Note: This is a (mostly) fictional account of a sheltered, Canadian university student arriving in notoriously violent Johannesburg for the first time. Enjoy.
By the time I arrive at Tambo International Airport, it’s midnight. My flight is almost seven hours late. I was hoping to catch Johannesburg’s legendary crimson sunset from the plane, but the sky is black as I land. More worrisome, the driver who was supposed to pick me up and take me to my hotel downtown is no where to be found. I wait in arrivals until it’s almost empty — save for a few security guards — before I accept that whoever was supposed to meet me has long ago come and gone and isn’t coming back.
It’s June. When I left Toronto it was warm and summery. South Africa feels like winter. I’m wearing a black fleece zip-up, gloves, dark wash jeans, hiking boots and a hat. I’ve come for a two-week student workshop on urban design in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Its tagline is Can the Divided City be Reunited? I watched Sarafina as a child and Tsotsi as a teenager but otherwise didn’t know anything about the city or the country when I signed up four months ago. I was half way through my third year of architecture school and sick of sitting in a classroom. I wanted to feel some dirt beneath my finger nails. I wanted to see the world. Plus, my professor said I could use the conference for extra credit. That’s why I came.
Toronto has an intensely divided love-hate relationship with the Gardiner Expressway, one of its major thoroughfares. Some people want to tear it down, others think it should be widened. Asking people what they think of the road is often an easy way to find out where they fall politically—lefties think its a blight, conservatives think we need more like it.
I can remember in 2008, then-mayor David Miller pledged to remove the eastern portion, between Jarvis Street and the Don Valley Parkway. It was, in the end, just a fantasy, and since the city’s politics have now moved back to the right with Mayor Rob Ford, the Gardiner is definitely not going anywhere. There have, however, been some interesting changes lately. No, we aren’t putting a strange, garden-bonnet over the road (as one local architecture office, Quadrangle, suggested we do a couple of years ago). Instead, a new park is nearing completion under the eastern-most portion of the road. Aptly called Underpass Park, the space will have a skate park, basket ball nets, and a playground. It won’t officially open until the summer, but the Toronto Star‘s Christopher Hume recently released a video preview. Can’t wait to check it out soon for myself!