Jerusalem Breathes New Life Into an Old Ottoman-era Train Station

The 'First Station,' which opened Tuesday, showcased a rich mix of past and present. Its non-kosher restaurants and commerce on Shabbat may be a test of how well secular and religious Jerusalem can get along in a public space.

“If you build it, they will come.”

What if you don’t build it so much as renovate it?

They will come, it seems, in even larger numbers, as a reward for having taken a dilapidated landmark on the city’s historical landscape and turned into what promises to be a thriving cultural and commercial complex. On Tuesday, the “First Station” – located in the stately Ottoman-era train station which originally opened in 1892 – held an all-day opening event in celebration of the Shavuot holiday. Droves of Jerusalemites showed up to see what all the buzz was about, and few seemed to leave disappointed.

“I think this is urban renewal at its best,” said one local father as he navigated a stroller between throngs of parents and kids with the day off from school. Colorful street performers kept the little people entertained, while curious shoppers wandered among the open-air carts offering cool clothes, boutique beer and corn-on-the-cob. Okay, the local father was my husband, and my panel of judges, my two small children. They seemed pretty impressed with the performances of the young dancers of Hora Jerusalem as well as the quality of Vaniglia’s ice cream, which is famous in Tel Aviv but new to the Holy City. This is our part of town, and like the rest of our neighbors, we can only welcome the arrival of a new entertainment venue – especially one whose directors, Avi Murdoch and Asaf Hamo, managed to renovate without harming or changing the grand original structure. The upstairs of the building, where their offices are, is like a palimpsest, a painting in which the layers of work that went before are still visible, showcasing a rich mix of past and present.

About a week ago, marketing manager Noa Berger gave me a tour of the complex. It includes a 3,000-square-meter deck built over the old tracks, and which will play host to various performances and fairs. There will be four permanent fairs here open Monday to Saturday, and the complex itself “will be open 24/7, no guards. “It’s nothing like a mall,” she explained, “other than the sports equipment shop, as well as a bike and Segway rental shop, “The Smart Tourist,” which also sells funky Israeli curios and pop-art. The deck will include an organic farmer’s market and places to buy local delicacies, as well as several small glass atriums housing some of these businesses – including an undersized but imaginative children’s play room.

The real excitement for many Jerusalemites – and disappointment for others – is that the complex will be open on Shabbat and will include kosher as well as non-kosher restaurants. Adom, one of the city’s most popular restaurants with the secular crowd and a sometime hang-out for journalists, has left the city center and has now opened its doors here. A tapas bar and a Fresh Kitchen restaurant, also an import from the seaside metropolis down the hill, are soon to open as well.

“We’re at the center of the cultural mile, and nearby many neighborhoods such as Baka, Arnona, Armon HaNatsiv, and we’re here to cater to that public,” Berger said. “We’re catering to the needs of everyone who lives here. We’re not fighting against religious people in the city, we just want to be open to both the religious and the secular.”

Although many Jerusalemites thought of Tuesday’s fanfare as the grand opening, in fact, many parts of the complex aren’t done, and won’t be until later this summer. “We’re not doing a grand opening on purpose, and we’re introducing ourselves gradually to the city,” Berger added.

The stall after stall of artsy stuff on sale can feel like déjà vu for anyone who has attended more than their share of fairs and festivals in Israel. But the complex will feature far more than things to buy and places to eat – all of which allow you to leave with your wallet a bit lighter. There will also be free events, art exhibits, and free yoga, Pilates and Zumba, among others.

The feeling of openness of the place – no tight entrances with guards checking bags – almost gives one the feeling of being somewhere else in the world, one where there was no intifada a decade ago.

But Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu (Meretz), wandering through the crowd on Tuesday, said nothing felt more Jerusalem than this. “I feel fantastic seeing this happen, that it will be a place to go for local people, for people from elsewhere in the country, for tourists – that it will be open on Saturday,” he said. “Jerusalem needs to be authentic. Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv and will never be Paris. But this place is authentically Jerusalem. Here, we mix the culture, the history, the images of our past – and I think it will be a very Jerusalemite experience to come here.”

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Ilene Prusher