In Tel Aviv, the Idea of Gated Communities Is Alive and Kicking

The idea of gated communities may have been rejected by city planners long ago, but in the Tel Aviv area quite a few have a desire to live a 'secluded' life while enjoying big-city benefits.

On screen, Daniela, the polite sales representative, wearing a tense, fixed smile, is seen accompanying her client on a tour of the then-new gated neighborhood called Savyonei Ramat Aviv. They appear in an almost unedited documentary short film made by journalist and director Ari Libsker about two years ago called “Hitpakhut: Kehila Meguderet” ‏(literally, “Sobering Up: A Gated Community”‏). The film was screened earlier this year on the Yes Docu channel, as part of its “Sobering Up” project, featuring movies on subjects related to the social protest in the country.

The client, whose name is Tami, is looking for an apartment that is roomy but not too roomy, safe but with a view, secluded but close to downtown Tel Aviv, and with access to all the necessary services, such as a park, gym and pool, where she can hang out with the neighbors while trying to ignore their persistent presence.

After the tour, while the two are going over technical details relating to the possible purchase of an apartment in the complex, Tami suddenly recalls the issue of a ventilation window in the service area.

“The apartment has very advanced Venta systems,” Daniela reassures her. “The dryer also hooks up to the external ventilation system.”

“You mean I have to dry my laundry in the dryer,” asks the potential client.

“Yes,” answers the sales representative. “You don’t hang laundry here.”

“You Don’t Hang Laundry Here” was the title of one of the lectures delivered as part of a summer series under the auspices of Bat Yam’s Center for Urbanism and Mediterranean Culture; Libsker’s film was screened at one of these events. ‏(The last lecture will take place next Thursday, August 1, at 6:30 P.M., at the Rothschild 12 cafe-bar in Tel Aviv, and is open to the public.‏)

The lectures are often accompanied by stormy discussions. At the session in which Libsker’s movie last week, architect Hillel Schocken also spoke about the gated communities and the damage they cause their surroundings.

In the neighborhood depicted in the film, you won’t run into random pedestrians if they have not been invited into the compound; there are no streets, nor is there any access from the street, whose existence is essentially denied by the complex. Instead it constitutes a kind of fortress, rising high out of concrete slabs, completely cut off from the city − Tel Aviv − where it is situated, a fact in which the project’s marketing representatives take pride.

This is “a place where your privacy is the highest value, where a man’s home is his castle” − according to the ads for Savyonei Ramat Aviv. This sort of residential building is also a direct “import” from particular areas in the United States, South America and South Africa, where fear of strangers has won out over the principles of urban planning.

It is hard to swallow the existence of such insular neighborhood compounds in Israel, such as this one in Ramat Aviv, or David Towers in Tel Aviv, and David’s Village in Jerusalem − if only because this outdated concept has been roundly condemned by architects, critics and above all town planners from the moment it came into being. Most of the spatial principles introduced in the 1960s by journalist and author Jane Jacobs still represent the prevailing spirit in urban planning: namely that cities should be vibrant, diverse and based on the movement of pedestrians rather than cars.

The “community” that resides in such complexes is usually made up, absurdly enough, of a group of people who share no common ideology except the wish to separate themselves from the rest of the population, whether for reasons of snobbery or security. “This is the future: Nothing illustrates society’s disparities more than a gated community,” says Libsker. “The rich employ a chauffeur and bodyguards; they don’t walk down the street, they fear for the safety of their children. If there were any advantage to the Israeli dream in the past, it was the incredible sense of intimacy you could feel in the center of Tel Aviv, which you can’t experience in any other city in the world. But that’s disappearing. Basically these spaces reflect anxiety and fear.”

“It’s true that this idea was rejected as early as the 1960s,” agrees Schocken, “but that had to do with form rather than content.” He points out that a physical fence isn’t always necessary to create a spatial division. For example, the Mashtela apartment project in north Tel Aviv: “No one passes through it by chance. That’s one of the major problems of this kind of urbanity, which cuts the city up into defined geographic spaces − Neveh Avivim, Green Ramat Aviv, Park Tzameret − based on a concept of fake communality, a kind of yearning for the kibbutz, while the city’s essence runs totally counter to that.”

Engineered roads

It is difficult to make a clear distinction between neighborhoods constructed intentionally as isolated communities, and neighborhoods that are closed off in practice due to faulty urban planning. The latter can be recognized at a glance in aerial photos of almost any Israeli city: They include Ir Yamim in Netanya, the neighborhoods of west Rishon Letzion, Em Hamoshavot in Petah Tikva, and the entire city of Modi’in, with its engineered, out-of-context roads paved over just a few years, in one quarter after the other.

“If the planners of Jerusalem in the 19th century had thought like we do, they would have built acoustic walls around the Russian Compound and Yemin Moshe, and Jaffa Street would have looked like Tel Aviv’s Namir Road,” says Schocken. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”

The residents of both kinds of neighborhoods give up urban streets in favor of a public-private, park-like complex that sometimes includes a pool or a country club and a small shopping mall. Although they seek privacy and security, in fact they lose their anonymity, as they share all of these services with the same group of families. Schocken explains that “a good city is one in which you move from your private space to the public one and know nothing about the people surrounding you, which is what I call ‘intimate anonymity.’ In the Mashtela neighborhood, the chance of seeing a person on the street is nonexistent − unless he lives there, in which case you already know many things about him.”

What about those who seek to “enjoy a pastoral view in the heart of the city,” as the gated community projects present themselves?

“You can’t both enjoy the advantages Tel Aviv offers and ignore the city’s needs,” responds Schocken. “Either you play according to the city’s rules, or you go to live in Kfar Shmaryahu. That’s what the public wants − to live in urban surroundings while essentially blocking them out − and that’s what the contractor wants to give it, that’s understandable. The architect also wants to make a living, so he does what the client asks. But the municipality should have said, ‘Not here.’ The fault lies with the planning teams in the municipalities.”

“The local councils should set a limit,” agrees Libsker. “When you give one developer an entire neighborhood, he’ll plan it according to his needs − and the result of all this new construction is that the developer plans the city.”

Nevertheless, Schocken observes, architects also have no small part in creating the illusion that one can lead a secluded life in the city center: “I blame our profession, which has educated the public in a certain spirit, one that has finally led to this,” he says, noting early 20th century planning concepts, such as those used in Paris by Le Corbusier, in which he proposed concentrating residents in towers above a large park.

“You can put all of Bavli [neighborhood, in central Tel Aviv] in towers above a park,” says Schocken, “but that won’t give you a city.”

David Bachar
Eyal Toueg
Daniel Tchetchik