As the late afternoon autumn sun draws an architectural silhouette on 7th Street in Melville, north-west of the city centre, a youthful wave of energy sets the cocktail bars and restaurants on the thoroughfare ablaze.
Large groups of youngsters, mostly students, are spread across different quadrants of the leafy neighbourhood, their longwinded chatter filling the Friday atmosphere.
As more revellers stream in with e-hailing cabs – lightly-loaded backpacks on their backs – car guards in brightly coloured reflective vests direct traffic energetically amid a splash of African handmade curios, whose sellers line the pavements, persuading passers-by in the hope of a sale or two.
Final-year students at the University of Johannesburg, Lorraine and Chantelle Daniels, originally from the Mother City are just two among scores of patrons alighting a cab here, getting ready to unwind ahead of the weekend.
Sporting a yellow floral casual collar long sleeve blouse, paired with a white denim short, Lorraine explains why she has been coming to 7th Street for the past three years that she’s been living in Joburg.
“We work really hard at varsity, some time off with friends is needed once in a while, that’s why we are here again today,” says Lorraine as she gets comfortable on a two seater antique table, while ordering a Mojito cocktail at the Ratz, a 24-year-old cocktail and karaoke bar.
“Where else in Joburg can you get nice food, drinks, happy hour all week-long, entertainment, do shopping and party in the same street?” asks Chantelle, who is Lorraine’s cousin.
Peppered with coffee shops, bistros, vintage clothing stores, cafés, bars, book shops, restaurants and nightclubs, Melville is one of only three African suburbs alongside Onikan in Lagos and Jamestown in Accra voted recently in Time Out’s 50 Coolest Neighbourhoods from around the world.
Time Out – an international digital magazine – describes Melville as one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Johannesburg that brings bohemian charm to South Africa’s economic epicentre.
“Its location between two of South Africa’s leading universities, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg makes [Melville] home to academics, artists, expats and students living in communal digs,” reads the magazine.
Lorraine says one of the coolest things she likes about bars and restaurants in Melville is that they offer student discounts. “It’s our last year here in Joburg before we head back to Cape Town, so we are making the most of the remaining time. One of the things I’ll miss here is the discounts we get for drinks and books as students, sometimes we even get discounts when we buy clothes,” she says.
For many, the bustling streets of Melville offer places to chill out, but for street dweller, Thabile Mtshali, the suburb’s pavements have been home for the past 12 years.
“After I lost my mother in 1999, I was forced to live with relatives, that’s when an immediate family member started to abuse me. I got tired of it all and decided to leave home and come stay here in the streets,” the 32-year-old explains with a dejected look on her face.
Dressed in black synthetic-cotton chinos complemented by an oversized crisp white shirt, Mtshali hangs a black sling bag full of books across her right-hand shoulder. She keeps her eyes fixed to the ground as though she ponders every thought before narrating her tragic life story.
She started writing poems ardently in 2016 and would recite them to famed street visitors before her first poetry book – Shorty’s Poems: From the Streets of Melville, Johannesburg – was published earlier this year.
“The streets of Melville have made me who I am today. People like my work, they support me and encourage me to keep writing, that’s why I have just started writing an autobiography,” she says.
In her poetry book, Mtshali’s publisher John West describes how he meet her in the wee hours after a night out with friends in Melville’s 7th Street.
“Drinking outside Hell’s Kitchen one evening, after a respectable amount of beer, a pint-sized street urchin bounced across the sidewalk and asked if we’d like to hear some poetry. ‘Why not?’ we laughed. This was different. No outright begging. As a writer myself, I respected the effort being made.
“Then she recited her poetry, and I suddenly understood what real writing sounded like. I was so impressed, I decided to publish her work,” West wrote.
Mtshali’s book costs R100 rands and has sold more than 200 copies so far in that area.
Melville, a contemporary suburb and one of the oldest sought-after neighbourhoods in Johannesburg was built in 1905 by land surveyor, Edward Hacker Melville, whom it was named after.
Over the years, it has transformed from being a designated whites-only suburb under apartheid to a vibrant, mixed residential and business hub with a pulsating nightlife and trendy, bespoke centres, positioning itself as a shopping mecca of antiques and local cuisine.
A stone throw away from 7th Street is 4th Avenue, home to 27 Boxes, a lifestyle shopping complex made up entirely of shipping containers. Exclusive boutiques, restaurants, craft stalls, pop-up stores, a children’s playground and a clinic are housed here. A few metres from here is the renowned pristine nature reserve, the Melville Koppies, where adventure seekers and the like can hike, picnic or seek any other thrill.
One Melville resident, Johan Rosenblum urges the municipality to do more to preserve the historical heritage of Melville and its infrastructure.
“Melville is one of the major tourism attractions for this city. Every day, there are people from all over the world who come to learn more about this place and just have fun, but I have recently seen new developments, which take away this area’s history,” he says, pointing with a shaky hand at a Victorian house being renovated on 4th Avenue.
The vast majority of buildings in Melville were constructed between 1905 and 1936, during that time the area was mostly known for bakeries, butcheries and boutique shops.
Rosenblum, who has been living here for the past 23 years calls on the City of Joburg to clampdown on unauthorised house and building alterations, something he says is an alarming problem for locals.
The City’s Poppy Louw says the Department of Development Planning is aware of the high number of illegal buildings taking place within the borders of Johannesburg.
“The need for compliance is high up on the department’s list of priorities. Illegal building and land use not only affects property owners around the area, it also has a significant effect on the City’s historical infrastructure,” she explains.
Louw encourages residents to report contraventions related to zoning, illegal land use, alterations, unauthorised building developments, building-signage and outdoor advertising to the Planning Enforcement Unit: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the 5th Floor of the Metro Centre, 158 Civic Boulevard, Braamfontein.
As the day draws to a close and the Joburg night sky glistens with stars, a large wave of the thriving bohemian community flocks to 7th Street, their hearts allowing them to effortlessly express every aspect of who they are. This is a connected way of living in Melville, soaking up its vivacity, culture, unique cuisine and drinking cocktails from a choice of clubs and bars with some of the liveliest music. The nightlife has begun, certifying Melville as definitely the coolest neighbourhood in town.
Written by Takalani Sioga