Discovering Jerusalem’s Secret Public Gardens

Behind guard posts, locks and luxury residences in the center of Jerusalem lie public gardens. Even though they are officially open to the public, access to them is problematic. City officials are doing little to remedy the situation.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The garden at the old soccer stadium, near the YMCA, in Jerusalem.
The garden at the old soccer stadium, near the YMCA, in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

An iron gate stands on Yitzhak Kariv Street in Jerusalem’s Mamilla neighborhood, opposite the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. Wrapped around it is a chain with a lock, and next to it is a guard post and also an electronic lock, its red light flashing, which opens with a magnetic card. Above the gate is a security camera. Every sensible person will grasp that this is a well-guarded private compound. Yet, during most of the day the gate is not really locked – a light push will open it. Behind the gate is another guard post and above that another security camera. Keep going and you’ll find yourself not on private property but in the heart of a well-tended public park with a large fountain, a garden and stone benches.

By law, this is an “open public area” to which everyone has free access. But the site is closed at night and on holidays, when large numbers of tourists and locals visit this part of the city. During the rest of the year, the locks and (unmanned) guard posts keep potential visitors at bay. Someone is evidently out to ensure that this site is kept well-hidden from passersby. The guard stations and cameras were installed by the luxury David Citadel Hotel, which abuts the garden on one side and the (largely uninhabited) exclusive residential neighborhood David’s Village, which abuts it on the other side.

In the past, the Jerusalem Municipality fined the hotel for denying the public access to the garden, but in recent years it has done nothing. The hotel maintains that the area is kept closed for security reasons. According to one account, possibly apocryphal, a few years ago a tenant in the adjacent compound quarreled with his neighbors. In revenge, he told the Arabic-language East Jerusalem press about the garden, and many Palestinians started visiting, at which point the municipality decided it should be closed.

The garden behind the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem.
The garden behind the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

This is only one example, albeit probably the most extreme, of a larger phenomenon: the concealment of public gardens adjacent to luxury sites in downtown Jerusalem. For the most part, the terms that allow developers to get permits to build residences or hotels include the creation of a park for the public’s benefit. Once in existence, however, the park is often hidden by various means from the “beneficiaries.” Sources in the Jerusalem Municipality admit that they are aware of the problem and say tried to deal with it in the past. However, no one seems to be giving it any thought today. The municipality refused to allow any official to talk to Haaretz about the subject.

Not far from the site on Yitzhak Kariv Street, within the David’s Village complex, is a small, neatly cultivated lawn, which is also closed off by a fence. Even though this, too, is a public area in every respect, a sign on the gate, in English, Hebrew and Arabic, warns visitors that they are entering a private neighborhood and should maintain the quiet and cleanliness of the area.

The most salient example is the area behind the YMCA building on King David Street, just up the road from the David Citadel Hotel. Until the 1990s, this was the site of the soccer field of the Hapoel Jerusalem team. The YMCA then had the site rezoned for private developers who built another fancy residential complex there that answers to the name “King David’s Crown.”

That project hit the headlines and was discussed at length in a report by the state comptroller and in the High Court of Justice, in the wake of an outrageous agreement that city hall, under then-Mayor Ehud Olmert, signed with the YMCA in which the city decided to forgo millions of shekels in fees and levies – in return for public projects that were never built. However, between the complex and the YMCA building, Rassco, the project’s developer, created a large, splendid garden featuring grassy areas, fountains, sculptures and a sumptuous walkway with marble columns.

The YMCA park in Jerusalem.
The YMCA park in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

For most of the year, the sprawling David’s Crown complex is largely uninhabited – estimates say that only 30 of the 140 completed units (out of a total of 200) are permanently occupied; a majority are foreign-owned. In addition, many apartments have not been sold yet. The five-dunam (1.25-acre) site is an open space. But as in other cases, here too, efforts have been made to exclude random visitors. According to Rassco, the garden has a number of entrances that are open to the public. That may be true, but anyone not familiar with them will have a hard time finding them.

One entrance is from the small private parking lot behind the YMCA building. There are two other entrances via two narrow staircases that open onto the street but seem to be paths leading into the private luxury residences. A fourth entrance is via a narrow lane from King David Street that leads to a stone wall. Only if you go around the wall by means of another staircase will you get to the public garden.

“It’s true that the site is open from four directions, but no matter which direction you come from it looks closed. You wouldn’t know there’s a garden there,” says Esther Saad, a tour guide who has been conducting tours to Jerusalem’s “hidden gardens” for some years.

Esther Saad, a tour guide who has been conducting tours to Jerusalem’s 'hidden gardens.'
Esther Saad, a tour guide who has been conducting tours to Jerusalem’s 'hidden gardens.'Credit: Emil Salman

Not far away is the North Africa Jewish Heritage Center, fronted by a fine public square in the style of the courtyards of North African palaces. There are two fountains and a good deal of mosaic work. But the site is imprisoned between the ultra-luxurious Waldorf Astoria and two huge residential complexes. It can be accessed through several narrow alleys, two of which are not much broader than shoulder width.

The square in front of the North Africa Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem.
The square in front of the North Africa Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

“People are absolutely stunned when I show them these places,” Saad explains. “Everyone asks why no one visits them. People are always looking for pools on the outskirts of the city, and here there are cultivated spaces with shade and water, and no one knows about it. What they’re hiding belongs to us. We, the residents of Jerusalem, received this garden, and not because someone did us a favor – on the contrary, we did the developers a favor by accepting that this is what they would give us. The least we can ask is that they not hide it from us, that they let us enjoy it.”

According to Avner Haramti of the Ginot Ha’ir Community Council, a local authority that serves downtown Jerusalem, “most people think these are private areas, and as a consequence of this, we lose quality of life and green spaces, which could connect different communities and be places of meeting.” In his view, “a way has to be found to open these sites to the public.”

The lawn within David’s Village in Jerusalem.
The lawn within David’s Village in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

‘Security vulnerability’

Asked for comment about the park on Kariv St., Ron Geller, CEO of Alrov Properties & Lodgings Ltd., owner of the David Citadel Hotel, told Haaretz: “It is indeed an ‘open public area,’ but the site is a serious security issue for the hotel. The gates have been that way for many years, at the demand of the police and in consultation with the Jerusalem Municipality. The principle is that the gates are locked at night and open during the day, and it’s the same in nearby Teddy Park, which is also an open public area. The guard posts and cameras belong not to the hotel but to the David’s Village apartments – the hotel’s guard station and cameras are located deep inside, after the gate.

“There is a security vulnerability that has to be dealt with and cannot be ignored,” Geller adds. “The Shin Bet [security service] demands that it be shut when events with the participation of protected public figures are held at the hotel. I think the solution we’ve arrived at serves all sides in the most balanced way possible.”

A spokesperson for Rassco construction, which built the King David’s Crown compound, gave the following statement to Haaretz: “The public garden is open to the public from four different directions. Part of the northern wall, which remains from the [old] soccer field, is intended to fence off the future area of construction. The garden’s development went beyond the demands of the construction plan and involved an investment of millions of dollars.”

A spokesperson for the Jerusalem Municipality stated that the city “does not permit the closure of gardens by developers, and all the public areas in the city are open to all the residents. Every complaint about the closure of a public space by private persons is dealt with by municipal inspectors.”

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