Skyscraper Jail for Sky-High Crime

In Johannesburg, they say that if you like science fiction, you'll love Ponte City. Towering above the downtown area, Africa's tallest apartment block is a concrete, glass, and steel folly dating from the early 1970s.

The view of Johannesburg's business district and the surrounding plateau is breathtaking. But the internal shaft, plunging 52 floors, is gloomy and dizzying, a giant trash chute reminiscent of the "Star Wars" Death Star.

Coca-Cola gave sci-fi fans another jolt when it erected a six-story-high neon sign on the building's roof. It dominates the skyline for 30 miles, reminding dystopia lovers of the airborne Coke ads in "Blade Runner," Ridley Scott's cinematic vision of a futuristic Los Angeles.

The science-fiction allusions may not end there. Rising crime in Berea - an all-white area until the collapse of apartheid - has driven most of the former residents into the affluent suburbs, and rentals have plummeted.

Ponte's owners are planning to turn it into a high-rise jail that will tower over one of the world's most crime-ridden cities. For movie buffs the allusion is obvious: "Escape From New York," John Carpenter's 1981 cult hit that transformed Manhattan into a giant penal colony.

But the building's owners insist there is nothing fanciful about their proposal. The idea to turn Ponte City into a prison originated with United States architect Paul Silver, an internationally recognized expert on jail construction who first came to South Africa two years ago at the invitation of the Ministry of Correctional Services.

Asked to find a way of providing cells for at least 2,000 prisoners in or near downtown Johannesburg - the epicenter of a South African crime wave that includes 11,000 murders each year - he spent months inspecting vacant lots and existing buildings before he came upon Ponte City. "I went and took a look and realized it was absolutely perfect," he says. "It's a lousy apartment building, but a perfect prison."

Mr. Silver's proposal is to install decks in the central shaft - one every four floors - and to remove part of the outer wall over each deck to create exercise spaces big enough for indoor soccer or basketball. The apartments in the outer walls would be easily converted into cells - each with its own barred picture window. The prisoners would have plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular view because, he says, escape from the world's tallest prison would be all but impossible.

FEW Johannesburgers take the proposal seriously - even those who live in the building. Edgar Ramakgopa, a technician who shares an apartment on the 50th floor with five friends, jokes: "I like staying here very much. If they turn it into a prison, I will become a guard."

But according to Don Stewart, representative for the owners, Vincemus Investments Ltd., the building has already been rezoned and the proposal approved "in principle" by the government and city council. The government is expected to request a new Johannesburg prison this month and, Mr. Stewart says, the consortium is confident that it can deliver for around 250 million rand ($50 million), 60 percent of the estimated cost of building a similar facility from scratch.

Critics say opposition is likely to grow as realization sinks in that it is not a joke. Henning Rasmuss, an architect, writer, and lecturer on Johannesburg's urban environment, says the idea of having the city skyline dominated by the world's tallest prison is "scary" and would do nothing to help the image of a city already generally acknowledged to be in serious trouble.

By day, the streets of the downtown Central Business District still bustle with office workers, and the end to apartheid restrictions on black movement has allowed street traders to flourish, giving an African air to what would otherwise look like a mid-size US city. But the often-magnificent buildings that tower above the streets are in many cases vacant or half-empty, abandoned by white-owned business in the flight to the suburbs.

At Christmas, the five-star Carlton - formerly Johannesburg's premier hotel - shut down because few visitors wanted to stay there anymore. In its last years, the hotel provided armed bodyguards for guests who fancied a stroll outside.

Mr. Rasmuss says Johannesburg's future, like that of so many US cities that endured similar blight, lies in persuading people to live and work downtown. But unlike in the US, where urban "gentrification" has been led by affluent people fleeing boredom, traffic jams, and property costs in suburbs, the future of Johannesburg lies with the relatively poor black majority, he says. Several buildings are being converted into affordable apartments using a government grant designed to address serious shortages left over from the apartheid era, which ended in the early 1990s.

Whites may flee to the suburbs, Rasmuss says, but for many blacks, downtown Johannesburg remains Egoli, "the place of gold," the descendant of the mining town that sprang up along the great Witwatersrand gold reef 112 years ago. A vibrant if harsh city of opportunity, it still acts as a magnet of hope for people from all over Africa, just as New York once lured the poor of Europe.

Johannesburg "doesn't look good, and it doesn't look like it used to - some of the parks are now being used to dump vegetables or repair minibus taxis," Rasmuss says. "It is now an African city, and it used to be a white city in Africa. But the process is a very hopeful one and positive. The problem is that the people who debate about Johannesburg are white."

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