Empty Streets and Locked Doors: Prostitution Is Disappearing From Tel Aviv's Underbelly

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A 62-year-old Palestinian woman at work as a prostitute on Tel Aviv's Finn Street, September 2017.
A 62-year-old Palestinian woman at work as a prostitute on Tel Aviv's Finn Street, September 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

The entire area is changing from day to day, says Romi (not her real name), describing with her hands the change in the world of prostitution where Tel Aviv’s main bus station used to be.

“They’re making a new building here,” she says, pointing to rubble. “Over there they already have the police and a beautiful garden,” she adds, pointing to a shiny white building that has housed a police station since June.

The property next to it, once home to a parking lot for buses, had for years been a haven for drug addicts, prostitutes and the homeless. The place has received a face-lift and been turned into a public garden crammed with playground equipment.

“Everything is starting to be closed,” Romi says, pointing at brothels on Solomon, Ehrlinger and Finn streets, most of whose doors are locked. “They say they’ll close everything. Obviously they will. They’re rebuilding everything.”

Romi, a 43-year-old single mother, moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union when she was 19. She has worked in a brothel at the old-central-station area for 13 years. “I started working in prostitution because of debts,” she says. “I was choking, unable to make a living.”

She and two older immigrants from the former Soviet Union rent a small space — a store converted into a brothel. The three arrive daily from distant cities. Sometimes they’re forced to spend the night there.

A scene on Tel Aviv's Solomon Street, September 2017. Credit: Ilan Assayag

“There is less work now,” Romi says, looking at the street empty of traffic. “Earnings are suffering, but I say thank you for what there is.”

When asked what she’ll do if the brothels in the area are closed entirely, she hesitates. “I’m always afraid to say what I want to happen because then it never happens and it destroys me,” she says, smiling.

“When everything here is closed and there’s no prostitution but only new buildings, then I’ll want to stop. I’ll want to go home for good and work at a regular job, even cleaning. It’s very good work. There’s no shame in working in cleaning.”

The Knesset does its bit

The busy prostitution scene at the old-central-bus-station area got its start back in the early 2000s, when trafficking in women was rampant. While it’s too early for a eulogy, it’s easy to notice the business’ death throes in the neighborhood. It’s easy to notice the agents of change.

Real estate developers’ dreams float high above the cloud of heroin, crystal meth and khat of the homeless, prostitutes and drug addicts. The police station, meanwhile, fuels operations to catch drug dealers. The cops park their cars outside the brothels, not to mention the foot patrols.

Moreover, the bill to incriminate prostitutes' customers and rehabilitate sex workers, which passed in a preliminary vote 74-0, dramatically reduced the number of clients arriving at the old central bus station.

The lines of cars that marked the scene have thinned out, as have the number of customers traipsing around by foot or on a bicycle or motor scooter.

The demolition of a house on 1 Finn St., Tel Aviv, 2015. Credit: David Bachar

On the website Sex Adir, paying sex consumers call the scene “dry.” They talk about “the end of the party at the old central bus station.” One user said property values had driven landlords to change tack and unceremoniously kick out anyone in the sex trade.

Another added: “This area is designated for serious development and will be irrelevant for us.” Forum users also say they’re reluctant to visit the area due to the police presence.

Brothels flourished for years in the area’s ground-floor and basement apartments. As well as street prostitution, the place was rife with “rooms for rent” and “discreet apartments,” most of them now shut down. Here and there you might notice an open door with a dim light flickering and see a prostitute in a small room sitting and staring at the empty street.

Moving nearby

On Hagalil Street, black graffiti tells that a peep show that had been there for years is gone, fearlessly advertising its new, nearby address. Graffiti on an adjacent building announces the closure of a place that has moved to a nearby street.

The face of street prostitution has also changed. The number of transgender prostitutes in the area now totals about three or four older women who have worked there for years. Female drug addicts and homeless women working in the business still sway through the street, but far fewer.

“Many of the places housing prostitution are closed by administrative order so as to rein in the phenomenon," says Issar Polanitzer, who takes part in a syringe-exchange program for drug addicts. “On Hagalil Street, of the many places to rent rooms, there’s only one left on the corner,” says Polanitzer, who visits the area once a week.

The places may be closed at the old central bus station, but they’re moving to other addresses, adds Reut Guy, who works with girls at risk for the group Alam. “It’s often not far from the area, so that the places can retain their ‘reputation’ and customer base,” she says, adding that people mired in prostitution don’t necessarily leave it.

“I can tell you about a guy who was a street prostitute at the bus station and now works at a ‘sauna.’ I can tell you about female prostitutes who moved from the central-bus-station area to other brothels around the country.”

She adds that although “some of the people are in touch with aid organizations, and some take steps to escape the world of prostitution, the numbers aren’t dramatic.”

The police describe their work in the area as “focused, determined and constant against the exploitation of women and their employment in prostitution.” They say they’re targeting “offenses of pimping and the employment of women to provide sex services.”

The police add that, along with arresting pimps and drug dealers, they’re cooperating with aid organizations and the Tel Aviv welfare department with the goal of helping women “leave the cycle of prostitution and drugs and rehabilitate their lives.”

One of the oldest prostitutes, a 62-year-old Palestinian woman, smiles and opens the door to the room where she works and sleeps. “There’s almost no work, but I can’t stop,” she says, her breath smelling of alcohol as she gazes into the empty street.

“Where will I go when the area changes? I have nowhere to go, no other place,” says the woman, who has no residence permit. “I’ve been at the central bus station since 1986. I have no help from the state. I have no one. I’m staying here. I’m not going anywhere, and God is great.”

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