Surroundings / Should Tel Aviv Be Going Global?

The city is seeking to rebrand itself along the lines of Paris and New York. But before conquering the world, Tel Aviv should focus on becoming a run-of-the-mill town.

After the phrase "the city that never sleeps" went out of style and became an obsolete ad, Tel Aviv-Jaffa is trying to rebrand itself as a "global city," the hottest trend in international urban, economic and social affairs. Last week the Tel Aviv municipality, the global city to be, took a much- publicized step toward this goal when it launched its project to rebrand itself as a global city and the vision that will move it closer to achieving entry to the much sought-after but blandly defined club of global cities. A global city is a growing and successful city, thriving and talked about, celebrating festivals, parades and marathons. Meanwhile, it it is also a capitalist city with no restraints, polarized, full of disparity - beyond reach, as familiar as this sounds, in Tel Aviv of today.

Tel Aviv- Alon Ron
Alon Ron

The Global City Forum's kickoff took place at the city's Cameri Theater, which apparently never before witnessed so many strategic consultants under its roof and never heard so many banal terms such as "branding," "positioning" and "leveraging." The audience was carefully selected, one that befits a global city, and the guest of honor was Barcelona architect Josep Acebillo.

Acebillo, a member of the board of the directors of the Barcelona Institute of Architecture and a former municipal architect of Barcelona, is among the leaders of the urban miracle that has transformed his city in recent decades. It is possible that he offered advice to Tel Aviv on how to achieve this. We are similar cities, he said from the stage of the Cameri Theater, spurring some illusions. The Tel Aviv is often the improperly compared to other cities like New York and Barcelona. It would be good enough if Tel Aviv were just good at being Tel Aviv.

Symptoms of globalization

Numerous issues relating to Tel Aviv as a global city were raised at the forum. But first, the origin of the term 'global city': It was derived from Acebillo's largest and most controversial project in Barcelona, in 2004, the heart of which was evacuating poor neighborhoods there and turning them into an exclusive global quarter. The question that was not asked was whether the noisy, cellophane-like designation as a global city is the most urgent thing needed in Tel Aviv, or even the tenth-most urgent. Nor was it asked whether the symptoms of globalization already discovered there organically are sufficient, and have not already leveraged and positioned it as one of the most expensive cities in the world, created disparity and made living there something out of reach for most segments of the population.

Before it brands itself as a global city, if that is even the right thing for the city and its residents, it would be best if Tel Aviv would focus its energies and budgets and get to work on just becoming a normal, run-of-the mill city, a clean and landscaped city that is well-maintained, has an efficient public transportation network and provides appropriate living conditions that are attainable for all its residents.

But the municipality of the global-city-to-be, which seems to be Tel Aviv's status currently in the global arena - as Prof. Baruch Kipnis of the University of Haifa writes in a pamphlet issued by the Global City Board ahead of the forum - does not focus on this kind of small detail. The branding project meshes with the Tel Aviv municipality's addiction to mega-projects (and mega-developers ), mega-festivals and mega-events.

Its new status as a global city will enable the municipality to do what it likes best: to continue to surge ahead increasing the disparity between rich and poor by allowing prices to rise, and continue to ignore the prosaic routine of running a city. The streets are dirty? The building facades are neglected? The roads are congested? Real estate prices are out of control? Neighborhoods in the south and in Jaffa are fighting for housing rights? No. Tel Aviv will make sure to arrange another festival or carnival, build another closed exclusive community, erect more luxury skyscrapers and show everyone how trendy, vibrant, liberal and successful it is. A global city is a city where a substantial share of its economy is linked and entrenched in the global economy, as the Israel Prize laureate and geographer, the late Prof. Arie Shachar explained some ten years ago in an article he wrote in the journal, Pnim. The article perceptively looks at the phenomenon and its impact. It is eye-opening and slightly spoils the party.

A global city is a relatively new phenomenon of recent decades, a merciless, contemporary reincarnation of the romantic concept of a cosmopolitan city, an expansive phrase for the post-industrial era and a direct result of the globalization processes. The trend started soon after World War II, but the term global city as it is understood today was determined by the sociologist and economist Saskia Sassen in the early 1990s, a term which itself turned into a brand, like the world cities that it defines.

It is common to divide global cities into groups of alpha cities, beta cities, et cetera, based on different economic, cultural, and social indexes that are not exact sciences. New York, London and Tokyo are global cities of the first order by every measure. Their names and, to a large extent, also their character and the activity occurring in them go beyond their political and national boundaries. There's a reason why it is said that New York is not America and Tel Aviv is also not Israel. Global cities are successful cities in terms of economic growth. Their prosperity is visibly apparent in the urban space and in the urban panorama that reflects the financial structure. The trademarks of global cities are modern office towers for multinational companies that pop up against a backdrop of existing low-rise buildings, luxury residential hi-rises and hotels for the growing myriads of tourists; tourism is one of the key indicators of globalization and it has a great impact on the city's financial and social layers. The prosperity is also apparent in the improved physical appearance of the city, building preservation and refurbishments in the public space, and in the construction of iconic public buildings that will glorify its name in the international arena, and this is a familiar occurrence in Tel Aviv as well.

Stop the giddiness

The situation, as noted, is far from being as rosy as it is presented by the agents of temptation. The very definition of a global city, as Shachar stressed, inherently contains negative ramifications. The extent of the growth and the benefits reserved for those who are positioned on the right side of globalization mirror the extent of the heavy price of the economic and social disparities. The polarization is not a virus in the system but an inseparable part, perhaps even intended part, of the system and of the employment setup: at the top of the pyramid in a global city are the professionals in management, lawyers, high-tech people, public relations and media personnel, and on the bottom, there is a constant increase in cheap labor and the exploitation of cleaning workers, the catering and tourism service industries and similar services that move the wheels of globalization.

The status gap in a global city does not disappear with economic growth; rather, the contrary is true and the gap only widens. A global city is not a social project, no matter what efforts are made to brand it. The vision of a global city, as presented at the forum, even went further and in the spirit of the standard law of loyalty firmly advocated "turning Tel Aviv-Jaffa into a national-Zionist resource." In so doing, those who do not identify with that definition are pushed aside, foremost among them the Arab residents of Jaffa, who in the best-case scenario will be granted by the global city the role of providing a piece of exotic folklore. Most ironically, the infrastructure for Tel Aviv's development as a global city is in Jaffa, writes Kipnis, a city that as early as the 19th century was multicultural and cosmopolitan in its lifestyle, architecture and culture.

If the polarization process in global cities is not halted, Shachar already warned a decade ago, the welfare disparity and the inequitable distribution of benefits will only ensure an increase in tensions in the urban space that may erupt and crush the global cities from within. Alternately, they may turn into police cities that will have to invest most of their resources in preserving personal safety. Hence, if there can be any justification for Tel Aviv to consider becoming a global city, it would be to stop it from proceeding with the giddiness. It would be a shame for it to fall apart, because after all, the city does still have a way about it.