For 11 years, as Thursday nights have turned into Friday mornings, long lines could be seen winding their way from a parking lot at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station to one of the doors at the southern end of the rundown building. Only muffled sounds from the other side of the thick wall hint at what takes place inside. “For people coming here at the end of a long week at work, this place, like only a few others like it that remain in Tel Aviv, helps define their quality of life, providing a reason for staying in the city despite the high cost of doing so,” says Yaron Trax, the owner of The Block, a club that serves as a “temple” of Tel Aviv nightlife in the neighborhood.
Trax expansively extols the status and cultural importance of the club and its international reputation. It has long been one of the city’s icons, with a constant presence of leading world DJs, boasting one of the best sound systems in the Middle East. Despite this, it’s hard to detect any hint of optimism in his words. The Central Bus Station, which has almost since its opening been labeled an environmental hazard, is slated to be vacated and demolished in the coming years, and replaced by an upscale, residential-tower project, which will include other functions still to be determined. The new project is expected to obliterate the club.
According to Trax, 51 and himself a clubber, The Block has been trapped in a pincer movement of real estate developers, flashing a hazard light for the future. In recent years, clubs and other entertainment venues have been closing down across Tel Aviv, mainly due to development pressures. Those are driven by the spiking prices of land and the lucrative lure to construct upscale projects throughout the city. With the ensuing demographic changes that come with the construction, new residents often find themselves complaining about the surrounding nightlife. The last two years of the pandemic have also contributed to the downturn, acting to curb the activity of many of these businesses.
“Tel Aviv’s nightlife, known as one of the best in the world, is critical to the city,” claims Trax. “It draws insane amounts of tourists, contributing to the city’s economy and constituting an inseparable part of the city’s fabric. The situation is already dire. When even the little that’s left disappears, the city’s attractiveness will wane.”
For this particular club, evacuation is scheduled to take place a few years down the line. However, disputes and confrontations that have flared up in recent months between owners of The Block and Nitsba, the company that manages the bus station, threaten to bring about the club’s closure sooner than planned. “The day The Block shuts down, we’ll be facing a problem. Finding a new location for a club as large as this one (its floor space is about 1,500 square meters) is a nearly impossible task. There aren’t any locations like that anymore. Even if we were to find one, it’s doubtful we could meet the costs. A nightclub, successful as it may be, does not generate sufficient revenues to cover an investment in setting up another location, which can easily reach sums of 4-5 million shekels [$1.25-1.55 million],” says Trax.
‘Nowhere to go from here’
The Block is not the only club in the city facing such a challenge. “Two years ago, we learned that we were to be closed to make way for a huge project of residential high-rises. We have four to five years before we have to close,” says Ruben Lublin, the founder and owner of Haoman 17, an established Tel Aviv dance club, situated at the corner of Salame and Abarbanel streets, a few minutes to the west of The Block. The plot where the club stands was purchased a year and a half ago by Y.H. Dimri, one of the largest multipurpose real estate developers in the market. The company paid a staggering amount of 355 million shekels ($111 million) for the land.
“I built this place with my own hands, and we’ve been here for 17 years. I have nowhere to go from here. Everywhere you look there’s construction or plans for development in the near future. I can’t afford overnight to rent a 1,000-square-meter space in a commercial center, or to set up such a venue for only two to three years. It’s also a question of noise – you can’t just put a club in the middle of a residential area. It has to be on the city’s outskirts. But in Tel Aviv’s case, the outskirts don’t exist anymore.”
A few months before Dimri announced its purchase of the Haoman plot, Lublin closed down another club he owned, Beit Maariv. After only three years of operation, bulldozers tore down the local club with its Berlin flavor, in lieu of construction of a 42-story commerical tower, being built these days by the Israel Land Development Company (Hachsharat Hayishuv), controlled by Ofer Nimrodi, with an investment of 350 million shekels.
“Apparently, it’s the fate of every club to shut down, to be replaced by something more profitable – not for the city or the community but for the land owners,” says Daniel Frenkel, who was Lublin’s partner at Beit Maariv and co-manages Haoman 17 with him. “As long as there is no official recognition of nightlife as a cultural entity that’s worth preserving], this will continue. In Berlin they understood this problem, and these days the Berghain [a famous Berlin club] is like any other gallery or museum in the city, with no one rushing to move it elsewhere.”
