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  • Writer's pictureSandra Caganoff

On leaving a neighbourhood

For the last ten years I have lived in Melville, Johannesburg. When I first moved, into a tiny semi with a garden that I grew and nurtured, it was a little bit on the wrong side of the tracks. I loved it. Melville was alive, had the brilliant 7th Street with dive bars, Hobo - the best boutique in Johannesburg - and a sex toy shop with a BDSM slant that had been there forever. I hung out at all the bars, spent money I didn’t have at the boutique, never went into the sex toy shop and really embraced the joy and diversity of the hood. I got to know the car guards, the broom sellers, the dog walkers, the shop owners, the paper recyclers and the drug dealers. I said hello to everyone and they all said hello in return. My dogs and I became a regular feature, with Fred and Ruby more popular than me.

The corner of my road had a forlorn wedding dress shop on one side and an even more forlorn cafe on the other. My children single handedly kept the cafe open, buying bags of greasy biltong and occasional single Chappies. I did not like the cafe and I disliked the wedding shop even more, having recently gone through a divorce. When it changed location and was replaced by a steam punk restaurant, I was delighted. Pablo’s became my new spot and suddenly friends were coming to the dodgy side of town, mounting their cars on the pavements, holding tightly on to their handbags. I loved the gentrified vibe. So did the car guards. Business boomed. New bars opened, restaurants popped up, a slick wine bar replaced the sleazy bottle store, a stylish vintage shop came along and the clothes and champagne flowed. And then the famous Ba Pita arrived. Diners from as far afield as Glenhazel booked their tables well in advance. Ba Pita even hosted a Bat Mitzvah and people danced the hora in the hood.

Times were changing and I was there for it. My kids mourned the biltong when the cafe closed but I loved the new dog friendly coffee shops with their tattooed Baristas. When the Whippet opened their doors, Sandton came to Melville too. Lulu lemon leggings were seen alongside bell bottoms, Louboutin heels alongside Doc Martens. Melville was a mix of old and new, white and black, grunge and kugel. It buzzed, day and night, and I was glad my little house was far enough away so as not to deal with the noise.

The hood were my family. When I locked myself out my home, Gerald from Ba Pita, the Godfather of Melville, told me to SIT TIGHT AND HAVE SOME HUMMUS, while he sorted out the locksmith. When my dog took himself to Spilt Milk to get bacon (something I used to do for him) and stood alone in the take-out queue, JB, a regular, recognised him and bought him home. And the brilliant 7th Street Melville Pharmacy would listen to my woes, my rants, my problems and then gently say: “Shall I fill your script for you now, Sandra.”

There were many fantastic Melville moments. Sitting outside the IT Corner and watching the salsa dancers at Six. Finally winning Quiz night at Nuno’s. Screaming at the television set at The Xai. Going through menopause at Bread and Roses. (It was always so hot in there).Picking up freshly baked bread from The Baker Brothers, eating entire loaves on the walk home. Booking the fireplace table at The Ant in winter. Telling the waiters at Santa Muerta the nachos were terrible, then licking the plates clean. And waving to Fred the local barber, every day, as I walked past to pick up a coffee from TILT. Fred ran Scala Barber for over fifty years and sadly died a week ago. MHDSRIP.

I want to say that Melville changed during the pandemic but the truth is, it changed before the pandemic. On New Year’s Eve in 2020, around midnight, there was a drive by shooting. The restaurants and the street were pumping. There was music, dancing, champagne and celebration. And then a car drove up to Poppy’s Jazz Bar and the occupants opened fire on the Poppy’s crowd. A drive by shooting in our beautiful Melville. I don’t even know how to type those words. Three people died. A car guard was shot through the head. Families were left devastated. And a neighbourhood was left in shock.

The memorials were heartbreaking. Nobody was arrested. Business owners and residents struggled to get back to normal. People were scared. And the street went very quiet.

A few months later, came the unthinkable. A pandemic. I remember walking the streets the night before our first lockdown. There’d been a huge storm, everything was wet and glistening, the air smelled fresh, the sky was turning gold and the light was beautiful. By all accounts, another gorgeous evening. Except all the restaurants were emptying their fridges, sweeping their floors, putting the chairs on top of the tables and locking their doors. The only other person on the street was a lonely balloon seller, hoping for a final sale.

There were no customers.

Lockdown turned into weeks and then months. A lot of homeless people were on the streets. Restaurants did their best to adapt to pandemic times with strict rules and no alcohol and no sit down and it was an impossible situation. So many places closed and never opened again. So many people lost their livelihoods. And so many people were knocking on doors, asking for help. Voluntary food initiatives developed and people helped and shared and the community became something other than good times and fun. Kindness and generosity shone through. It still does.

The Melville Koppies, a nature sanctuary, turned into a meeting place. People came from far and wide to walk slowly and breathe in the beauty, to appreciate nature, and each other. They weren’t coming for the bars but they were coming for the open spaces. They still are. It’s been amazing to see so many walkers exploring the hills, admiring the views of Johannesburg and taking photographs of the tiny flowers. The Koppies will always be my magical place with its billion year old rocks, Proteas, travellers joy, good dogs and good conversations. I’ve had many sunsets and moonrises up there, alone and with friends, where we have learned about blood moons, peach moons, blue moons, half moons, where is the damn moon and perfect moons. We’ve had Shabbat ceremonies and candle lightings and special spiritual moments. It's beautiful and if you haven’t been up there, I urge you to go.

And now we are at the end of our third lockdown and I am seeing another change. The hood is resilient. New restaurants and bars are opening. Some of the old shops made it and while things are still rough, they've hung in. There are two new vintage stores. The wire artists are back, the basket sellers are back, and the car guards are making enough money to partake in leisure activities. The salsa dancing at Six has resumed and the expensive boutique is doing a good trade. De La Creme, open since 1987, are still serving custard slices from 1987. Ziggy’s Pet store still offers the best dog treats, TILT’s coffee and babka will always be delicious and oh gosh, I am getting so sad at the thought of saying goodbye.

I am packing my bags and leaving town. I am cheating on Melville. Two years ago I met a man in Cape Town and I am going to join him. It makes sense for me to move, and Fred, Ruby and I are almost on our way. Today I walked the streets, taking photographs, chatting to all my neighbourhood friends and saying goodbye.

When people ask me if I am leaving the neighbourhood because of the many changes, I say No.

Because actually I don’t think it is the hood that has changed.

I think it is me.

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