Four young men danced around with a giant bottle of whiskey, filling plastic cups and offering them to passersby on Haifa’s Hillel Street last Tuesday evening. They weren’t drunk; they were celebrating the renovation of their street – or at least the repair of the lighting, drainage and sewage systems.
Hillel Street, located in Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood, was paved 81 years ago. For years, it has been blighted by potholes, inadequate lighting and drainage problems that caused flooded sewers in the winter. But in recent years, it has begun attracting young people who set up a neighborhood council and began fighting City Hall to get the street repaired.
One council activist, Ofer Fix, said the battle took about three years and began even before the council’s establishment in 2013. It included a petition drive, demonstrations, local media coverage and a permanent presence at city council meetings.
Fix said many people objected to the renovations, arguing that it was impossible to close the road for the length of time they would require. “But in the end, the fact is that it was possible,” he said.
And indeed, after several months of work, residents felt they had something to celebrate. By 7 P.M., all the street’s parking spaces were taken, and some people parked in no-parking zones. But everyone was in good spirits. Drivers waited patiently, and no one honked.
Booths and stages for performers were set up all along the sidewalk and artists painted the trash bins. Ushers sent by the city to keep order ended up mainly serving as photographers on request.
The party was the brainchild of the Hadar neighborhood’s community center. Yaron Hadar, a local resident who adopted the neighborhood’s name as his own 22 years ago, said the celebration reflected “the difficulty of carrying out the project, the residents’ battles” and “the value of a shared life.”
From a balcony over the street, musician Ronen Kolton played Matti Caspi songs for the residents down below. On the opposite end of the musical spectrum, local artist Anna Martinov painted portraits of members of the heavy metal band Motorhead on a nearby trash bin.
The street’s bilingual kindergarten organized storytelling and drawing activities for children on the new sidewalks. Even Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav paid a visit.
But not everyone was happy. Elazar Wolk, who lives on one of the streets adjoining Hillel, complained that the renovation narrowed the sidewalks to the point that there was no room for a baby carriage or “a pair of lovers walking hand in hand.”
Another resident, who lives on Hillel Street itself, said the city should also have done something to maintain the street’s old buildings. The actual work done was minimal, she charged, and “no thought was given to how to improve the residents’ quality of life. It’s too bad the Haifa municipality doesn’t understand what potential the street has.”
The Abatjour café at the beginning of the street was packed to the gills and the beer flowed freely. On the sidewalk opposite was a stage where artists performed in various languages and various musical styles.
The café’s owner, Rabia Khoury, looked busy but happy. The months of renovations were naturally hard on local businesses, and he thought the city should have coordinated better with the owners. But the lively traffic on Tuesday night restored his hope.
“This is a community event, and there’s a variety of people here – Jews, Arabs, Baha’is,” said Shai Nir. He belongs to an educators’ kibbutz run by the Dror Israel movement whose members live in the Hadar neighborhood.
“We’re in the midst of a wave of terror, and that has an effect,” Nir noted. “Jews are afraid of Arabs, Arabs are afraid of Jews. What’s special about this evening is that Jews and Arabs are getting together for fun. There’s a message here at both the local and the national level.”
But amid all the high spirits, one resident seized on an interval between performances to get back to the truly essential things in life. He grabbed the microphone and delivered an impassioned speech about the importance of picking up the poop while walking your dog down the street.