Under a Busy Tel Aviv Interchange, There's a Traffic Island Where People Live

A visit to Tel Aviv's Ludwipol neighborhood, which has been slated for demolition for decades and where 20 people live in houses that move

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An aerial view of Ludwipol, wedged between highways. “Here you don’t belong to any place, you’re on the margins,” says Elior Babai.
An aerial view of Ludwipol, wedged between highways. “Here you don’t belong to any place, you’re on the margins,” says Elior Babai.

On a traffic island at the southern edge of Tel Aviv, wedged between Route 1 and the Ayalon Highway, abutting the busy Kibbutz Galuyot interchange, lies the tiny neighborhood of Ludwipol. Many pass above the little enclave, named for Avraham Ludwipol, the first editor of the Polish Zionist newspaper Hatzofe, but few are aware of its existence. About 20 people live here (only eight are members of the neighborhood WhatsApp group), on two small dead-end streets. The houses are run-down and in constant danger of collapsing. Other than that, there’s nothing here: no grocery store, no fruit and vegetable shop, no café, no playground, not even a plain old public bench to sit on (there is a store that sells printers, however).

On the way to Ludwipol it occurred to me that this is the only neighborhood in Tel Aviv where one has to leave the city in order to enter it. From my home on Levinsky Street, to the north, I ended up driving in circles and entering and exiting the highway to get there.

My visit took place on a Sunday morning, the beginning of a new week, and the place was empty; there was ample parking and the neighborhood was suspiciously quiet. A black cat lay on the road having a sunbath, and two chickens strolled along the sidewalk with the air one might expect of farm animals living in urban ghost neighborhoods. Fences erected by a real estate company hid empty lots, marking territory and hinting at what lies ahead. Four acoustic walls try to muffle the din of passing vehicles, but by their very existence only underscore the absurdity: Next to the busiest interchanges in the country is a traffic island on which people live.

In the early days, things were better. The neighborhood was built in the 1950s, when "Ayalon" was a stream and when orchards rather than interchanges separated Ludwipol from the adjacent Kiryat Shalom quarter. Less than a decade later, however, things got complicated. The authorities planned roads, but discovered that, in contrast to other neighborhoods in the southern parts of the city, in Ludwipol the land was privately owned by the residents themselves. The system doesn’t like to lose, and an evacuation-compensation plan was ruled out of the question, so instead of building roads over the Ludwipolians’ homes, the decision was made to enclose the enclave within them.

In 1957, Municipal Building Plan 312 was approved; it classified the neighborhood as a “parcellation area,” and stipulated that “no construction will be permitted in the demarcated property.” In 1970, Building Plan 1205 declared it an “area slated for planning.” Eight years later the future arrived in the form of the building of the Kibbutz Galuyot interchange, and in the 1990s some of the neighborhood’s buildings were demolished for the benefit of the Armored Corps Road parallel to the Ayalon. Since then it has virtually been locked between three highways, with more than half-a-million vehicles passing by it every day.

It wasn’t until 2005 that a court ruled the neighborhood unfit for habitation, but it took another decade for a development scheme, initiated by the residents – and calling for construction of two skyscrapers providing 57,000 square meters (about 614,000 square feet) of office space – to be accepted by local planning authorities. Afterward developers came and went, the locals quarreled and made up, and we end up in November 2021, when Hagag Group Real Estate Development announced that it was acquiring Luwipol for 250 million shekels (about $80 million).

It will take time for the towers to be built. Moreover the issue of compensation to the residents is extremely complicated in view of the large number of heirs among their large families, over the generations.

Yigal Rambam's chickens.

In the meantime we see 84-year-old Esther Reniginzeld emerging from her house in the neighborhood, chasing after her granddaughter with a 200-shekel bill in her hand. The young woman didn’t notice her grandmother’s mad dash, because she was busy loading containers of food into her SUV. Earlier, she’d hidden the 200 shekels in Esther’s home, hoping that it wouldn’t be noticed until she had left. Esther opened the driver’s door and stuffed the bill forcefully back into her granddaughter’s hand. The woman returned the bill to her own pocket, kissed her grandmother and drove back to the upscale neighborhood of Ramat Aviv in the northern part of the city.

