Victoria Yards is a collection of dilapidated buildings refurbished and developed into an artisanal centre in Lorenzvile. Though somewhat fragmentary in appearance, it has managed to redefine the famous catchphrase “all that glitters is not gold” to; not all that does not glitter is not gold.
Lorenzvile is a small community found in Bertrams (also known as Judith Paarl) Johannesburg. This area is notorious for its low-income rate, food security struggle, high crime rate, and unsafe environment.
Before Victoria Yards, the place was buildings that were many things over the years; from laundry firms, hospitals, the army, junk or scrap yards, tuck shops, churches, a place where stolen cars were kept, taxis parking lot, and eventually a set of neglected and abandoned buildings. The latter contributed greatly to the area’s high crime rate.
The primary owner of the buildings was not pleased with what his properties had been turned into. He wanted to initiate change, but he feared its occupants at the time. It is then safe to say that Victoria was but a diamond in the rough, and it required the owner to have specialised knowledge, tools, equipment, and techniques to go through with the diamond cutting to turn the rough stone into a faceted gem.
He voiced his concerns about his buildings in his entourage; coincidentally, workers from Nando’s worldwide headquarters (established in Bertrams) were a part of this circle and were acquainted with Brian Green, a property developer and co-owner of group 44 properties. Green was invited to the site in hopes that he would find interest in the deteriorated buildings, and he did.
The initial idea was to refurbish the buildings and turn them into flats considering that rentals are an easy way to earn a good income. However, late in 2016, Brian Green in collaboration with Nando’s worldwide headquarters, Maker’s Valley, and other investors initiated the creation of Victoria Yards as an eco-system artisanal centre that would not only empower the community it is found in and neighbouring communities but would also increase positive momentum and publicity to Bertrams.
“Green was aware of the poor living conditions and high crime rate in the area when he decided to establish Victoria Yards, yet it did not stop him. If anything, it inspired him. He saw that the community was already filled with makers and people who work with their hands yet lacked the appropriate space and opportunity, so he was compelled to opt for an eco-system style; plant vegetables instead of flowers to tackle the food security struggle and to create a space for makers to showcase their work, which in the process would tackle the low-income issue,” said Hector Xquizified Mgiba, a Victoria yards representative with whom I had the utmost pleasure of interviewing.
Bertrams has always had organisations interested in bettering the community that unfortunately do not weather the storm because the weight of their work always seemed to be overpowered by the problems the community was facing. Victoria Yards, however, showed that through good collaboration and partnership, negativity can be dealt with and that it is possible to rise above the waters.
“Maker’s valley is an organisation that prioritises the people of the Bertrams community with regards to job opportunities linked to any development taking place in the area. It was in the process of establishing itself around the same time that Victoria Yards was being initiated. I can say that Victoria Yards had perfect timing, and that worked in their favour,” Mgiba said.
Victoria Yards ensures to involve Maker’s Valley whenever a job opportunity presents itself. Whatever the position, Maker’s valley has the self-given responsibility to ensure that the people of the community who are equipped with the necessary skills and/or qualifications for it are not overlooked. This has immensely aided in improving the area’s income rate. Call this the cleaving stage of cutting diamonds if you please.
Victoria Yards is not a charity, it is a business and like most businesses, profit is its main objective. However, it is not a retail space, so to ensure that profit is made, the idea of hosting a day where all artists get to showcase and sell their work was implemented. This takes place every first Sunday of the month. It may not have been intended, but this is a day where many acquaintances, friendships, and possible partnerships are made because of the energy and momentum that a day filled with good music, food, drinks, passion, talent, and art exhibitions comes with.
Though profit is the goal, Victoria Yards recognises people who need assistance when starting their business and connects them to people who can empower them. For instance, there was a young couple called Sobae Frozen that attended the Victoria Yards launch in 2018. They were still trying to figure out their business, Victoria Yards noticed them, took them in, and gave them a studio space rent-free at Victoria Yards for the first two years of their business. They have been featured on several programmes such as the Victoria Yards annual youth expo. They are now plugged in the market and are doing well.
“Growing up, I had never seen anything like Victoria Yards. Unlike malls and shopping centres, it is a 30000m2 building filled with people doing what they love and empowering people at the same time. That for me is beyond striking,” Mgiba exclaimed.
Victoria Yards is by far the first collaborative development of its kind in Bertrams: they are very inclusive of their people and neighbouring people, they are supporting establishments such as Timbuktu in the valley- a learning centre for children, they host workshops through which skills are taught to people of the community, they offer exhibition space free of charge to artists who want to showcase their work, they put a spotlight on Bertrams that no other development or organisation ever has, the tourist’s attraction they come with means money is being spent in the community; tackling the income rate issue yet again. What an intense bruiting stage!
There have been a few concerns about gentrification occurring in Bertrams because of the existence of Victoria Yards. However, everything about how it is designed is proof that Green and his partners had no such intent. They could have turned the dilapidated buildings into fancy skyscrapers. Better yet, they could have opted to demolish everything and resume construction from the ground up, but they did not.
They chose to refurbish the existing buildings to match the area’s outlook, and this tells us that there were no intentions of appearing superior. The establishment of Victoria yards was to assist, impact and empower the people of the Bertrams community, and in the process redefine and salvage its reputation.
“There are about 45 to 50 tenants currently occupying Victoria Yards, yet it is always subject to change. I can say that the development is 70% complete and it is a forever changing project,” Mgiba said.
After enduring the cleaving and bruiting stage, Victoria Yards is still in the polishing stage – the last and final stage. Brian Green, Nando’s worldwide headquarters, Maker’s Valley and all the other investors who partook and continue to partake in the establishment of the Victoria Yards are the rotating polishing wheel that continues to ensure that the diamond is finished, and complete look is attained.
Victoria Yards is a beautiful work in progress that takes pride in touching and changing lives along the way.