Loren Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing, and Building Johannesburg (2013)

City from the South (undated). Photograph copyright by David Goldblatt.

City from the South (undated). Photograph copyright by David Goldblatt.

As Johannesburg’s history shows, the city provoked extreme responses from the very beginning…Reflecting on developments around 1896, English observer William Butler displaced the already popular epithet “golden city” with the disparaging label: “Monte Carlo on top of Sodom and Gomorrah.” In 1926, William Plomer mixed aversion and admiration when he recalled the Johannesburg of his childhood as the “upstart city…Even the outright boosterism of “Africa’s Wonder City” on display at the Empire Exhibition in honor of Johannesburg’s 50th anniversary in 1936 jubilee was accompanied by stories of embezzled funds and other scandals…Rather than distinguish emphatically between a positive spin on the “Afropolis” and an allegedly long tradition of loathing”, as do Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, the archive compels us instead to balance the history of fear and loathing with an equally long tradition of bullish appraisals, and thus to recognize that the persistent mixture of aversion and admiration, rather than loathing, has been the dominant response to the edgy city.

Working against the willful amnesia that has passed for memory in Johannesburg, this book excavates the history of the city and builds new links among recurring themes and forms in the literary, visual, and built representation of the urban imagination, in this city and in others with which it invites comparison. These themes, forms, and projects remind us that, even in twelve decades, Johannesburg’s answers to urbanist Kevin Lynch’s suggestive question “What time is this place?” multiply across temporal and spatial coordinates, as they produce images and echoes from half—remembered periods and buried strata.

Bringing together models, moments, sites, stories, and the networks, both real and imagined, that link them…this book wagers that the juxtaposition of different genres, forms, and representations of urban spatial practices in this edgy, fragmented, but still distinctive city will provide affective and critical links among hitherto separate realms of experience and fields of study and shed new light on some of the city’s darker corners. Retracing the edges between lived-in districts and their conjured others, as well as between and among the domains of urban history and design, and literary, filmic, and performance analysis illuminates not only zones of conflict but also the practices and people engaged creatively in reimagining Johannesburg. The edgy city has throughout its history balanced precariously between enchantment and disenchantment, aspiration to great heights and wonders and pedestrian navigation of the ground below, but a sustained precarity has testified, and continues to testify to the tenacity of those who persist in urban spatial practices from formal building to informal trade, from political parades to public art, to pedestrian negotiations as yet unnamed, and in temporal practices of narrative and storytelling in old and new media—in writing, performing, and building Johannesburg.

Although focused on a singular case, this exploration has not been bound by it. Johannesburg’s ambivalent mixture of cosmopolitan and xenophobic elements, and transnational and intensely local moments and representations, invites comparison across regions and continents. Rather than simply replace the self-conscious adaptation of northern models from London, New York, or Chicago with a mandate to privilege south-south contacts in the mock-belligerent manner of the Australian cartographer of the “corrective map of the world” who asserted “south is superior” more than thirty years ago…we should look beyond the confines of this particular project to other cities north and south that other points of comparison, such as Berlin, Bogotá, Chicago, Dakar, Los Angeles, or São Paolo. Readers of this study of one city to take to heart Anthony King’s remark that “all cities today are ‘world cities’”, with the understanding that their citizens aspire in unequal but nonetheless significant measure to inhabit the world and to imagine and re-imagine that habitation as their right to the city.

—Loren Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing, and Building Johannesburg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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