Esther is also going to be moving to Ramat Aviv. “My husband died six years ago, and since then the children have been trying nonstop to persuade me to come and live near them. I said I don’t want to, I like it here,” she says. “But not anymore, now. Besides four families who were here [since the beginning], no one I know lives here – they’re all strangers. Now I am afraid. Having a panic button and a police button is no help.”

I see. But moving must still be hard for you. How many years have you lived here?

“Since 1957. We lived here with my husband’s parents. Back then they didn’t know that the hut they built would turn into a road today. Everything was empty here. To get to the [nearby] Hatikva neighborhood, we had a path made of wooden boards that made a terrible racket when we walked on it. It was a different life. There were orchards, people sowed and harvested and sold things; there was a grocery store, a greengrocer – we had everything here, just the mules and horses were missing. And then they came and demolished houses, evacuated the families, made an overpass, and now there are no stores, no parks, no gardens. There’s nothing here.”

I asked Esther what she would miss most of all. In response she led me to her garden. “What most hurts me is the bird of paradise flowers, look how beautiful they are, how can I take all this to Ramat Aviv? I won’t have a place with a garden there, these days all the apartments are matchboxes. It’s sad for me to leave. Here I have a huge apartment. Believe me, here is best. Plenty of parking? You’ve got it. Annoying neighbors? You don’t have any. And it’s impossible to get lost.”

What about the noise, the highway?

“The noise doesn’t bother me anymore, I got used to it.”

Ludwipol. Half a million cars pass over the neighborhood every day.

Esther hurried to an exercise class at Yamit 2000, a water park in Holon, a few kilometers to the south. Before we parted, she pointed to a small window in one of her walls. “That was a window to the neighbors, that’s how we used to speak, ask the electrician, he’ll tell you.”

Breathing soot

As befits an automotive electrician, Itzik Cohen, 70, was wearing sooty khaki overalls when we arrived, sitting in a cramped space crammed with bits and pieces of things, welding something. When he was a half-year old his parents moved from the adjacent Shapira neighborhood to Ludwipol, and after they died he turned the house into a garage. “It’s like my second home, but I live in Rishon Letzion,” he says.

What was it like growing up here?

“Before the roads, it was terrific, there was nothing here, it was a little village in the city. You would walk 30 meters to where Armored Corps Road is today and you were in fields. From there we rolled in barrels between the thistles to the Shapira neighborhood, and afterward I remember my mother made my bottom red: ‘Why did you get all your clothes dirty’?”

So what’s changed? You’re still getting your clothes dirty.

“True, but it isn’t only from the garage. It’s also the air pollution! All day long all you breathe here is soot. Try to clean the fence here, run a finger along it after you’ve cleaned it and you come away with black on your hand. Not sand, not dust – black. Not to mention that the houses move.”

Itzik Cohen. "The houses don’t move here, they travel."

The houses move?

“They don’t move, they travel. Look at those cracks. When they built the roads and overpasses here, the houses started to travel like crazy; there’s irreversible damage. Like an earthquake. We sued Netivei Ayalon [the company that operates the Ayalon Freeway] and the municipality, and we won.”

Why has it taken so long to evacuate this place?

“The city said, ‘We’ll freeze construction here until they all die or flee, the heirs will come and we’ll buy them off cheap, and that will be that.’ Unfortunately, that’s the frame of mind in our country, there’s nothing you can do about it. In any event, this place is on its last legs. There’s no way to live here, and anyone who thinks it’s good, well, it’s absolutely not!”

Two houses away from Itzik lives Miki, 34, a metalworker, carpenter and welder, who wouldn’t tell us his surname. He’s lived here for two years with a roommate. He won’t say how much rent they pay, either, but hints that it’s pennies.

“I saw the apartment on Yad 2 [a website that advertises secondhand items and housing], and I said, ‘Wow, what is this island?’ I lived 300 meters from here and never noticed this place,” he explains. “Before we moved, we came a few times in the morning to try and hear the trains and so on, and it didn’t sound all that awful.”

Miki. “There are cars all around but in the eye of the storm it’s quiet.”

The noise thing is really surprising – it’s absolutely quiet here.

“It’s true that there are all these cars around, but apparently in the eye of the storm it’s quiet. There are mornings when I wake up and forget that my bed is on Ayalon [Freeway].”

What are the disadvantages?

