The Faded Glory of Jerusalem's Champs-Elysees

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Over the past two years, the Jerusalem municipality and the Transportation Ministry have installed 18 video cameras in the city center. The footage has been reviewed to establish how many pedestrians pass by each camera, and the findings, released by the municipality two months ago, are dramatic: Changes in the city center, stemming particularly from the operation of the light-rail system, have caused a steep rise in the number of pedestrians. Compared to summer 2011, the number of people strolling central Jerusalem's streets this past summer jumped 41 percent.

One camera, on Yoel Moshe Salomon Street, looks out onto a row of shops stretching toward the Nahalat Shiva quarter. This camera bore witness to a significant increase in the number of pedestrians - but cash-register revenue in the area tells a different story.

Merchants on the street, many of them dealers in Judaica and ceramic items, along with gallery and restaurant owners, say they are in the thrall of one of the worst crises ever to affect the street - a symbol of Jerusalem's modern revival. The crisis threatens to alter the area's unique character.

Merchants blame competition from the rival Mamilla shopping mall and a dearth of parking facilities in the city center for the drop in sales - and they fear that planned excavation of the street for infrastructure work by Gihon, the Jerusalem municipality water company, and the Israel Electric Corporation could strike a death blow to business.

Nahalat Shiva, today located in central Jerusalem, was one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside the Old City walls. Established in 1869, the quarter featured small houses with vaulted ceilings, and an array of small lanes and courtyards. As years passed, small-scale industry including carpenters, tinsmiths and other craftsmen developed in the neighborhood.

In the 1980s, the Jerusalem municipality promoted a bold preservation and renovation program on Yoel Moshe Salomon Street. It fashioned the street as a short pedestrian mall, packed with small, attractive businesses, galleries, souvenir stores and cafes and pubs. Jerusalem residents and, more particularly, tourists, packed the street and its stores.

"It's not that everything was always fine and rosy," says Avi Rosenbaum, owner of the El Gaucho restaurant, which has operated in the area for a quarter century. "But during the good years, you had to stick your elbows out in order to make your way along the street's 180 meters."

Nahalat Shiva became a symbol of Jerusalem's modern revival. During the 1990s, a babble of languages could be heard there during the day; by night, it was a thriving leisure hangout. Some of the city's most important leisure establishments sprouted in the neighborhood - from Gilli's restaurant to the legendary Underground club. Events that upset life in the capital also found their way to the street: In 1994 it was the site of a grisly shooting attack in which two civilians were murdered. During the terror attacks of the second intifada, which began in 2000, and also during the seemingly endless work on the light rail, businesses on the street endured a steady decline in sales revenue - a decline characteristic of Jerusalem's entire central district.

But the street's store owners claim that this past year, beginning with the inception of the light rail-way, was the worst of all.

"We sat down together, as small-business owners, and everyone talked about how bad things are for them," relates Rosenbaum. "Some of these people thought they themselves are to blame: One said that perhaps the problem is that his business has grown too old, another wondered whether his business is located in the right place. But when we started to take a look at the business situation as a whole, we grasped that the problem is much more serious."

'The verge of despair'

Silversmith Tommy Bok, who has sold jewelry on Yoel Moshe Salomon Street for 40 years, is a Nahalat Shiva fixture. But 10 days ago he was more busily engaged with the Habayit Heyehudi party primaries, ahead of January's Knesset election, than with selling the fruit of his labor. "This is the worst period of all. We never reached such a state even during the intifada," he says. "This was once the Champs-Elysees of Jerusalem, and now we are on the verge of despair. Look at this work desk: There's no jewelry, only papers relating to politics." Bok says that during the past year, revenue has dropped 60 percent.

Other business owners on the street talk about a similar decline in sales. The Altogether eight ceramic artists cooperative, one of three such ceramics cooperatives that operate on the street, mentions a 50 percent drop in sales. "There were times in the past when people waited in line in the store, whereas today I sit an entire day at the cash register and it doesn't get to NIS 500," says cooperative member Simone Solomon.

Eight businesses closed last year on the street, including one restaurant that had operated for 22 years, and arts and fashion stores that relocated to a flourishing, rival locale - the Mamilla quarter.

Merchants point to a number of factors responsible for the malaise. First is the lack of parking in the city center. Over the years, the number of parking spaces for private cars in Jerusalem has dwindled. Recently, Nahalat Shiva residents waged a successful campaign for the reopening of an adjacent municipal parking lot, but the lot opened after the fall holiday - that is, after what should have been the year's busiest sales period for these vendors.

The second factor, according to the store owners, is the rival retail site that has been flourishing in recent years - the open-air Mamilla shopping mall. The mall, which houses top brand stores, offers free parking and benefits from an endless stream of tourists passing by en route to the Old City. In Nahalat Shiva, merchants mourn the days when buses would offload tourists on each side of Yoel Moshe Salomon Street and then pick them up an hour later, loaded with bags of merchandise. Such activity has now relocated and taken root at Mamilla.

One may have imagined the light rail, which runs along nearby Jaffa Road, would have solved the merchants' woes, but the railway seems to have made things worse for Nahalat Shiva. Pedestrians who flock to Jaffa Road keep out of Nahalat Shiva, for reasons that remain obscure to Nahalat Shiva store owners. One local resident points to the distance between Yoel Moshe Salomon Street and the train station; another claims that most patrons are well-to-do regulars who travel in private cars and do not use the light-rail system; a third resident alludes to the large building established by the Hamashbir Lazarchan department store at the street's entrance - a facility that impedes access to the neighborhood.

Merchants fear that a plan for comprehensive infrastructure work backed by Gihon, the Jerusalem municipality water company, and the Israel Electric Corporation could deliver the death blow to Nahalat Shiva. The plan includes excavation work on the street, and its virtually complete closure to pedestrians. The merchants have formed a committee and are holding discussions with the municipality in a bid to limit the plan's damage. But in addition to struggling against this plan, they are also fighting the ongoing sense of despair.

"It's bad for us, but we are optimistic," says Rosenbaum, one of the leaders of the merchants committee. The store owners are planning a big Hanukkah festival for the street in order to "restore its glory." Ceramicists will sell illustrated bowls and restaurant owners will fill them with soup. "This will be a lively, interesting event, and we believe that anyone who comes will remember it," he adds.

The Jerusalem municipality stated in response: "The center of Jerusalem has changed its character, after years of suffering terror attacks and railway work. Today it is a bustling, crowded center that has at its heart the country's largest pedestrian mall, on Jaffa Road. The light rail has returned masses of people to the center of the city, and the data show that last year there was a dramatic 87 percent rise in the number of visitors to Nahalat Shiva. There was also a discernible increase in sales enjoyed by merchants in the center of the city, resulting from the increase in the number of visitors to this area.

"To increase the city center's attractiveness, the municipality sponsors dozens of events - festivals, parties and fairs, and these bring hundreds of thousands of people to the center of the city," the municipality added. "In coordination with the merchants, the municipality plans to soon undertake a massive upgrade of Nahalat Shiva. This will be undertaken according to the highest possible standards. With regard to parking spaces, the city center has several parking lots, such as the Safra lot, the Independence Park and Mamilla lots. These offer thousands of parking spaces. As part of the light-rail system project, park-and-ride lots were established at Pisgat Ze'ev and Ammunition Hill, and these offer hundreds of spaces, and they offer solutions to residents who want to go to the city center."

Yoel Moshe Salomon Street. Merchants report a drop in sales of up to 60 percent in the past year.Credit: Emil Salman