Exploring Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa

Exploring Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa

On the western edge of downtown Johannesburg, a neighborhood named Newtown has emerged as the city’s cultural heart. Once a gritty industrial center, Newtown is now a gathering place for South African writers, artists, and musicians.

Begin your exploration at the neighborhood’s hub, Mary Fitzgerald Square, where the community comes together for national holiday celebrations and outdoor performances such as Venda tribal dancing. At Xarra Books, an indie bookstore on the square that’s dedicated to African literature, you can pick up local author Lebo Mashile’s latest collection of poems and drop in on talks by such South African luminaries as anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs.

Next, walk to the nearby Bus Factory, a cavernous brick building that was once a bus depot and now houses a collection of traditional crafts and contemporary sculpture by local artists. Check out the murals of Jo’burg’s skyline and a “forest” installation built from African walking sticks.

When evening comes, join the crowd at Bassline, a half-block south of the square. This live music venue features a mix of jazz, world, Afro-pop, hip-hop, and kwaito—a township-born music genre that combines hip-hop and house with lyrics sung in a blend of most of South Africa’s 11 official languages.

For all the activity, Newtown is still a small scene where you can mingle with local heroes. One evening I ran into Pops Mohamed, a reserved South African world-fusion musician, at a music conference held on the square. “There’s always something going on here,” he said. In front of us, a gospel choir was just warming up.

Photo by Toby Corkindale. This appeared in the March/April 2010 issue.

Chris Smith is a contributing editor at New York, where he has covered politics, sports and entertainment. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in Brooklyn.