Exorcising the Curse of Wadi Salib

Renovating the abandoned Haifa neighborhood will be a steep challenge for developers

As social-justice protesters wake up from their long winter hibernation, it’s worth remembering Israel’s very first social protest, which erupted in Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood in 1959. Back then it wasn’t called a social protest, and it certainly wasn’t embraced by the establishment, but Wadi Salib became a symbol of the fight against ethnic oppression − another term that hadn’t yet been coined.

The Haifa neighborhood had more than 28,000 inhabitants in those days, not all Sephardic Jews, but nearly all living in poverty. The spark that set off the disturbances was the shooting of a local drunk by police on July 8. The uprising quickly engulfed the entire area.

In response, the neighborhood’s residents were permanently dispersed throughout the city. The houses were sealed to prevent trespassing and have stood abandoned ever since. Local legend has it that the “curse of Wadi Salib” is keeping the quarter isolated from the dynamic urban landscape that surrounds it.
Many plans have been drawn up over the years to revitalize Wadi Salib, such as turning it into an artists colony or an enclave for young adults, or even a museum center. But none got off the ground and the area has remained desolate − a black hole in the city’s core.

The future Wadi Salib, below and upper left, as planned by Greenstein Har-Gil.
Greenstein Har-Gil Landscaping and Environmental Planning

But Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav wouldn’t give up. “Haifa has enjoyed a development boom over the past few years, and tenders in the wadi area have generated much interest,” he says. “We intend to build hotels, student dorms and housing for young people in the area, along with three projects already under way.”
The projects include a huge park in the heart of the neighborhood; a large arts center, dubbed the Pyramid, housed in an old school and slated to include studio space, workshops and galleries; and a puppet museum in one of the wadi’s most prominent buildings, Beit Hakshatot ‏(House of Arches‏). Why puppets? The city hosts an annual puppet festival that pulls in large crowds, says Yahav. “The city has a large community of puppet makers, and I thought the structure would be suitable for a museum dedicated to this. We consider it an attraction that could strengthen the neighborhood and contribute to tourism in the city.”

Yahav points out that Wadi Salib lies between the Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood and the lower city. “The lower city is slowly turning into a huge university campus, and seeing how young people are moving to Hadar, the two neighborhoods need a link,” he says.

The link is largely dependent on the landscape design, which has been entrusted to Greenstein Har-Gil Landscaping and Environmental Planning. The landscape architecture firm previously proved itself by transforming the city’s German Colony, which had also been blighted by neglect.

“The master plan for the project, designed decades ago, essentially split the area into separate compounds with open spaces and stepped walkways between them, except for the actual wadi itself, which was planned as a park − all in an attempt to preserve the neighborhood’s historical layout,” explains Daphna Greenstein, a partner in the firm.

Her office is now considering various alternative park plans, centered on connecting the open space with art. “We thought about designing a park conducive to exhibiting urban sculptures combined with an amphitheater for summer performances,” Greenstein says. “In any case, we’re preserving the historical stairways weaving their way through the wadi and connecting it with the adjoining parts of Haifa.”

The park is planned to serve a dual purpose − attracting private developers by impressing them with the municipality’s willingness to invest in the area, and, of course, transforming the wadi from a hodgepodge of derelict structures into a lively area that city residents can use. Greenstein says the park will have a promenade skirting the neighborhood with a view of the harbor. A city square will provide a place to hold flea markets without disturbing neighborhood residents.
“Our biggest dilemma is whether to treat the wadi like a nature reserve within the city or as part of the urban fabric,” says Greenstein. “Either way, this is a fascinating project from a planning perspective that will connect Hadar to the awakening lower city, and from there to Shikmona National Park at Haifa’s southern approach. I hope it draws people to the area. When we designed Hecht Park [north of Carmel Beach], we didn’t think anyone would come, but we discovered people crave parks in Haifa, too.”

A little Neveh Tzedek

Greenstein Har-Gil Landscaping and Environmental Planning

To improve the rehabilitation plan’s odds of success, the city is promoting various programs for the wadi. Considering Haifa’s real estate boom in recent years, however, the project could have been better prepared. A new master plan would have been preferable to using the one drafted 20 years ago, and the first developers in the area could have been offered substantial benefits to encourage them to pave the way for further investment.

Still, harbingers of renewal can already be seen. The first residents have moved in, despite having to deal with a web of municipal bureaucracy and broken-down infrastructure. Udi Femini is the owner of Femini Initiating and Investments, which won a tender by the Amidar public housing company for land in the neighborhood. He is among those who will need to provide solutions to the problems.

“In the tour preceding the tender, I already saw we have a little Neveh Tzedek here,” he says, referring to the once-derelict, now gentrified Tel Aviv neighborhood. “Thanks to my Jerusalem background, the stone houses caught my attention, even though they’re in terrible shape. Of course, the prices are also attractive, especially compared with those in places like Nahlaot in Jerusalem, Old Jaffa and Neveh Tzedek itself.”

Haifa municipal sources say Femini paid NIS 10 million for 11 plots. For him, this was an opportunity to buy on the cheap and participate in developing a neighborhood destined to join the list of Israel’s most desirable. At this stage he’s considering the development options in the master plan − art galleries, hotels, coffeehouses and, of course, homes. His target group isn’t necessarily Haifa residents.

“I think the first arrivals will actually be people from the center who can appreciate places like this,” says Femini. “I hope other developers get involved here. I don’t see it as competition but as a process that will help everyone.”

The future Pyramid art center, as planned by the Tav Group.

Turning Femini’s vision into reality is the job of architect Gaby Schwartz from Schwartz Besnosoff Architects and Town Planners. “The project is a big challenge for us,” he admits. “The secret of success lies with the right mix of uses and appropriate environmental planning. There are questions like how to plan annexes while conserving the existing buildings, and how to handle building density while maintaining the area’s visual aesthetics and functionality.”
Topography is one of the neighborhood’s most complex aspects, as it is situated on a steep slope with huge elevation differences. “The area can accommodate different types of people, uses, colors,” says Schwartz. “Its special topography requires a complex means of allowing easy movement between the buildings.”
Schwartz is sensitive to the risk of making the quarter seem frozen in time. In architectural circles this is called “preservationism.”

“We respect the past, but over-preservation can be problematic,” explains Schwartz. “[Dutch architect] Rem Koolhaas discussed the ‘mounting and stuffing’ of architecture at the last Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010. He maintained that strict preservation isn’t preordained. After all, spaces that don’t work won’t be helped by being immaculately preserved. Places need to work, attracting an audience and people who will want to live there.”