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Braamfontein’s new playground – an urban market “on steroids”

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It takes gumption, grit, global vision and good-old-fashioned chutzpah to turn the inner city of Johannesburg into something enticing and attractive for urbanites, hipsters, and trendsetters.

Property entrepreneur Adam Levy, 45, of development company Play Braamfontein, has all these qualities and then some. Combined with a passion bordering on an obsession and cultivated over 18 years in the game, Levy is breathing new life and creative soul into COVID-19-drained Braamfontein with his recent opening of The Playground – a weekly market with a difference.

Levy, born and raised in Johannesburg, was the co-founder of the once thriving Neighbourgoods Market that opened in 2011 in Braamfontein and sadly closed during lockdown. Determined to re-create a world-class venue for city dwellers and international tourists, Levy has resuscitated it as the new and improved Saturday market, The Playground.

“The Playground is the Neighbourgoods Market on steroids,” said Levy this week.

A stickler for quality design and artistry with an eye for new local talent, Levy said The Playground had been reimagined and repurposed at the original market site, the landmark 73 Juta Street building, with its iconic Edoardo Villa sculpture façade. This will play host to a weekly artisan market with gourmet street food and cocktails.

“This isn’t just a market space, it’s as focused on the visitor experience as it is on creating a platform for exceptional young talent in Joburg,” he said.

Each vendor, artist, musician, and designer has been carefully chosen, said Levy, who sees them all as unique story tellers. “All of us has a power story to tell and great stories need to have a gramophone. I’m going to be the guy that does that for them.

“The Playground is an empowerment station that brings together a myriad of different enterprising entrepreneurs all doing amazing things, and I’m giving them a platform to share their stories through their craft,” he said.

It has a new covered rooftop live performance area with a purpose-built stage and wraparound balcony deck area offering views of the city.

“It’s a transformative beginning of a whole new magical city experience that I think will tell a localised story to the world,” Levy said.

Levy’s passion for city development started in the early 2000s when he was doing his articles in Braamfontein.

“I soon realised law wasn’t my calling,” he said, and with just six months to go before becoming a certified lawyer, he said goodbye to the legal profession and promptly secured the property rights to a nearby building. He had a vision to completely transform number 155 Smit Street into a sought-after location, where he landed up living in its Swiss and Austrian designed uber stylish penthouse for 15 years. Levy continued to build and develop nearby properties.

He launched Play Braamfontein as part of his vision to transform the entire area into a world-class, aspirational urban neighbourhood in Johannesburg.

He’s uncomfortable with the term “property developer” saying, “There’s something loathsome about this description. Rather, my life is really about hospitality, creating dynamic spaces that afford people the luxury of finding the best in themselves.”

After some time, Levy felt his wanderlust rear its head, and spent several years travelling extensively, sampling what global cities had to offer.

“I became a global nomad, travelling the world prospecting for a different life, commuting between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and living in different cities around the world,” he said.

He found himself in South Africa during lockdown, which gave him an opportunity to refocus and resulted in a fresh fervour to develop Braamfontein.

“Joburg is my medina,” said Levy who attended King David Victory Park and credits his beloved parents, the late Ivan Levy, esteemed commercial attorney and philanthropist, and his artistic and stylish mother, Barbara, for everything he knows and holds dear.

“My innate, intuitive governance comes from what I saw and experienced at home. My family gave me a certain gravitas to operate in life with conviction,” he said, pointing out that weekly Shabbos meals were some of the most magical moments of his childhood.

He spends his days finding solutions to problems like potholes, water leaks, and crumbling infrastructure in a city that he says has “failed itself”.

“The system is busted. I’ve just taken a view that there’s a certain little segment of Braam which I happen to own a significant portion of, and which I treat like a different world,” he said. “I don’t sit and wait around for things to happen.”

Before The Playground opened and after asking for help from the city dozens of times, he spent thousands to get a private asphalt company to fill up every pothole within six city blocks.

“I focus on the things I can control, and I try to make it dynamic. Whatever you see for four city blocks is painted, has illumination, has a commissioned mural, and looks like someone gives a shit. It’s Adam’s little Switzerland.

“I can’t spend the rest of my life talking about the complexities of failure in the city. I’m not in the fail realm, I’m in the win department, and if I have power and conviction, that’s where my power is best served.”

When he drives around parts of the city, he asks himself why he does what he does.

“My need to make beauty in this life supersedes all of it. So long as I’m here, I’ll live with both feet firmly entrenched on the ground, and give it my all.”

He recently sold his penthouse to cultural phenomemon, DJ Black Coffee. “To me, it felt like he needed to be a standard bearer of what the future of this place can be,” Levy said.

He sees The Playground as the starting point of the regeneration of the entire neighbourhood.

“I’m going to make it happen because I’ve done it all before. I’m using the experience and knowledge gained over years with a non-distracted conviction.”

Josef Talotta, the executive head of precinct development for South Point, a Braamfontein-based student accommodation development and management company, said, “It’s great to have Adam as a neighbour in Braam. He’s been instrumental in developing creative and sustainable hooks to help build an inspirational destination district that’s unique in South Africa, while helping to lift and define the ‘Braam brand’ in the process. He’s tenacious, creative, and has an unwaveringly finessed aesthetic that’s inspired and inspirational and, above all, relevant to time and space. But what I enjoy most about him is that he’s a forward thinker who’s also a doer – a powerful combination that’s so very Joburg, in the best-possible way.”

Laurice Taitz, the publisher and editor of the Johannesburg In Your Pocket City Guide said, “Adam is a pioneering property developer in the city. The Neighbourgoods Market that he co-founded was the Saturday heart of the city for many years, where almost two million people visited. Adam has reinvented it, and no doubt it will become a regular attraction for the city, a real platform for creative talent. He has seen it all in his time in this city. It takes a real survival instinct to keep going.”

The Playground artisan market is open from 09:00 to 18:00 every Saturday, and includes an afternoon music line-up. It’s free to enter from 09:00 to 11:00, thereafter a R20 entry fee is payable at the door by card only.

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