Victoria Yards, a formerly derelict industrial zone in the heart of Johannesburg’s neglected Bezuidenhout Valley is undergoing an extensive makeover that began in October last year.

Property developer Brian Green says: "I walked onto the property and saw these dilapidated old buildings, filled with informal chop shops and the like. I thought the buildings were potentially very beautiful. The [grounds] could be turned into a farm; people from the area could be trained to plant and propagate edible plants, and the buildings could be filled with artisans and artists. The artisans could employ assistants and help them obtain skills."

One year on, a transformed Victoria Yards is emerging from the rubble, more or less along the lines envisioned by Green, who handles the creative side of the project’s development. About 23 studios are at various stages of completion. They house artisans, including a metalworker, a silkscreener, a glass smelter and a bespoke designer. Furniture designer and manufacturer David Krynauw works there as well, and he will build bridges across the Jukskei River, which divides the property.

"A huge project is being spearheaded by designer Romy Stander to develop the river into a public space — which it was before it was cut off from the public and became dangerous and dirty," says Green. "We’re looking at making it safe, clean, accessible and fun — part of the fabric of Johannesburg."

My dream is to employ as many people from the area as possible, and for those people to take home a living wage and to slowly start improving their homes
Brian Green

Many artists, including Blessing Ngobeni, Craig Smith, Dario Manjate, Ayanda Mabulu, Claudia Schneider and Happy Dhlame, have moved in. Benon Lutaaya, whose talent — along with some serious entrepreneurial instincts — has earned him a waiting list for his paintings and collages, has established not only a studio, but also a space for collaboration with international artists, writers and researchers. The space can be used for any purpose, "except [by] painters. If you’re a painter, you go to August House", he says, referring to a building in Doornfontein housing a community of artists.

Famed photographer Roger Ballen has signed the lease for a huge studio, as have mosaic artwork creator Art Afrique and Yellowwoods Art, which describes itself as "a patron of pioneering artists" and is behind projects such as the Spier Arts Academy and Creative Block. Lebohang Kganye, who won this year’s Sasol New Signatures competition, has been given studio space on a trade-exchange basis for six months, as her grant could not cover the rent. Furniture maker Norris Mwape, who was working on the property when Green first visited, is still in place.

The range of creative activity is not limited to art and design — the Impi Brewing Company, headed by Nico Booysen, is gearing up to produce artisanal beers, with a bar, kitchen and merchandise section all set to be up and running by the end of the month. And the Green Business College, which offers courses in subjects such as beekeeping, vermiculture (worm farming) and composting, is growing so fast that in the space of a few months it has had to move to larger premises to accommodate demand.

Hub for various activities

Victoria Yards features an "amphitheatre" space, a series of meadows where picnickers can sit and watch performances.

"What we want is for this to become a hub for all kinds of activities that go on throughout the year," says Green.

Boot sales, food markets, performances and events on the river — at the moment the possible uses of the Yards are wide open.

In a stripped-down industrial space, the staff of the Daville Baillie Gallery is installing artworks for its imminent opening. Having outgrown its old home, the gallery discovered Victoria Yards and decided that "the energy and the people involved in the whole development were right up our alley", says the curator, known as KK.

"It’s great for us to be in and around the artists as we can feed off one another, and we have an artist here working in the studio."

In speaking of the gallery’s ambitions to develop artists, KK mentions the process of alchemy. It’s a good metaphor for Victoria Yards’ ambitions, too: transforming a derelict area into an urban farm and cultural hub — and, from there, gradually uplifting the surrounding community through employment, skills training and cultural participation.

Green speaks of an "ecosystem", not only within the gardens, but extending beyond the high walls into the surrounding community.

"I love the valley between the two ridges, and one of the first things I said to my partners was that Victoria Yards could not exist without being integrated with the local community," he says.

"It’s a very difficult thing to do, to start pulling people in. My dream is to employ as many people from the area as possible, and for those people to take home a living wage and to slowly start improving their homes. And they should stay and not get pushed out by gentrification. That would be our worst nightmare."

So, for example, Green has instructed head gardener Duduzile Duru to employ only people from the surrounding area. Until recently, Duru lived in Bethany Home, a shelter for abused women, where she discovered a passion for farming through voluntary work in the garden. She went on to study hydroponic farming at the Kotze Rooftop Garden co-operative in Hillbrow. Her skills are being supplemented as she learns about organic farming in the Yards, where methods are applied that range from Bokashi composting techniques to companion planting and beyond.

"So we can do something huge; that’s the reason I’m here," says Duru. "I’m trying to fulfil my dream of having green fingers, with the help of the guys working here. I’m looking forward to the produce we will cultivate — the vegetables and fruit."

An orchard is in place and the first seedlings were recently transplanted into the gardens. Duru and Green hope the first farmers’ market will take place early in the new year.

The ideal is to attract other growers in the area — from Joubert Park’s GreenHouse Project, the Bambanani Food & Herb Co-operative Project and informal growers, for example — "so that it becomes a feature of Johannesburg, a really fresh food market", says Green.

He recently pulled in SA landscaper Patrick Watson. "I told him I wanted to turn Victoria Yards into an edible garden. Patrick got excited about it, and we’ve been driving round the countryside sourcing plants to grow in the gardens," he says.

One of Watson’s contributions has been to extend the range of edible plants beyond the obvious fruit and vegetables — for example, to include species of plectranthus, a traditional food.

However, Green says that for the most part the team behind Victoria Yards has very little farming expertise. "We’re going to be bothered and plagued by all of those things that farmers know so much about and we don’t," he says.

"We need lots of help, and we need it fast. I am positive that there are some good souls in Johannesburg who know exactly how to grow peach trees, for example, and that they will come and train us — on a voluntary basis in the beginning — knowing that all the proceeds from the fruit, and all the money that we make from this, are going back to the people of the community."

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