The Johannesburg central business district (CBD) covers about six square kilometres of the city and is packed with skyscrapers. Diagonal Street in the western part of the historic CBD, is one of the oldest streets in Johannesburg, and while this street too has its own skyscrapers, Diagonal Street is most remarkable for its historic architecture, low-rise buildings and shops selling traditional items such as kanga cloths and blankets, as well as household appliances and furnishings.
One of the most distinctive buildings is the so-called Diamond Building at 11 Diagonal Street, designed by the renowned architect, Helmut Jahn. The angular facade resembles a multi-faceted diamond, with massive glass sheets placed at varying angles to reflect different images of the surrounding buildings.
The area west of Diagonal Street is shown on early maps as no-man’s land. In the mid-1880s, Indian settlers took advantage of this, settling on the edge of the city and buying white owned property and setting up businesses through nominees. Although an issue of the Standard and Diggers News of 1897 refers to “Diagonal Street”, it was also known as “Jubilee Street” in the days of the gold rush. As building boomed in gold rush Johannesburg in 1896 the Kazerne Building, on the corner of Rahima Moosa Street and Diagonal street, was erected and the Victorian neo-classical Carmel Building was built the following year.
The two-storey Pie House that occupies a triangle between Diagonal and Pixle ka Isaka Seme streets is a fine example of the 1930s “flatiron” design. Oskop House at 42 Diagonal Street, built in 1944, was originally a three- or four-storey building that was increased to seven floors in 1949. This eclectic mix of buildings is one of the main features that distinguishes the area. Other noteworthy sites which distinguish the area include the beautiful statue of ANC stalwarts, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, who sit facing each other and holding hands.
Diagonal Street and its surrounds developed into a racially mixed area in which trading continued despite the prescriptive Gold Law of 1908 and the Asiatic Land Tenure and Trading Amendment Act of 1919, which restricted land acquisition, trading and occupancy rights. Lack of enforcement of these laws was partly due to the fact that the town centre had shifted eastwards towards Rissik and Eloff streets, allowing marginalised races and religions to create and maintain their own colourful trading area on Diagonal Street. Although the Group Areas act of 1950 had a severe effect on the area, forcing local shopkeepers from their homes, Diagonal Street has maintained its multi-cultural status and today you will still find a strong Indian community in the area.
Today Diagonal Street's stores still trade a variety of bold African prints, traditional accessories, blankets, hardware and kitchenware. There are also ‘muti’ (traditional medicine shops) to be found here selling African traditional remedies for all kinds of ailments.
Walking tours of the area which take in Diagonal Street's rich history as well as its unusual shops can be arranged with local specialist guides such as Past Experiences and Joburg Places.