Apparently, it’s the fate of every club to shut down, to be replaced by something more profitable – not for the city or the community but for the land owners.Daniel Frenkel
Indeed, in May 2021, the federal government in Berlin declared that nightclubs would have the same status as other cultural institutions, recognizing their contribution to tourism and to the social and economic wellbeing of the city. In Berlin, the industry attracts three million tourists a year, generating combined revenues of over 1.5 billion euros for municipal coffers. Being officially declared a Berlin cultural asset brings with it tax benefits that make life easier, but mainly protects clubs from being pushed out by free-market forces, which still run wild in Tel Aviv.
Along with the pressure created by the construction boom, however, says Frenkel, in terms of the nightlife scene, there are also many opportunities for nightlife entrepreneurs. “Many entertainment venues are located in places known to be temporary. Beit Maariv, for example, or the Shesek Club I owned, were established with the knowledge that one day an expensive building would be built on their ruins. In both cases, this transience expressed itself in the lower rent club owners had to pay.”
The club and nightlife scene in Tel Aviv was informed of a further blow last week, with the sale of the mythical Beit Romano, which in recent years became one of the most vibrant cultural venues in the city, with retail space, a restaurant and a club. The four-story building, whose principal owner is the Property & Building Corporation, was put up for sale for an estimated price of 200 million shekels. The old compound, situated between Hamesila Park and Jaffa Road, is expected to be converted into a building of at least seven floors, and to include a hotel and residences. In Beit Romano, as in Beit Maariv, the end was known in advance.
Not far from there, in the Piano House compound at 99 Allenby Street, events unfolded in a similar manner, which housed several entertainment venues. It was closed in 2019, to be replaced by another high-end project. As of now, the plan for Beit Romano has not been approved by the municipality, and details regarding the sale of the Romano restaurant and the Teder culture hub on the premises remain far from clear. It seems that the clash between real estate entrepreneurs and their big money and a focus of local popular culture has evoked emotions and frustration among many city residents.
‘They don’t want noise’
“In contrast to the past, every square inch of Tel Aviv is swarming with real estate developers who see opportunities and pounce,” says David Tur, a prominent figure in the local nightlife scene. “Take for example [the southern end of] Rothschild Boulevard. Sixteen or 17 years ago, this was a dead area, almost abandoned. It was cheap, and you didn’t disturb anyone, so clubs could afford to operate there. That’s how the Breakfast Club [dance club], which I helped to found, arrived there, 17 years ago.”
“The urban fabric of the location was different then,” Tur explains. “Around us there was sand, certainly not upscale towers such as Rothschild 1, which was built right across from the club. I, as someone renting a business, am totally inconsequential here. Now that occupancy is denser and more expensive, the club disturbs many more people, and I can understand that. Someone buying an apartment for 80,000 shekels per square meter [about $2,500 per square foot] doesn’t want to hear noise from outside between 4 and 6 in the morning. The same thing is now happening with the Jaffa flea market and in the southern part of the city, which became another focus of nightlife in recent years. The same wave has swept over all these venues. First came the cool people, who ‘lifted’ these locations, then came the real estate developers, who pushed them out.”
For now, the price of pushing out Tel Aviv’s nightlife is being paid mainly by club owners and revelers. In the long run, however, the true cost will be paid by the city itself. “In my estimation, it’s only a matter of a few years before Tel Aviv has no nightclubs, and that’s sad,” says Lublin. “Tel Aviv is its nightlife and culture; that’s why people came here to begin with, willing to pay so much for apartments and to bear a high cost of living.”
Like Lublin, Uri Ginosar, an urban planner who himself was once active as a producer in the indie and nightlife scenes, also believes that emptying the city of its cultural and entertainment venues will deal a critical blow to its essence.
