The main Tel Aviv border isn’t with Jaffa or somewhere north of the river, it’s just a short walk from Rothschild Boulevard and the businesspeople, families and tourists who stroll the leafy footpath.
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It’s the border with the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood. Here there’s little trace of renovation projects, trendy shops and crowded cafes. Instead, the streets are dark, dirty and lined with crumbling buildings.
In many places, ragged curtains serve as doors. Women scantily dressed and tired-looking patrol the neighborhood, looking for their next client. They scatter when the occasional police cruiser drives past.
The boundary between neglect and care, between observance of the law and a conspiracy of silence, doesn’t run through here by chance. Hadas Zur, a doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University whose geography MA thesis explored the history of the city’s street prostitution, argues that the authorities intentionally push the problem to the margins.
But this wasn’t always the case. In her thesis, Zur identifies four discrete periods of Tel Aviv street prostitution.
From 1975 to 1983, prostitution was highly visible and became “a symbol of the rot and decline of the city,” she writes. Between 1983 and 1989, the women were pushed onto the city’s northern beaches, mainly Tel Baruch.
Up to 1995, the police encouraged the migration of prostitution from the streets into the private sphere; that is, Tel Aviv apartment buildings. It was then that the area around the old Central Bus Station in Neveh Sha’anan became the city’s red-light district. Zur stops at 1995 because no significant changes have occurred since, she says.
But the city’s efforts to attract wealthy residents to Neveh Sha’anan will change things for sure. As part of the planned gentrification, the small Gan Hahashmal park near Neveh Sha’anan was renovated over a decade ago. The area has become a nexus of cafes, newly restored buildings and boutiques featuring clothes by young designers.
The change is now reaching the area of the old Central Bus Station. A notorious drug and prostitution den, 1 Finn Street, was knocked down last summer to make way for a shiny new co-op building. Thirty-story office buildings and an entertainment district are also planned.
Later on, the crumbling remains of the old bus station are due to replaced with office and apartment buildings – basically what New York did to Times Square.
Tel Aviv wasn’t always trendy. In the 1960s the city deteriorated and prostitutes even filled the main streets. In 1978, when asked to explain why residents were leaving the city, Mayor Shlomo Lahat said: “Quality of life includes not only smog but also violence, crime and prostitution.”
Zur maps the prostitution district using police logs of arrests for related offenses. She says in the ‘70s Tel Aviv had between 400 and 600 street prostitutes and some 70 women who entertained in apartments or hotels. There were also around 50 massage parlors.
Hayarkon Street, which runs parallel to the sea, was the liveliest prostitution district, with 683 arrests between 1975 and 1979. Arlosoroff Street, which intersects Hayarkon, had 426 arrests, while Ben Yehuda Street and Nordau Boulevard had 270 and 161, respectively.
Kikar Hamedina, which today is more like Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive, had 145 arrests for prostitution-related offenses in this five-year period, and Yirmiyahu Street, today one of Tel Aviv’s most expensive arteries, had 123.
The hundreds of arrests for prostitution in the heart of the city didn’t drive the women from the streets, since the police would arrest them on suspicion of soliciting and detain them only briefly. In the next phase, the suspected offenses were changed to loitering with criminal intent, Zur notes.
The police found it difficult to prove that prostitution itself was criminal, and switched to defining the practice as a public nuisance. “That moved the conversation from one of morality to public order,” Zur says.
In 1979 the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court acceded to a police request and issued a restraining order prohibiting prostitution in a few streets, on the grounds of public order. Zur argues that the order deprived the prostitutes of their right to free movement based on their occupation, not specific criminal offenses.
At the time, the police and courts didn’t view the sex workers’ clients as partners to the offense, even though they were labeled “a group of perverts that contaminate the urban space,” Zur says.
In the ‘80s, Tel Aviv began enjoying new popularity. An urban renewal program was drawn up, led by the architect Adam Mazor, that included the clearing of so-called Prostitute Square, as the intersection of Allenby, Hayarkon and Ben Yehuda streets was termed. The sex workers were relocated to Tel Baruch, creating Prostitute City.
Hoteliers joined the police and city planners in the effort to drive the prostitutes out of the city center. Hoteliers stopped renting out rooms to sex workers, Zur says, and the police began distinguishing between visible street prostitution, which they tried to stop, and prostitution behind closed doors, which they continued to ignore.
At Tel Baruch, sex work became more dangerous because of the sheer remoteness. The first prostitutes to work there were around 30 transgender women. By the mid-‘80s, about 350 prostitutes worked in the area every night.
The building boom that took over the area reduced the space available to the sex workers, and by 2012, when the police launched a clampdown, all the prostitutes were gone from Tel Baruch. Still, the phenomenon continues near the neighboring Mandarin Hotel.
Years of neglect
Prostitution took place in Neveh Sha’anan as far back as the ‘70s, but it gained momentum when the New Central Bus Station was opened and the old station was abandoned in the early ‘90s. “The old Central Bus Station was an area receptive to the prostitution that had been removed from the city center,” Zur says.
She says that while the authorities initiated the move to Tel Baruch, the shift to Neveh Sha’anan wasn’t intentional. It happened in part because the police and city government decided to ignore it. The prostitutes joined the down-and-outers already in the neighborhood.
Ofer Shahak, an entrepreneur who lives in a penthouse in a new building on Eiger Street, say’s there’s no clear demarcation between the area where the prostitutes work and the rest of the neighborhood. “The main division is between west and east, which are separated by Har Tzion Boulevard,” he says.
Shahak notes that, amid the gentrification, apartment prices in Neveh Sha’anan have already reached 27,000 shekels to 30,000 shekels ($7,100 to $7,900) per square meter. As could be expected, the further you get from the red-light district, the higher the prices.
Neveh Sha’anan has basically become an extension of the trendy Florentin neighborhood and Gan Hahashmal. The construction is gradual, because most of the projects are small — single apartment buildings that dot the neighborhood.
Architect Danny Kaiser is a former Tel Aviv chief engineer and today heads the planning team for the old Central Bus Station area on behalf of the city (which will be carried out by Shikun & Binui and Meshulam Levinstein Contracting and Engineering). Kaiser seems a bit flustered when asked whether the planning took the sex workers into consideration.
“Our planning seeks to create a safe urban environment that’s inviting to residential and other uses, not the kind of activity that’s there at the moment, which isn’t exactly desirable,” Kaiser says. He believes that “the dozens of druggies will vacate when the area is developed.”
Where will they go and what will the sex workers do amid the building boom? It’s not clear, but no one thinks they’ll simply disappear. Tel Aviv council member Haim Goren, who represents south Tel Aviv, which includes Neveh Sha’anan, hopes the city can curb prostitution.
“Alongside the property development, the municipality is active in welfare initiatives including places such as Sla’it that aid women in the cycle of sex work,” Goren says. “We have an opportunity to decrease the phenomenon and not to simply move it from place to place.”