The first part of what may be the most important project ever initiated by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in his city was completed last weekend. Its launch marks a genuine milestone in the city’s relations with its pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport. Park Hamesila – “train track park,” in Hebrew – is named for the first railway between Jaffa and Jerusalem, which was inaugurated in 1892. It is located in the southwestern part of the city, between the trendy Neve Tzedek quarter and Eilat Street, in the vicinity of the historic German Templer neighborhood of Valhalla.
Due to the current coronavirus lockdown, the first stretch of the park has not been formally dedicated although many members of the public have flocked there in recent weeks; the project will be transferred soon to the management of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality. The general vicinity, including Florentin, the American Colony and Jaffa, is lacking open spaces and green areas, making the new park of particular importance.
A number of historic elements are being preserved in the project, among them the sloping walls alongside and the pillars that supported the old railway route, and remnants of the tracks themselves, on the pedestrian walkways. There is extensive documentation of the railroad, which was built in 1892 and ran from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Photographer Avraham Soskin, for example, took pictures in the early 20th century of the crossings and gates that blocked pedestrian access to Herzl Street when a train was coming through.
For his part, photographer Zoltan Kluger documented the railroad tracks in 1945. In one photo, the building abutting the park that currently houses Shanti House, which serves at-risk youths, is clearly visible. Artist Siona Tagger painted the railway and the nearby Chelouche Bridge in 1928 in warm watercolors.
For many years, there has been talk in Tel Aviv about restoring public areas to use by pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation. So far, several projects have been undertaken in this context, including the creation of bike paths and conversion of parking lots into public squares – among them Habima Square – and, more recently, the successful reconfiguration of Dizengoff Square, which allows a better flow of foot traffic. But these projects were piecemeal efforts that didn’t really constitute a comprehensive network.
Park Hamesila is entirely devoted to pedestrians and cyclists without any concession to motorists (such as underground parking, for example). It will stretch over an area of 30 dunams (7.5 acres) and pass over the Red Line of the Tel Aviv light rail, now under construction underground nearby.
The first segment of the park is about 850 meters (2,800 feet) in length; it begins near Pines Street and runs down to the Mediterranean at Kaufmann Street. An additional 450-meter stretch will lead to Nahalat Binyamin Street. When that section is complete – hopefully by the end of the year – the 1.3-kilometer (.8-mile) long park will provide the first continuous pedestrian and cycling link of its kind from Rothschild Boulevard in the central part of the city, to the beach.
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“What’s nice about Tel Aviv’s boulevards, for example, Ben-Gurion and Nordau, is that they run toward the sea. The new park will connect Rothschild Boulevard to the sea and complete Tel Aviv’s network of boulevards,” said architect Opher Kolker, on a recent tour of the park. Kolker is in charge of the planning team working on first part of project and the light rail station on Elifelet Street, adjacent to Hatachana (old train station), a retail and entertainment complex.
The park will also provide more convenient and aesthetic access to Jaffa, which since 1948 has been a bit disconnected from Tel Aviv. The Elifelet station will be the link between a 480-meter tunnel that's part of the upper portion of the light rail route, and an underground stretch that will run 12 kilometers to the suburb of Petah Tikva, on the Red Line (whose total length will be 24 kilometers).
At one point, says Tel Aviv’s municipal architect, Yoav David, there had been a plan to construct a road along the Ottoman-era railroad tracks to provide access from south Tel Aviv to the Rothschild Boulevard business district. To his relief, the idea was scrapped after some work had already been invested in it. Now, he points out, the municipality is seeking to severely reduce the number of cars entering the city.
Park Hamesila is one of a number of similar projects around the world in which abandoned train tracks have been converted into parks. The best known of these are New York’s High Line and the Gangchon Rail Park in South Korea. In Israel, the Tel Aviv project has a counterpart in Jerusalem: It's own attractive Park Hamesila opened in 2012 after lobbying from residents, in the Baka neighborhood. Both the Tel Aviv park and the Jerusalem one, which is much longer, were created at much lower cost than similar endeavors elsewhere in the world.
Architect Maor Goichman, who was involved in the preservation aspects of the Tel Aviv project, said that main goal was “highlighting the linear route the old train took.” Nili Buchwald, the park's landscape architect, from the Dan Fox firm, describes the process.
“It’s very complicated to build a park over a [railway] tunnel. We needed to find all kinds of solutions for creating a habitat for trees, so they develop to the greatest extent possible and provide shade. In another few years, we’ll see if we were successful,” she says. “It was also complicated from the standpoint of infrastructure. This is a linear strip that doesn’t have urban infrastructure running through it – water, electricity. And in addition to that, the park runs between walls [that are subject to historic] preservation, and the nearby houses of Neve Tzedek are built on historic walls with weak foundations and we had to protect them from collapse during the work.”
Evidence of former splendor
The Ottoman-era railroad is evidence of an era of true splendor in Jaffa, which is reflected in the research and work of veteran architects and conservationists Nitza Szmuk, Roy Fabian and Eyal Ziv. During the 19th century, Jaffa was an important city in and of itself and a gateway to the Land of Israel. New neighborhoods began to sprout up there, citrus groves were planted and wells and other structures were built.
Its development and location made Jaffa a prime prospect for the construction of a railroad. There were several proposals at the time, including one by philanthropist Moses Montefiore and an 1862 scheme by the German-born architect Charles Friedrich Zimpel, who planned railroads in the United States. But nothing came of these ideas.
A possible turning point came about in 1885, when a group of investors was created that included Jerusalem-born entrepreneur Yosef Navon, who obtained a 71-year concession to build and operate the Jaffa-based railroad – reportedly thanks to bribes to Ottoman bureaucrats. But Navon never managed to get his project off the ground either and ultimately sold the concession for a million francs to a group of French investors.
It was the French who in 1889 created a shareholder company for a Jaffa-Jerusalem railway. They raised the necessary 10 million francs for their project from selling stocks and bonds, and also from Catholic priests who dipped into their personal savings in the hope of that the project would make it easier to reach Jerusalem.
The original train route, some of which is included in Park Hamesila, ran from Jaffa to Jerusalem via Lod and Ramle, in addition to other stops along the way, usually where water was available; the design was such that trains could enter the Jaffa station at a very slight incline. The 97-kilometer line opened on September 26, 1892, and the trip to Jerusalem from Jaffa took almost four hours.
Near the end of Ottoman rule in the country, when World War I broke out, the railroad finally turned a decent profit. The price of first class tickets was increased and the number of foreign visitors also rose. In addition to revenue from Christian pilgrims, the railroad’s freight business burgeoned – and the travel time to Jerusalem was cut.