After determining that Johannesburg’s Melville district is just a few minutes drive from Miss Injoburg’s office (and taking in account I’ll be doing a lot of dropping off and picking up), it took us just a week of browsing through websites and real estate agent tours to find a quaint bungalow house to live in.
One of Johannesburg’s first suburbs, just three kilometres from the city centre, Melville consists of some 900 houses along 11 numbered avenues running east to west and 11 streets running north to south, all draped on a small hill in a compact area of 1,5 by 2km.Main Street is the main traffic artery through the area, linking the city centre, Brixton and Auckland Park districts to the south with Northcliff and Cresta to the north. It’s lined with rather dour shops, bars and 1940/50s apartments, but just two blocks away 7th Street is a more charming road with single-storey arcaded shops, restaurants and bars.
Our house was built as a small cottage in 1919 (the quaint original building plans hang in the hallway) and stands on a sloping plot near the top of the hill that Melville was built on. The living, kitchen and bedroom all have quaint wooden floors elegant pressed ceilings – metal sheets with ornamental patterns – which were popular in the 1920s (and cheaper than stucco). There’s a shaded porch at the front – called a stoep in Afrikaans – with views over the jacaranda trees along the street, which have all exploded into bright purple flower over the past weeks. Curiously, all the jacarandas down one side of the street have been pruned long ago with great foresight to grow in a V shape, allowing the electricity wires to pass straight through them.
Furnished houses are quite scarce and therefore expensive, so we got an empty one and spent then next weeks trawling through northwest Joburg’s wonderful array of malls, shopping centres and DIY stores. Where in Europe one trip to IKEA takes care of all your furnishing needs in one budget-priced afternoon, in South Africa expect to spend days going to shops comparing quality, and expect to pay much more for furniture that is half as good as our beloved Nordic designs. Cheapest possible decent mattress? R2300 (at €1=R11), complete set over R3000. At IKEA last year we got a perfectly good wooden bed plus mattress for under R1000. Cheapest possible acceptable couch? R3000! Kitchen utensils, simple plastic buckets, curtains? All much more expensive than Europe. IKEA would do a roaring trade here – and would cause hundreds of crappy shops to close down.
Compared to other districts (just look at the space between roads on the map) gardens are small here, but ours is nice enough, with a pool and several flowering plants and trees we’ve never seen before, attracting lots of equally strange birds. At the back of the garden stands what’s know as the staff quarters, a small house with toilet and shower and a private patch of garden where a young couple from the northern state of Limpopo lives; they work as gardener and cleaner for several houses in the neighbourhood. For Europeans it’s strange to have people living in the garden, but from a security point of view it’s certainly good to have them on the property.
Melville’s usually a quiet place; there’s the occasional plane passing overhead on its way to OR Tambo airport on the other side of the city but otherwise it’s just birds, a few cars and even the occasional horsecart clippity-clopping around collecting scrap metal and garden refuse. It’s just on Thursday to Saturday nights that it can get noisy, as people heading to the restaurants and bars along 7th Street park, rev engines and play music all along the residential streets. But as the car guards also move about the district more, it means better security.
Melville and especially the 7th Street area is quite unique for Johannesburg, as it’s one of the few areas where you can walk around relatively safely at night to hop from restaurant to bar; in most other districts that requires a drive, or a visit to a mall. The street and adjoining side streets offer lots of culinary choice – currently we have a Mozambican, Portuguese, Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, Italian and two cafes/cakeshops. Plus there’s a gaggle of bars and cocktail lounges that are packed on weekend nights.Between all the eating and drinking venues are several shops, varying from dodgy mini-markets to several second-hand bookshops, a bead shop (beading seems to be the national craft), funky fashion and a cult DVD rental place. Since the district started to attract the bohemian jetset in the 1990s it’s had its ups and downs, and crime and drug dealing have taken their toll in recent years, but I’m hearing that 7th street is improving again with the closing of a few rowdy bars and the opening of more restaurants. All in all it’s not bad for a street of just 500 metres long.
After seeing several houses that were in gated compounds and far from services (requiring a car for every small trip), living in Melville and being able to do much on foot makes our Johannesburg experience just a little bit more like care-free Europe.
More Melville photos in this flickr set.