Restoring the Lost Glory of Haifa's Once-posh Neighborhood

For decades, Nordau Street has been in a slow but steady decline. Now, civic-minded residents are trying to turn it into the symbol of the renaissance of what used to be the hub of the northern city's bourgeoisie.

Keshet Rosenblum
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Keshet Rosenblum

As early as the days of the British Mandate of Palestine, Hadar Hacarmel’s Nordau Street – or, in its former incarnation, the Nordau pedestrian mall – served as a barometer of the neighborhood’s well-being. Nordau, the more prestigious, sedate brother of the parallel Herzl Street, prospered as a commercial district thriving with activity almost around the clock. Residents knew that, for going out, nothing beat Hadar Hacarmel, whether because of its thronged cafés – the Nordau, the Jordan, the Sternheim and the Ritz – or because of the glamorous shop windows of the iconic Maskit arts and crafts store, the many jewelry shops, the fabric stores and the travel agents trumpeting exotic vacation deals. Public buildings, such as government agencies, the Reali School, the Technion and Haifa’s Great Synagogue, made the neighborhood the true heart of the city and ensured its vitality for the coming years.

Nordau Street was hugely successful in the 1930s and 1940s. That’s when most of the buildings around it went up, including the British Officers’ Club at the corner of Nordau and Balfour. But over the years, the street experienced many ups and downs. Since the end of the 1980s, a combination of factors caused its steady decline, starting with the Haifa bourgeoisie’s steady climb up the Carmel range, looking for higher elevations and finer views. In the 1990s, the street’s decline was further accelerated by the opening of malls drawing shoppers away from the old commercial districts. The decision to close the street to traffic and turn it into a pedestrian mall also made life difficult for local businesses.

The last commercial advantage of the neighborhood was eliminated when the courts were moved to the government district in the lower part of Haifa, taking with them the many lawyers who had their offices in close proximity to the courthouses. Today, says architect Ella Ser, a neighborhood resident, “Most of the businesses have closed down. At night, many women won’t walk outdoors; personal safety is a very real issue here.”

A slow, steady decline

The large immigration wave from the former USSR in the early 1990s caused the population to spike, but this had almost no impact: The moment the new immigrants began to earn better wages and could afford to move out, they did, leaving behind those who had no choice but to stay. The condition of the neighborhood worsened, businesses went bankrupt, schools either closed or were converted to yeshivas, and the two large public parks – Benjamin Park and the Technion Park, among the first of their kind in Israel – emptied of visitors and fell into disrepair.

The Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood, part of a master plan for a "garden city" created by architect Richard Kaufmann in 1922, is one of the oldest in Haifa. Most of the houses were built between the 1920s and 1950s, three architecturally critical decades. The buildings there represent the development of construction in Israel: the Arab phase, followed by the nostalgic Land of Israel style, then the eclectic phase, followed by the ornate phase, then the pure international style, and finally the later modernist phase of the 1960s. The buildings are rapidly deteriorating, partly because of a lack of appreciation for the neighborhood’s value, but also because of the socioeconomic situation of the residents who generally only make emergency repairs or temporary additions. “It’s a time capsule,” says architect Zafrir Feinholtz, an archeology professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. “It’s a distinct urban fabric and it would be a shame to lose it.”

Still, city centers have their own dynamics Low housing prices, thanks to a glut of housing stock alongside new projects started by the Haifa municipality to attract young people to the neighborhood, have drawn new residents. Various projects, such as a student village, an urban educators’ kibbutz and communes of youth movement graduates, have given a boost to resident initiatives to bring life back to the neighborhood. In recent years, the area has become a magnet for innovative new groups such as MAX (a Hebrew acronym for planners, community and the environment), in which architects and urban planners work on urban renewal with resident cooperation and input – a possible model for the city as a whole – as well as cultural projects such as the Hai-Po Theater (a pun on Haifa’s Hebrew spelling) and the magazine “The Mastic Tree.”

Needed: an economic incentive

Ser, a member of MAX, is trying to promote change through an architectural consulting center she operates in a city community center. Ser's center, which serves as a kind of extension of the municipality in the community, educates residents on building rights and proper standards of renovation in the absence of an orderly preservation program. In 2001, architect Sylvia Sosnowsky published a comprehensive preservation survey of the neighborhood at the request of the Haifa municipality, a survey overseen by the city’s unit for building preservation. Although the municipality claims that “the recommendations are our guideline for preservation,” they were never implemented in practice.

While the architectural consulting center, operating with the help of the student village, is full of good intentions, its performance is weak. “The main problem of the neighborhood’s residents is their weak socioeconomic status,” says Ser. “Most of them are renting, and the landlords need some economic incentive – perhaps a preservation fund – to undertake renovations.” Other projects assumed by the group are barely visible and are managed with miniscule budgets.

Since last August, a movement for the renewal of Nordau Street has been active in Hadar Hacarmel. Its leader, Yaron Hadar, who was born in the neighborhood and lives there – and even changed his surname out of love for his birthplace – sees an opportunity for rebranding the area. “The concept is that there is an unidentified, untapped resource here,” he says. A comparison to Tel Aviv – which recognized its structures built in the international style as an asset and branded its center as a powerhouse of preservation – would seem to be obvious. “In many ways Haifa is far and away superior, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in terms of modern architecture. In Tel Aviv, people see this as a national heritage asset, but Haifa lacks awareness,” he adds.

Feinholtz thinks that, in addition to wide-ranging revival efforts, it would be best to focus resources on a key structure, such as the Talpiyot market, “that can serve as a trigger for the preservation of the urban marketplace that left for elsewhere, and can also launch the creation of a kind of identity for the neighborhood.” The gorgeous structure in the heart of the market, designed in 1940 by Moshe Gerstel in the international style, has been neglected since the 1990s, as was most of the neighborhood. Access to its center was recently blocked. Last week, the mayor was presented with a plan to rebuild the marketplace; this program is meant to turn the area into “an aesthetic, innovative, modern shopping center” while also rebuilding the adjacent streets and rehabilitating the old market stalls.

The long-awaited revival of Nordau Street and its immediate surroundings is also rife with risk. In Hadar’s opinion, the fact that processes are being generated from within the neighborhood rather than being imposed from above bears the potential for authentic, sustainable revival. “But one of our concerns is unintentionally inflating expectations,” he says. He notes that the young people coming to live there, who were on the front lines of the social protests of the summer of 2011, show a great deal of involvement in the area. “They want to study the opportunities and the risks of renewal, how to prevent gentrification and also be inclusive of other population groups in the new project.”

Haifa's Nordau Street is making a community-led comeback.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

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