“It’s kind of a spooky area, there are stories about abandoned houses being taken over and drug dealing. No one has opened up to us very much about that, but we’ve figured out what goes on. Let’s just say that when we moved here there was a branch of burnt sage in every corner of the house (against the evil eye).”

And the air pollution?

“I bought an air pollution measurement device, and it turns out that according to international standards it’s not so terrible here. Itzik the electrician says the lemons he picks are black. That doesn’t happen to me – look what an amazing vegetable patch we’ve got growing here.”

Sounds like you have it good here. Do you think they’ll really evacuate the neighborhood soon?

“They’re sitting on a gold mine here, just waiting, but it will take time before the bulldozers come. Until then I plan to build a workspace in the garden.”

Avner Levy. "The municipality has strung us along since 1994."

Also working in his well-tended garden was Avner Levy, 72. “It’s shmita now [when the land is left uncultivated, every seventh year, mandated by the Torah], so I’m not maintaining the garden, but Netivei Ayalon made a mess here, so I’m trying to bring it back to the way it was.”

Avner gave me a tour, gave me some sage and lavender, and took special pride in the cypress, olive and poplar trees he’s planted.

Do you know already what’s going to happen to the trees?

“It’s forbidden to uproot any tree! Because of the climate problems, they’re not allowed to uproot. All the trees are marked. They came from the municipality and numbered them."

But then he added as an afterthought, "either they’ll be integrated into the construction that will take place here, or if there’s really no alternative they’ll be uprooted.”

When Avner was 15, he says, his parents left their rented apartment in Tel Aviv’s historic Neveh Tzedek neighborhood and bought land in Ludwipol. “Do you know how much I worked on this house with my own hands? I put in sand for the tiling, I did all the work.”

Does your house move, too?

“The house moves, what can you do? It’s coming apart from the shaking. One house moved, and the area that was created was so big that water and animals went into it. Look how everything is peeling, what can I say? We thought we had found a refuge. Well, everything passes.”

One of the houses in Ludwipol.

It sounds pretty scary. Aren’t you afraid?

“It’s all temporary. What’s most important is for you to write that the authorities must not abuse the citizens; in the final analysis, they exist for us and not us for them. That’s the most important point. For years the municipality treated us badly, like we were some sort of nuisance. They have strung us along since 1994, they didn’t give two hoots. Do you know how many times they told us that there would be a deal within two years? What kind of two years, what kind of 10 years? Total hogwash. Almost 30 years. Besides that, we need to be unified, but it’s hard, because there are landowners who don’t live here and don’t care. For them it’s just real estate.”

But I understood that everyone supported the idea and that the matter is closed, no?

“Two Jews, four opinions.”

I see. Speaking of Jews, I saw a place that serves as a synagogue. Is there a minyan here?

“There’s a guy who’s in charge of scrounging up a minyan [prayer quorum of 10 men] along the road. If he’s not successful, we pray individually. In any event, on Shabbat I go a synagogue in Yad Eliahu [a nearby neighborhood].”

Ludwipol. If you forget to take the clothes off the line for a whole day – they turn black.

What are you going to miss most?

“I won’t miss anything. I didn’t have one friend here, I don’t have any connection with the people here. By nature I don’t miss things.”

Chickens and beehives

The sun set on Ludwipol, and the headlights of the Ayalon Freeway dazzled the neighborhood and me. When I finished rubbing my eyes I saw from afar the chickens I’d spied in the morning. Following them, I discovered that they belong to a social activist named Yigal Rambam, who is 44. Yigal, who has lived here for three years, also has a cat.

“I love places like this, it’s like living under the bridge of a subway, as though unworthy of human habitation, extremely noisy. But just move away the dirt, the dust and the soot for a minute and you’ll see an astonishing corner,” he says. “Just from my sofa, I’ve observed 23 species of birds. A swarm of bees landed outside and it turned out that I have a beehive on my property. I’m not harvesting honey yet, but the hive is bringing everything to life here. I saw fireflies here for the first time; I’d never seen any before in my life. There are wonderful things under the dust.”

Yigal Rambam. "Just move away the dirt, dust and soot and you’ll see an astonishing corner."

Sounds utopian. But there’s no way that in a place like this you don’t end up having to fight the system a little.

