Finally, a Twist in the Story of 'The Lowest Place in Tel Aviv'

Street prostitution, adult movie theaters, drugs and extreme poverty are the hallmarks of Tel Aviv's old bus station neighborhood. New residential developments aim to change its future

Naama Riba
Naama Riba
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Left: The new building at Tel Aviv’s 1 Finn Street. Right: A woman in prostitution sits outside her roon in the previous building on the same location.
Left: The new building at Tel Aviv’s 1 Finn Street. Right: A woman in prostitution sits outside her roon in the previous building on the same location.Credit: Moti Milrod and Meged Gozni
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The 2015 demolition of the building at Tel Aviv’s 1 Finn Street, opposite the old Central Bus Station, was supposed to have symbolized a turning point for the neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan in the southern part of the city. An apartment building now stands in place of the building that for years was a den of prostitution and drug-dealing, dubbed “the lowest place in Tel Aviv.” When construction is finished it will hold 53 small apartments planned to attract young residents to the areas.

But the turning point was mainly in terms of image. In an article in Haaretz around the time of the demolition, a woman in her 60s who was one of the most veteran sex workers left, said, “I’ve been at the central bus station 25 years and have lived here 10 years.” There was no difference, said the woman, who went by the alias Najet, between her and the African asylum seekers who also lived in the building.

Revesz says that despite the changes in Neve Sha’anan in recent years, it is still not suitable for families.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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“We all live together in the same place,” she said at the time. “We’re all human beings, no?” By the time she was interviewed by Haaretz, she had already left the building, but her lifestyle had not changed. “They promised me that when the building is demolished they would find me a similar room on the other side of the street,” she said.

In fact, on nearby Erlinger Street and others in the vicinity, prostitution is still going on, as a sign hung on the fence around the building site attests. “The Arab woman moved out,” a sex worker tells her clients who know her by that nickname.

Neve Sha’anan was founded in 1921 by a few hundred Jews, soon after a spate of Arab rioting in Jaffa. The architect Joseph Tischler planned the neigbhorhood. Eventually, the old central bus station was built, and it was surrounded by workshops, until it became Tel Aviv’s backyard.

The new building is a seven-story structure. A grocery is prominent among new storefronts, which are painted white. Next to it is another abandoned property, and together they seem like a souvenir of the building’s past. The area around the two businesses has been demolished and massive girders have been built above the remaining old parts, to support the new building.

The new building at 1 Finn street. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“This was one of the first projects in the area. There were a lot of building rights and major real estate potential,” says the architect Erez Ella, who said he planned the building. 

The apartments in the building surround an interior courtyard. They face a peripheral corridor where there are common seating areas. On every floor, the corridor facing the courtyard curves around a little differently, so the building has the look of a wave.

Ella says the building encouraged other developers to build projects in Neve Sha’anan, but the approval process for each project takes so long that it disrupts the renewal. Ella’s Finn Street project had a group of future residents who purchased property together, which made the wait easier. “But a private developer won’t go for a project like this,” he says.

Adult movie theater turns residential building

The Finn Street project is just one example of the attractiveness of the area for developers in recent years. According to the Tel Aviv municipality, seven projects were inaugurated and 17 more were approved between 2018 and 2019. The changes bring young people into the city center, while some of the African asylum seekers leave.

Not far from 1 Finn Street, at the end of the Neve Sha’anan pedestrian mall, is a building in the final stages of construction. It has 16 apartments of two or three rooms each, suitable mainly for young people, roommates or couples without children. The new apartment building replaces one of the more dubious locales in the old Central Bus Station area – Hamercaz movie theater, which for years showed pornographic films. That was not the future the theater’s founders had in mind.

The Hamercaz movie theater in 1973. From adult movie theater to a residential building. Credit: Fritz Cohen / Government Press Office

“The theater is built in handsome form and outfitted with the most modern heating and cooling equipment,” the newspaper Herut wrote when the theater opened in September 1956. “With a wide screen (cinemascope), the theater consists of a hall and a balcony with 600 seats,” glowed the article. The theater, which had replaced a library, was designed by the architects Avraham Yaski and Shimon Povsner, who were partners from 1952 to 1956. On the ground floor were shops and businesses.

The pornographic chapter in the theater’s life began in the 1970s. It continued until 2004, when the theater was abandoned. About 10 years ago developers began promoting the idea of a residential building on the site and ownership of the property exchanged hands a number of times. After the last owner of the building, Zvi Eli, failed to carry out the plan for a high-rise on the site, a building with 16 units was planned.

Although the theater was not mandated for conservation, the architect who planned the project, Danny Revesz, decided to maintain the façade facing Neve Sha’anan Street. 

The new apartment building which replaces the Hamercaz movie theater, which for years showed pornographic films.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The planning preserved the commercial character of the ground floor, which houses a variety of businesses: a cellphone shop, a grocery and a clothing store. Most of the salespeople are of African origin. Revesz says the neighborhood is being revived according to plans from the British Mandate era. “The neighborhood has a Mandatory plan that gives building rights to developers, but maintains the fabric of the neighborhood.”

Revesz says that despite the changes in Neve Sha’anan in recent years, it is still not suitable for families. The number of Israelis living in the neighborhood has gone up and there are still quite a few new or renewed buildings, but most of the public space is neglected, and crime has not disappeared.

The only Israeli on the street

Moti Katz, a member of the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood committee, says he lived on Finn Street for a few years. The neighborhood is in transition, notes Katz, who is also a member of a grass-roots group made up of residents of Neve Sha’anan and nearby neighborhoods which is working for the improvement of the area. “For years I was the only Israeli on the street, and in recent months there are more and more [Israelis],” he says. “Still, crime is rising. There are clans here who are responsible for the crime. They shouldn’t say foreigners are the main problem here,”

“We demand better street development,” Katz says. “Plazas have to be added and there should be more vegetation and more lighting. And there are no public buildings.” Katz says he wants to see a culture and arts facility in the neighborhood “that Jews and Arabs and immigrants from everywhere – no matter the color of their skin – can come and drink coffee together.” He adds: “Also, I’d be happy if the municipality would commemorate Joseph Tischler, the neighborhood’s architect. He deserves it.”

The Tel Aviv municipality responded: “The municipality is promoting many projects in Neve Sha’anan, along Begin Boulevard and Harakevet and Levanda streets, with a varied mixture of housing, including large apartments, affordable apartments and rental apartments. In all the plans, space has been designated for public buildings, such as educational and community institutions … in keeping with the needs of the neighborhood. Recently approved plans on the borders of Neve Sha’anan (Begin, Harakevet and Shomron streets) include 2,000 housing units and 10,000 square meters for public buildings.” The municipality noted that it had built a new community center in Neve Sha’anan in recent years, as well as a center for social and technological innovation called The Platform.

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