“People who live in big cities go home at the end of the day to their loneliness. This is something we feel we can change.”
This, says general manager Nir Adan, is the lofty goal of Venn, a for-profit, community-focused, real estate development company reshaping the hip Shapira neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. It used to be home to some of the coastal city’s poorest residents, but has become a prime destination for young people seeking a more affordable option than the center’s high rental prices.
Shapira is a diverse neighborhood, home to religious communities, foreign workers, asylum seekers and, yes, a relatively recent wave of hipsters. And there is a measure of concern among Shapira residents of all stripes about the pace of gentrification and the perceived role Venn is playing in that.
After launching in Tel Aviv in 2015, the company has since also established itself in Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighborhoods. Like Shapira, these locations are hip, rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in global cities.
But Venn isn’t hemmed in by particulars. Further down the road, according to Lianne Pollak-David, VP of strategy and business development, Venn may try implementing its model in communities of different sizes and types across the world.
Describing exactly what it is that Venn does is no easy feat. This is in part due to the fact that most of its literature spouts corporate Newspeak, in which it describes itself as an “open source neighborhood operating system,” providing locals with a “new way of neighboring” and a “wholebeing platform.”
The difficulty also stems from the fact that the company stands behind – in part or in full – a diverse range of ventures in the neighborhood, including residential spaces, businesses, event rooms and semi-public communal areas.
Touring Shapira with Adan, I find that it's not really possible to tell a Venn building from any other. Not from the outside, at least.
Adan says this is intentional. But all of Venn’s apartment buildings are renovated and outfitted with new appliances to make sure the units fit a certain standard of living. The end result is campus-like co-living spaces with funky design touches in the lobby, rooftop hangout spaces, laundry facilities and other common areas that may take the form of a meditation room, workspace or outdoor kitchen.
Barbecues and plumbers
Venn has some 200 community members in Shapira, with about 50 percent of those living in these dorm-like buildings. For Venn residents, a seamless interface connects the various facets of city living – from socializing to shopping. Faced with a broken air conditioner or leaky pipe, residents can simply use their Venn app to summon assistance. The same app is used to book a barbecue for your pals in the backyard.
For community members who don’t live in Venn’s apartments, a small monthly fee grants them access to all of Venn’s shared spaces and scores them discounts at local businesses and institutions like the anthroposophical preschool (opened with Venn’s assistance), the Getzel Coffee Shop (opened in partnership with Venn); People Pizza (in which Venn has a small stake); or the new pub, Atlas, which was opened by a Venn community member.
Passing by the pub, I ask Adan if Venn has a stake in this business as well. He shakes his head.
“One of our community members came to us and said he always dreamed of having a bar. We have amazing resources in our company. We have people who know how to build a business plan; we have people doing regulations; and we have connections in City Hall. So we said, ‘Let’s help.’”
We soon reach Heaven – a Venn-run coworking space filled with millennial freelancers working on their laptops – where I am introduced to Venn’s community manager, Gili Tal.
“She knows everybody and knows everybody’s dreams and is making them come true,” says Adan. “She’s our fairy.”
The dreams Tal helps fulfill are a diverse lot. Perhaps a community member wants to start a business. Or host a poetry reading. Or build a lending library. In any event, Venn is there to offer advice, material, infrastructural support and perhaps even financing.
According to Adan, this kind of assistance is a crucial part of Venn’s mission in the neighborhood.
“We want to have an active community that takes responsibility by themselves for themselves. I call it ‘participatory citizenship,’” he explains. “We’re used to being consumers. We live in our flats, we order online. We’re not actively influencing the way that we live. ... If you want to have a better education system in your neighborhood, rise up. If you want to influence the local businesses in your neighborhood, rise up.”
The flipside of this “participatory citizenship” is a sort of all-inclusive, easy-living vision of urban existence – one in which a Venn employee can help you organize a party in a Venn event space and a cleaner to sweep up afterward.
When I ask what Venn gets in return for financing others’ dreams, I am accused of “Israeli thinking.” Yes, Venn has a stake in some of the businesses, but Adan stresses that this is the exception, not the rule.