It's only a matter of a few years before Tel Aviv has no nightclubs, and that’s sad. Tel Aviv Aviv is its nightlife and culture; that’s why people came here to begin with, willing to bear a high cost of living.Ruben Lublin
“Some of what turned places like Tel Aviv, Berlin, New York and London into celebrated cities was the substantial concentration of artists and cultural-content entrepreneurs in them,” he claims. “A relatively wide range of spaces and venues at low prices enabled an entire generation of artists to establish themselves in the center of these cities in the 1980s and ‘90s. This turned Tel Aviv into a regional clubbing capital, contributing to its branding as a ‘the nonstop city.’ But gradually, the young people sitting in cafes on Sheinkin Street or Rothschild Boulevard were pushed out, in tandem with the rise in housing demand and the changing economy. They moved to other neighborhoods, such as Florentin, Shapira or Neve Sha’anan. Now they’re being pushed out of there as well, usually to outside the city.”
Ginosar, who as part of his planning studies at Tel Aviv University studied the encounter between cultural entrepreneurs and urban renewal processes, moved recently from Tel Aviv to Haifa. This was due to both rising prices and the pandemic, which led to halt in his work in nightlife. “The rising cost of living in the city is emptying it of the people and businesses that made it interesting. Until two years ago, this was marginal, with some artists and culture entrepreneurs being pushed out of Tel Aviv to Haifa, Pardes Hannah and other locations, but since the corona pandemic, things have gotten much worse.”
City Hall’s belated effort
The ramifications of the gentrification of entertainment venues in the city are apparently understood by the municipality. Over the years, it tried to engineer and channel the industry into designated and concentrated entertainment venues across the city. This included the Tel Aviv Port area, the Sarona compound, and the industrial area near Hamasger and Yad Harutzim streets. But these attempts foundered, one after the other. The first two of these were expensive, and their lack of authenticity prevented them from blending organically into the city. In contrast, in the Hamasger Street area, where The Block club used to be, rents were reasonable, but the area was ridden with crime, which in some cases was out of control.
“All the clubs in the city center, in the Allenby Street area, were moved by the city in the aughts to the Yad Harutzim area,” Trax says. “The idea was that it wouldn’t bother anyone there. But then you had a concentrated area of venues with many incidents of violence. Instead of cool places scattered around the city, you had a ghetto of young people, which led to a lot of friction” with some neighborhood people.
Despite those failures, it seems that the city is embracing the same strategies again, only with a new target. Yuval Peleg is head of the nightlife division at the municipality’s licensing department, and Avi Parsha is a senior planner in the unit for strategic planning of the city’s engineering division. They are promoting a policy paper intended to create an industrial area in the city’s south that would operate with no restrictions on hours or noise. With no residential construction there, they say, would allow clubs to continue to operate there even after the area undergoes renewal. They also propose a similar policy for the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds are in the north, and the port, to which they hope other areas will be added.
Peleg and Parsha describe other tools embraced by cities around the world that face similar situations. These are now being considered by Tel Aviv as well. According to planning policies in London and Melbourne, for example, they explain, one can mitigate the conflict between residential areas and nightlife during early planning stages. If a residential building is going up near a club, the city can ask the developer to find solutions that will allow both parties to live side by side, covering their own costs. They emphasize that their proposal is a work in progress that needs to be crystallized, and requires municipal approval.
Mayor Ron Huldai recognizes the meaning of the disappearing clubs. “They are what makes Tel Aviv a nonstop city,” he admits. “But as in every city, a balance must be struck between different needs: those of residents living near entertainment venues and those of the partyers and club owners.”
Peleg and Parsha qualify their statements, saying that despite attempts overseas to find creative solutions, the ability of city hall to find such solutions is limited. They acknowledge that the city is taking its responsibility seriously, and is trying to enable the existence and growth of nightlife businesses, but note the importance of recognizing that Tel Aviv is a local authority within a larger metropolis, unlike, for example, cities like London and Berlin, which much larger metropolitan areas with more available spaces for nightclubs, and access to additional resources.
Despite the nice words, people on the ground find it hard to be optimistic. “The way things look now, in a few years Tel Aviv will have become another San Francisco. From a cool and vibrant city, it will turn into a city of plastic,” concludes with sadness one of the founders of the Alphabet Club on Rothschild Boulevard. This club also closed recently, to be replaced by a branch of a supermarket chain, now under construction. “It will be a city without the artists that give it content and avant-garde culture, only with high-tech people and expensive apartments. We can only hope that good will prevail.”