The parks in old Jaffa. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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"Ancient Jaffa" is not what it used to be. The ruined Arab city, rebuilt in the 1960s as a Jewish artists' colony and tourist destination which flourished briefly dozens of years ago, is frozen in place and has not managed to ride Tel Aviv's wave as an international city that never sleeps. While luxury housing and fashionable entertainment, tourist, leisure, cultural and artistic sites prosper all around it - and what is Jaffa if not the primordial mother of all such sites? - the Jaffa port, flea market, clock square and bus station are withered and aged.

Or so claims the Old Jaffa Development Corporation, which initiated and is advancing a new building plan, the first since what is known as the Old City of Jaffa was rebuilt 50 years ago.

The project is meant to develop and renew "old Jaffa" - an amusing oxymoron and a sensitive place planning, architectural, social and political points of view. Architect Dan Lazar is in charge, with architect Amnon Brauer responsible for preservation.

After two years of work, the plan, and defined as still in an experimental trial-and-error stage, the plan was unveiled for the first time this week at a forum of architects and planners which included members of the public.

It was the first of three meetings in which residents and merchants in the old city, as well as residents of greater Jaffa, may take part.

Development of a building plan for a new city is a second chance, which enables not only new construction but a reexamination of earlier decisions, the learning of lessons and correction of mistakes.

The plan offered this week constitutes a missed opportunity. Not one lesson has been learned since the original plan was carried out, and no corrections have been made. History is repeating itself as if generations had not passed since Teddy Kollek saved the ruins of the Arab city from complete destruction, only in order to give it over to select Jewish residents and tourists seeking exotica; and since architects Mandel-Ya'ar and Frankel recast it in an "Oriental" light after expelling all its "Oriental" residents.

Under the new plan, ancient Jaffa remains ancient Jaffa, cut off from the fabric of urban life and from Jaffa's Arab community, memorializing an injustice which remains engraved in the memory of Arab residents. In the guise of deep concern for Jaffa, this time too ancient Jaffa is perceived as a valuable object, a tourist site and place of entertainment, as if what Jaffa has lacked all these years was just this. In addition, it is seen as real estate, not for artists but for the wealthy and upper echelons.

The conditions for residence will likely be even more restrictive than they are now.

Today, only artists are eligible to live there, but the new financial conditions will be even more exclusive and discriminatory with plans calling for entertainment and leisure activity centers, public buildings, hotels, archaeological sites.

Left out again

None of these projects will change living conditions for Arab residents one whit and will leave them out of the picture again. This time around, as generations ago, Arab professionals are absent from the planning staff, and among the groups party to the plan - the Jaffa local government, the city of Tel Aviv, the Israel Ministry of Tourism - there is not one group that directly represents the Arab residents of Jaffa.

Only a small minority of Arabs were among those attending the meeting at which the plan was unveiled.

For the first time since ancient Jaffa was reconstructed in the 1960s, new building will be permitted and a new housing development will go up in the open area of the old city garden. (Public buildings and hotels will also be built on the garden slopes ). That will add 150 residential units to the 200 existing ones. The area of the garden was originally a residential site, destroyed by the British during the Arab Revolt of 1936, and by the state of Israel during the Independence War and in the 1950s.

The garden was planted on the ruins of the Arab city, scarring the urban landscape. The park is as high as the roofs of the original buildings.

It is possible to justify housing in the garden area if it were intended for the broader public, and contributed to a solution to the housing crisis of Arab residents of Jaffa, and the building of trust between them and the planning establishment in the city.

Naive fantasies

But these are naive fantasies.The planned housing is just another luxury neighborhood, like the Andromeda, and without corrective steps there's not a sliver of a chance that it will be anything other than housing for those even wealthier than in the other new housing developments in Jaffa.

The plan will create yet another symbol of discrimination, another source of frustration and hostility.

In two years of work, planners did not see fit to formulate a more suitable approach.

If a way to make new housing in old Jaffa accessible to all is not found, Dan Lazar says, "We will recommend canceling the housing and making the site available for tourism, for popularly priced hotels and public uses only. The plan is not finished yet and there is still room for change."

A representative of the development corporation who attended the meeting said that Jaffa wasn't the only place lacking accessible housing and that there is no justification to build even one square meter of the garden if its result will be another luxury project with a sea view.

Based on a brief and unscientific tour of old Jaffa on the night of the meeting, it appears that while the area is not trendy, it is filled to the brim with visitors, tourists, pilgrims, worshipers and theater-lovers.

So it's clear that rumors of its death are premature and were perhaps spread on purpose.

Still, residents of Jaffa say that there are many beautiful buildings standing empty or underutilized, such as the Old Jaffa Antiquities Museum where the meeting took place.

At this early stage, the plan can still save itself from its fixations with regard to planning and social awareness and make a historic correction in Jaffa.