Diagonal Street, Johannesburg Inner City
The area of Diagonal Street was right in the thick of the action at the beginning of the gold rush. Originally called Jubilee Street, it had already settled on its current name by 1897, supposedly because it was the only area of the then Johannesburg City not to be on the rigid east-west north-south street grid system.
Once the hub of the city moved east to the Rissik Street area, Diagonal Street was under the radar as far as the strict racial segregation was concerned, and was home to a mix of Indian, Chinese and Coloured settlers who ran a brisk commercial retailing sector with white proxy fronts. This successful state of affairs continued until 1950 when the notorious group areas act declared the area white only, marked for re-development.
In 1978, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange moved into No. 17 Diagonal Street from Hollard Street and remained there until 2000 when inner city decay and increasing concerns about security caused the JSE to relocate to its current premises in Sandton in 2000.
Today, the most recognisable building on this street is the iconic ‘diamond’ building at 11 Diagonal which was commissioned by Anglo American and is now owned by Absa Bank. Designed by the renowned architect, Helmut Jahn, it resembles a multi-faceted diamond, with massive glass sheets placed at varying angles reflecting different images of the surrounding buildings. Amidst some of the best preserved Victorian streets in Johannesburg, sporting delicate filigree cast iron work, this area is a photographers paradise and by far one of the most eclectic precincts of the city.
Other buildings to ferret out are the Kazerne Building on the corner of Jeppe and Diagonal streets which dates back to 1896; The Victorian neo-classical Carmel Building built in 1897; Gardee’s Arcade has roots back to 1922; the Victorian/Edwardian Grand Hotel on 12 and 14 Diagonal Street which dates back to 1926; the two-storey Pie House taking up the triangle between Diagonal and Sauer streets is a 1930′s creation, a somewhat foreshortened “Flatiron” building; 42 Diagonal Street, Oskop House, hails from the 1940’s.
There are many fascinating African herbalists’ shops, where you can acquire a mind-boggling array of homoeopathic and traditional cures for whatever ails you, the KwaZulu Muti – Museum of Man and Science at 14 Diagonal Street is a good starting point. Venturing inside the store is like stepping into a different world. All manner of items crowd the shelves and ceilings. If you’re lucky, a sangoma (traditional healer) might throw the bones and tell you what the future holds.
Kohinoor, in a basement underneath a furniture store, at nearby 54 Market Street is one of the best sources of ethnic/African music, and sells everything from kwaito to jazz.
Other shops on Diagonal Street are usually Indian run and sell a range of goods aimed at lower income earners. The merchandise spills out on to the pavement – crates of fruit, tables laden with hats and fabric, while skirts, blouses and dresses hang above the doorways.
The sculptures of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, located in Diagonal Street, opposite the building in which Walter Sisulu had his offices in the 1950’s, add some current history to the streets and shows the close bond which existed between the couple throughout some of the harshest Apartheid realities.
When visiting, it is best to either drive to Johannesburg and park at the Library Gardens underground parking, or jump on the Gautrain to Park Station and hop on a BRT bus to town.
To arrange a tour, contact the Parktown and Westcliffe Heritage Trust. Tel: +27 (0)11 482 3349 weekdays between 09:00 and 13:00.
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