In Haifa’s Swiftly Changing Port, Some Bars Keep Their Anchors Firmly Planted

The establishments along Haifa’s port, many harking from its heyday when seafaring was a more common trade in Israel, are both a reminder of the city’s past and a vital part of its present. But some are at risk of being swept away in a wave of gentrification.

"When your mother was 2 years old," says Chaim over the bar to the 16-year-old boy facing him, "she would sail with me in the ships, and she always wanted to drink the foam from our beer glasses. We let her, too."

For many years, Chaim Lamberger was a seaman aboard Israel's "Zim" fleet. Today he runs the Habanera, a bar favored by old sea hounds like himself, that doubles as a unique, if not very polished, time capsule near Haifa's docks. He is speaking to his grandson, Ronny, who grew up in New York. Ronny is spending a summer month in his mother's native city, pouring arak and draft beer to the sounds of Greek music, under a Confederate flag his grandfather brought from a port in Louisiana. Grandpa, meanwhile, is smoking his pipe, wearing his standard denim overalls (but not the cowboy hat he often sports), and reminiscing.

Here, in Haifa's Lower City, the grungy part of town adjacent to the port, reminiscing isn't always a happy pastime.  "Everyone's vanishing," Lamberger laments. "The generation is waning.”  

Seafaring ceased being an accepted profession of choice among Israelis as early as the eighties, when the national shipping company Zim suffered a severe financial crisis. No generation of seafarers has emerged since, and the old-timer bars by the port are slowly being replaced by hipper, younger venues catering to students.

Dried up but not forgotten

Haifa's Lower City isn't only maritime in spirit. Much of it is literally built on the sea floor. Historically, the city's shoreline ran along what today is Jaffa Street, about 200 yards inland of the current shore. All the land to the north was reclaimed during the construction of the port in the 1930s. The "Dried-up Zone," as it is known today, was quickly covered with large-scale Bauhaus office buildings and a major avenue, Ha'atzmaut, skirting modern Haifa's coastline.

For decades, this was the very heart of downtown. The local shipping industry was run behind the Bauhaus balconies. "Gate #5," which opened from the city to the port, was the main gate of both mandatory Palestine and young Israel. This gate also fed the grit that surrounds every port: prostitution, smuggling and a drug trade.

Over the years, the gate was closed, ship crews dwindled in size and sailors began spending less and less time at ports due to the efficiency of modern loading machinery. The neighborhood succumbed to urban decay.  Much of the Bauhaus complex fell into disarray and only a few small businesses survived, among them the modest and attractive Café Shani.

Haifa's various mayors did their best to gentrify the Dried-up Zone and its environs. Current mayor Yona Yahav, who saw the repaving of several streets and initiated a weekly outdoor concert to take place in the zone every Friday afternoon, can claim a victory on urban decay in the Lower City.

But gentrification has its own perils. The once famous nightclubs of HaNamal St. have already succumbed to new trends, giving way to several galleries and a cigar shop.

Some old watering holes have undergone renovations, becoming more versatile and luring younger as well as older clientele. Haogen ("The anchor"), established 1942, is a fine example. Other success stories of the Dried-up Zone are Kalman's and Hasandak - the latter occupying a strange structure that once served as a scale for weighing shipping containers.

While these businesses' abilty to adapt keeps the zone alive at night, more rustic spots such as Habanera, named after an Antwerp brothel, risk being priced out of the neighborhood, not just relocating the smell of pipe tobacco and authentic seafaring souvenirs but sending them into oblivion. Such places draw so strongly on their historical-geographical location that relocating them would be unthinkable.

Puzzle pieces, old and new

One unique older establishment in the neighborhood is going strong despite all the new trends. Maayan Habira ("The fountain of beer"), more restaurant than bar, is a quaint tavern that specializes in Eastern European culinaria, but also offers a variety of fine Belgian ales and other imported beers. By bringing together the love of good beer, a fairly recent trend in Israeli culture, with old fashioned dishes, Maayan Habira comfortably prevails.

On most days, Maayan Habira closes as early as 6:00 p.m. as does the Habanera, but on Tuesdays in the summer it remains open in the evenings. Tables are set in the street and a rock band plays to everybody's delight. The band is named after the Maayan Habira's staple dish: kostita, or Romanian-style smoked pork ribs, though the mixed crowd also features kosher eaters who shun kostita in favor of Gefilte fish.

Perhaps creating a combination of various elements, young and old, local and foreign, is the key to survival in this terrain. Haifa has always been a city of combination: Jewish and Arab, mountain and sea, forested slopes and oil refineries. The old bars are a piece of its puzzle: not merely reminders of the city's past, but also vital components of its present.   

Hagai Frid