I meet landscape architect Ram Eisenberg next to Gan Ha’ir Mall in Tel Aviv. Eisenberg is conducting a study for the municipality’s strategic planning unit. Its aim: To find ways to improve the walking experience for the city’s pedestrians.
To this end, he and his team are wandering around with a few dozen people of different ages and from different backgrounds, and hearing what they liked on their particular walk and what upset them. For now at least, I am not “footloose and fancy-free” (“The streets give him / time without any tallies. / Here and there he heads down / Small alleys” — Meir Ariel, “Wandering Idly”) but am wandering on duty. Eisenberg’s only request is that we walk eastward from Ibn Gabirol Street.
Where shall we go? It’s been a few weeks since I last checked whether the rare acrocarpus tree in the backyard of 22 Manne Street is still intact. After that, we’ll see.
On the way to Manne Street, we both feel far more threatened by the wild wheels on the sidewalk than by the wheels on the road. We cross Ibn Gabirol and within five minutes are on Manne. The acrocarpus sways tranquilly in the breeze. It recalls a mature pecan tree, but its trunk is smoother, straighter and, above all, far taller.
The tree has its origins in Kenya; there are only a very few like it in this country. On my last visit here, a third-floor resident told me it had been decided to cut the tree down, because it disturbs the adjacent buildings. Eisenberg admires the tall tree, takes several photographs of it and suggests we contact the city official in charge of trees to ensure that it will not be felled.
Eisenberg designed two of Tel Aviv’s more original public gardens: Kiryat Sefer Park and Sderot Hahaskalah Park. He knows Tel Aviv well. But he didn’t know the garden I showed him at 22 Manne.
“Unbelievable – a few dozen meters from Ibn Gabirol and we’re in a different world,” he says, thrilled by the sight of the huge flame tree, the philodendron bushes that are as carefully cultivated as in a botanical garden, the bougainvillea that rises to the height of the third floor and the red-and-white hibiscus plants.
The green yards on adjacent Dubnow Street also draw his praise. He’s lived in Tel Aviv for years and had no idea they existed. For a moment, he casts off his official role and marvels like a child at the lush vegetation he’s discovered so close to the city’s busy thoroughfares. He then reverts to his position as project manager: “Why did you choose this route? What does this vegetation do to you?”
What does it do to me? My first thought is of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and his discussions on the feeling of “being at home” in the world. After all, even people who have no special affinity for the greenery around them take the trouble to grow a potted plant or two on their balcony.
The gardens we passed are actually an expansion of the same need to be surrounded by something green, primeval. They add to the “homeliness” of the home, of the neighborhood, of the city. There’s something comforting about the cyclical nature of their budding and blossoming, about the absolute logic of their growth, which is determined by the quality of the soil and the quantity of water and light.
The second thought is of Friedrich Schiller’s famous essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.” He begins by noting that, sometimes, different aspects of nature – a simple plant, a brook, a moss-covered stone, even the tweet of a bird – give us special pleasure. The source of that pleasure does not necessarily lie in the beauty of these objects, but rather in the clear knowledge that they exist according to unalterable laws and in eternal unity with themselves. The tinge of sadness that accompanies this pleasure arises because these things remind us of how we ourselves were in our distant childhood.
The fact that in this case we are talking about flora that is engaged in a constant struggle with the buildings all around, and survives despite everything, adds to the pleasure Schiller talks about.
What does this greenery do to me? I can still distinguish between my friends who retain a childish desire to pat a tree trunk like one pats the shoulder of a friend, and those in whom that impulse has long since receded into oblivion. Eisenberg listens and says nothing.
When we sit ourselves down in Dubnow Garden, I wonder what advice my interlocutor will be able to offer the municipality to enhance the experience of walking in the city. I wonder what power he has in the face of streets that are not wide enough, what power he can muster to counter market forces. The builders of the towers are obliged to devote a certain percentage of the grounds they are developing to a public area, but they see to it that the public space and its gardens are not accessible to all.
What can be done? I am a modest person. If one result of this afternoon will be protection for the acrocarpus tree on Manne Street — dayenu, it will have been enough.
The tour with Eisenberg took place on Thursday, August 18. I wrote this piece at the end of that week. On the following Sunday, I asked my wife to take a picture of the acrocarpus tree to accompany the piece. She came back with a picture of the tree, axed.
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