“Obviously. I’m at war with Netivei Ayalon. Three months ago, a digger machine showed up at 6 A.M. and started to pound a cement wall 20 meters from me. By law, you’re allowed to work [in construction] from 7. You woke me up? Okay, the campaign has started. I called the police, 106 [municipal hotline], and the community relations representative and CEO of Netivei Ayalon. I went out with a megaphone and shouted, ‘Stop, man! You’re not allowed to work until 7.’ The guy is dumbfounded. He turns off the engine. The police officer I summoned arrives, speaks to him, leaves. Quiet. At 6:36 another digger enters the neighborhood. I’m standing on the road in underwear with a megaphone, and he stops by the side. At around 6:50 the foreman shows up, speaks to me with hand gestures, like the neighborhood is his own personal construction site, and says, ‘I am allowed to work before 7.’ I sit down in the digger’s bucket and say, ‘Well, there’s no work, ask the police about me.’ They call the police, and who shows up? The officer I summoned at 6:20.

“Half an hour earlier I looked like a normal citizen to him, and now I’m sitting on a digger in my underpants and I fire away at him: ‘What’s your name, what’s your rank, what’s your serial number?’ And he says, ‘I’ve come to solve the problem for you.’ A community relations representative of Netivei Ayalon arrives and with the officer gathers the workers together and gives them a briefing. They didn’t start work until 7:40. So what’s the moral of the story?”

That every neighborhood needs a Yigal Rambam.

While Yigal was telling his story, Elior Babai, 30, third-generation Ludwipolian, came into the yard. I asked him what he thinks will happen to the neighborhood. “There’s been talk of evacuation since I was born,” he says. “I remember that when I was 6 my mother said to my father, ‘Let’s renovate the kitchen,’ and my father replied that it would be a waste, because everything was about to be demolished. The same thing happened when my father himself was a kid. So somewhere else, I could believe that it’s final, but in this neighborhood nothing is ever final.”

Elior Babai, 30, a third-generation Ludwipolian. “There’s been talk of evacuation since I was born.”

In the meantime we are joined by 44-year-old Gal Elam and by Maya Schlesinger, 35, who have lived here for six years. “We are both Tel Avivans originally, and it was odd to us that we didn’t know the street, so we used Waze, and when we got here, we were surprised to discover that there’s a neighborhood here,” Maya says.

Elior: “My friends also get confused – even with Waze it’s hard to get here. Some have gone all the way to the airport.”

Gal: “Maya’s friends ended up mistakenly in Azor [a small town southeast of Tel Aviv] at least five times.”

Maya: "There were also friends who gave up along the way and went back home. Wolt [food] delivery people, too.”

Maybe the Ludwipol triangle is Wolt’s Bermuda Triangle.

Maya: “Domino’s [Pizza] doesn’t recognize us at all. We called customer service and asked them to recognize Ludwipol. It didn’t help.”

Maya Schlesinger. Has lived in the neighborhood for six years.

Elior: “Try to order a pizza from Domino’s online. You’ll get switched from the Yad Eliahu branch to Givatayim and in the end they’ll say there are no deliveries.”

Yigal: “They deliver to me. I got to the manager, I nagged them.”

Elior: “That’s fine for a guy like Yigal Rambam who wages social struggles, but what about someone like me? Just switch to Pizza Hut, it’s just as good.”

Tell me, do your houses move, too?

Elior: “The houses move, they move. Pictures, tiles, whatever. In my work as a renovator I check construction materials out on these walls, I do tests on materials to see what is durable and what isn’t.”

Gal: “The houses move, and that is definitely not suitable for everyone. You get up in the morning, you go outside and you see that a tile has moved a bit farther away from the front door. There are vibrations here from the Ayalon that you don’t feel; the house is quiet but it’s moving all the time. Think of it like this: On planet Earth you’re in motion all the time, so here you feel the rotation a little more.”

Elior: “Other than two families, no one here has kids. Call the city officials and tell them you’re from here, see how they answer you. Bureaucracy is clearly defined, and here you don’t belong to any place, you’re on the margins.”

In what other ways do you feel that?

“They do what they want with you. They expropriate a bit of the garden, put a road on top of you, whatever they want.”

Yigal: “You know what the head of the Netivei Ayalon sanitation unit said to me? ‘I thought only old people live here.’”

Elior: “I hang laundry on the roof. Let’s say I forget to take the clothes off the rope for a whole day – they turn black.”

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