Indeed, as we stroll around Shapira looking at Venn businesses and residences, Adan takes pleasure in pointing out ventures the company either doesn’t profit from or loses money on. Passing by a small general store, for example, he says: “We gave him 10,000 shekels [$2,670] to renovate. For no return. Why? Because we knew he was struggling.”
But while the Venn team is quick to note that money is not the be-all and end-all, it is just as eager to stress that profit is nothing to be ashamed of.
“We’re not here to just do philanthropy; we think it’s not sustainable,” says Pollak-David. Adan echoes those sentiments: “Yes, it needs to be profitable. It’s not a dirty word … but in our eyes and hearts, that’s not the goal.”
But not all of Shapira’s residents are convinced.
Shayna Hodkin, a freelance writer and Shapira resident whom I encounter at the Getzel Coffee Shop, says she’s not impressed by Venn’s social initiatives in the neighborhood. “The real issue here, which outweighs the good that they supposedly do, is how much their apartments cost,” she says.
Venn says most of its tenants pay between 1,200 to 2,500 shekels ($328-$683) per month, and while this is low for Tel Aviv, some of the apartments or rooms are quite small – such as a unit Venn calls “the Cube,” a 6.5 x 9.8 foot (2 x 3 meter) room in a shared apartment for 1,100 shekels.
Hodkin, an acquaintance of the Cube’s inhabitant, calls it “a high price for an unlivable room.”
But Adan sees the Cube as a point of pride. “I want to upgrade your wellness,” he says. “The Cube is an experiment. We researched how many hours people invest in each room of their house. This guy is out of the apartment all day and just comes home to rest his head, and then he’s up and out. So why not pay less and spend that money on a vacation instead?”
A more common concern about Venn, though, is not the size or cost of its apartments but the collective cost of gentrification. The recent closure of Lechem Kodesh, an old-school neighborhood bakery on Shapira’s main drag, stirred those concerns.
In the Facebook group Shishi Shapira, the closure of the bakery was perceived as being directly linked to Venn. “No matter how much you sugarcoat it,” one user wrote, “‘monopoly’ and “social’ or ‘communal’ are contradictory.”
Yakov Itzhakov, the bakery’s former owner, shares that sentiment. “It doesn’t matter what you call it – you can call it community-oriented, social, you can call it ‘friendly’ – but at the end of the day, it’s business. They buy properties, they have a lot of homes in Shapira. What they say is what goes in the neighborhood.”
Tal Shavit, a Venn resident for the past 18 months, thinks it is unrealistic to blame gentrification on the company. “Usually gentrification is this obscure concept. Now you have a specific name you can attach to it.”
Having lived in Shapira for five years, Shavit believes the issue of gentrification is both older and broader than Venn. “There’s an expression that says you’re not in traffic, you are traffic. I was traffic five years ago and I’m traffic now. And the funny thing is that a lot of the activists in the neighborhood who are against Venn are also traffic. First come the career activists and artists. Then you get young professionals like me. Then young families. And then you’re gentrified.”
The Venn team regard these local suspicions as a matter of misconception. They scoff at notions that they want to take over the neighborhood or that they have purchased all the real estate.
If they were up to no good, Pollak-David says, they would lose their funding – a good deal of which comes from Bridges, an investment firm specializing in so-called impact companies. While every business has to report to its investors on financials, Venn is obliged to report on its social impact as well. Pollak-David calls this Venn’s “double bottom line.’’
Rather than being about image or charity, she sees it as a business necessity. “Over the course of the next 50 years there will be no room for companies producing negative things for humankind,” she says. “If you want to become scalable, you’ll have to attend to certain criteria – and one of these criteria will be impact work.”
For Adan, it’s all about the community. “Israelis are naturally-born community members,” he says, listing various examples of Jewish communities from shtetls to the kibbutz.
This comparison is echoed by Venn resident Nofar Drukman. “It’s like a kibbutz in the city,” she says, noting that while she was initially resistant to the idea of living in Tel Aviv, she loves that Venn offers an intimate community in the midst of the metropolis.
But while Venn may evoke Israel’s socialist past, it also evokes Israel’s high-tech present, blending the utopian ethos of the kibbutz with the enterprising spirit of Israel’s startup culture.
From this perspective, Tel Aviv is the perfect testing ground – and Venn has no intention of stopping here.