move from Washington D.C. to Joburg. I moved for the love of a man, of course. But I stayed for the love of a city.
    johannesburg graffiti
    Mr. Dheo Zebra, Maboneng (Photo by Heather Mason)
    I read very little about Johannesburg before my move. Expat relocation websites yielded only negativity: stories from South African diaspora explaining – in painstaking detail – the horrific crimes and crumbling infrastructure that had driven them to leave in the 1990s and early 2000s. Thick South African travel books included only a page or two about Johannesburg, the country’s largest city. My boyfriend at the time, a lifelong Joburger, told me I would probably hate the city and suggested we relocate together to Cape Town instead.
    I moved to Joburg anyway.
    Joburg, also called Egoli, or the City of Gold, was founded during a gold rush. People still come here from all over the world to hustle and earn a quick buck. But there’s another side to this frenetic city. If you really want to get to know Joburg then it’s best to explore it slowly, in ever-widening circles.
    I arrived in Joburg without a job, an agenda, or any plan to leave. I could take my time exploring. So I started in my backyard.
    jacaranda hdr joburg
    A jacaranda in Johannesburg (Paul Saad / flickr)
    Nature is the first thing I noticed. Johannesburg has a reputation as a gritty, crime-ridden, concrete jungle, but the reality is quite the opposite. With the exception of the compact, high-rise-laden city center, Joburg is a massive sea of trees. Palm trees, oak trees, acacia trees, jacaranda trees, plane trees, and countless species of aloe. Wisteria and bougainvillea vines twine themselves everywhere. Birds abound. I sat on my deck and watched hook-beaked, silver-purple ibis – called hadedas – pick their way through the garden and then flap off in a cacophony of squawks.
    I began to explore my own neighborhood. Melville, an inner suburb northwest of downtown, is known as Joburg’s little Bohemia, offering quaint shops and cafés by day and raucous bars and restaurants by night. I walked up and down Melville’s 7th Street, drank coffee, and browsed antiques. I climbed the Melville Koppies, a hilly nature reserve with swishing brown grass taller than I am. I went to the highest point on the Koppies, which overlooks the iconic downtown Joburg skyline. That skyline was my next destination.
    ponte tower johannesburg
    Ponte Tower, Hillbrow (Spach Los/flickr)
    Tentatively, I ventured into town. In 2010 and 2011, parts of downtown Joburg were just beginning their transition from dangerous “no-go” zones to rejuvenated urban meccas. I went first to Market on Main, the Sunday morning market in fashionable Maboneng Precinct. Then I investigated the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa, and the pedestrianized central mining district on Main Street, lined with public art.
    I visited Ponte City, the notorious, cylinder-shaped skyscraper in Hillbrow. I took walking tours through Soweto and the culturally rich neighborhoods of Fordsburg, Troyeville, and Yeoville, feasting on Indian, Portuguese, West African, and Ethiopian food. I shot hundreds of photos of graffiti. I rode a bicycle through Alexandra Township and sat in on a Zionist Christian Church service, watching a kaleidoscope of men in colorful satin tunics swirl around me to the beat of a drum.
    johannesburg graffiti
    Photo by Heather Mason
    I stumbled upon a Muslim bakery in Fordsburg, built into the ruins of an old Lebanese Orthodox church. I discovered a used bookshop in the attic above a garage in Orange Grove. The owner, one of Joburg’s top rare books collectors, sits on a wing chair surrounded by piles of books and invites visitors to drink tea with him. I found a brilliant Rastafarian chef selling vegetarian food out of a tiny cubicle on Rockey Street.
    The more I explored Joburg, digging into the cracks and corners and talking to people, the more I came to love it. Along the way I met people who went out of their way to befriend me, inviting me to parties and photo walks and gallery openings and coffee dates. People told me their stories and were delighted when I wanted to tell those stories to the world. The best thing about Joburg is its people.
    Life isn’t easy in Joburg: The beggars at every traffic light and the persistent petty crime are testament to that. Joburg houses beauty and wealth and quirkiness and hope; it also houses poverty and suffering and cruelty and pain. Joburg is an imperfect place, filled with contrasts and contradictions and impossible challenges. Those challenges make me love the city even more.
    The greatest love affairs are the ones that grow slowly, evolving bit by bit, so gradual that you hardly notice. Loving Joburg takes time. For me, the time has been worth it.
    More reasons why we love Johannesburg:

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