Lorentzville, once a predominantly Jewish working-class neighbourhood that became Portuguese and is now multi-ethnic, has always enjoyed a picturesque setting — beneath Stewart Drive, one of the city’s three passes, with views of the Kensington Ridge. And while some famous people might have spent time in the area — Mahatma Gandhi, William Kentridge, and Sol Kerzner, as well as the notorious poisoner Daisy de Melker — today the most conspicuous aspect of Lorentzville is the encroaching poverty.
While some people may see gentrification as the likely outcome of the creation of Victoria Yards — as happened in New York’s SoHo and London’s Shoreditch, where artists paved the way for hipsters and higher real-estate prices — the developers have tried to steer clear of this.
Indeed, one of the motivating factors behind Victoria Yards has been to engage the local community, be it through children’s programmes or by involving abused women from nearby Bethany Home, some of whom are helping with gardening and vegetable growing.
“What is unique in Victoria Yards is that it seeks to offer a place of employment, training and growing great African artists, artisans, and entrepreneurs,” says Nicolette Pingo of the Johannesburg Development Agency. “It seeks to integrate with local residents and offer opportunities for them rather than being an exclusive island in Lorentzville.”
Jonti Brozin, one of the partners in the project, says when they were contemplating how to develop the land, the partners reflected on the question: “How do you use property to benefit your surroundings?”
It was Brozin’s father, Robbie Brozin, who in 1991 chose Lorentzville as the location of the central kitchen for a new fast-food chicken business. Its name was Nando’s, and not only has the company stayed in Lorentzville since then, but four years ago it completed a fantastic redesign of its central kitchen headquarters. With that, the company seemed to be making a declaration: we like this place and we’re staying. While Nando’s is not directly involved in Victoria Yards, there is symbiosis. The company, which is well known for its philanthropic work and contribution to the arts, established the area’s flavour.
Across from Nando’s, on Viljoen Street, lay an overgrown, dilapidated 30 000m² property that had once been the premises of Advance Laundries. A meeting of the minds led some half-dozen real-estate developers — including Green, Jonti Brozin, and Spier and Nando’s shareholder Dick Enthoven — to do something special with the property. The direction Victoria Yards would eventually take was left largely to Green’s imagination, but it has been influenced by recent cultural events in Johannesburg, especially on its eastern perimeter — namely, an unprecedented explosion of art.