Amanda Palmer, Meet Tel Aviv

Old Tel Aviv collides with the glittery new at an impromptu guerrilla concert by their indie icon.

Tel Aviv is disappearing. The "real Tel Aviv," that is. At least, that's what the city's hipsters feel as their beloved grubby apartments vanish into the city's gentrification drive.

Others might say Tel Aviv is rising phoenix-like from the crud of its dingy past. Glittering projects attract foreigners, business is thriving, the new boardwalk is gorgeous and the city's cultural life has never been richer. Its clubs are among the coolest in the world, attracting big-name DJs. It is THE city in Israel – just ask any kid where he'd like to live.

But the hipsters feel the grimy city they loved is being overrun by shiny skyscrapers with nonsensical names like YOO and Midtown and Nam; neighborhood stores are being supplanted by boutique avenues sporting boutique cafes and boutique designer stores selling boutique jewelry in commercialized spaces. Veteran Tel Avivis share dilapidated apartments whose rent is higher than ever, scuttling between jobs across ritzy boulevards of preserved Bauhaus buildings, now home to startup companies, law firms and banks.

This is the story of two cities that exist in the same 52 km2: the bohemian Tel Aviv at the center of Israel's cultural elite, whose creative young people are being driven out to cheaper neighboring cities like Holon, Givatayim and Bat-Yam; and the other Tel Aviv that is growing richer every day, the second-largest economic hub in the Middle East, where a triplex with a beach view can command $30 million.

And one evening these two cities coincided at an impromptu street singalong by indie-goddess Amanda Palmer.

The mayor who loved malls

That story starts like this: on Tuesday, October 22, incumbent mayor Ron Huldai was re-elected for a fourth term.

The bohemian element blames Huldai for the brutality of the rental market, the proliferation of luxury towers "housing" absent millionaires, the lack of parking. They accuse him of neglecting Tel Aviv's poorer southern neighborhoods, now home to tens of thousands of African asylum seekers.

Huldai, they charge, has turned Tel Aviv into a "giant shopping mall".

But Judging by Huldai's election for a fourth term, it seems Tel Avivians like giant shopping malls.

At least, it seems a majority (of the 21% of the city's residents who actually voted) like malls, and they also point out that Tel Aviv always had a parking problem and that it's much cleaner now. But as it was, on that Tuesday night, as Huldai popped corks, Amanda Palmer - ukulele in one hand and beer bottle in another - held a sudden concert on Rothschild Boulevard that inadvertently became a bohemian/ hipster Pride Parade.

Guerrilla show on Rothschild

Palmer came to sing to Israeli fans who contributed to her wildly successful 2012 Kickstarter campaign. She was booked to do a concert and also decided to do a performance at the Barbie club in Tel Aviv, and then decided to also play a freebie guerrilla show that very Tuesday at the Bar Kayma – a vegan co-operative bar in Florentin founded by activists of the 2011 social-justice protests.

As news of her appearance spread, hundreds swarmed to the tiny vegan bar, most them standing outside on the street hoping to catch a few notes.

Palmer, ever the punk-spirited improviser, saw the crowd and decided, right then and there, to move the show to the nearby Rothschild Boulevard.

Rothschild is the ritziest street in Israel. Housing there costs as much as in Manhattan, London or Berlin. And Palmer led a charge of some 200 freaks, geeks, hipsters and indie chicks right to that tree-shaded boulevard, symbol of the wealthiest of wealthy Tel Aviv.

And she found the perfect spot – a statue of a green chair on top of a short stairwell, on which she sat, ukulele in hand. What started as a gesture to fans morphed into something else, deeper, more joyous, albeit with more than a twinge of sadness; whether she meant it or not, it became a mix of guerrilla concert and an old Israeli tradition: the sing-along.

It's simple. You sit with friends and sing together, nostalgic songs about wars and kibbutzes, about friends and days long gone.

Sing-alongs were quite the custom among Israel's founders and their children (now into their 60s and 70s). This one featured a foreign punk rocker and freaks and geeks sitting there in the middle of Rothschild, singing songs that reminded them of their youth.

It felt less like an impromptu show and more like a therapeutic group songfest.

Then came Amanda Palmer. To say it was surreal would be a gross understatement. There in the cold light of some of Tel Aviv's shiniest skyscrapers, she sang about rejection and Miley Cyrus.

That night, the much more famous Rihanna performed in front of 55,000 people in Tel Aviv, in a concert so disappointing that it spurred a class-action lawsuit. Palmer, known for her intense relationship with her audience, did not disappoint. And when she sang the line "doesn't mean you're failing" from song "Ukulele Anthem"– people in the audience nodded in agreement.

Many of those people, no longer at home on Rothschild Boulevard, feel like failures. You could see that line hit home. But there was a silver lining. No matter how fancy Tel Aviv becomes, people will still make music in this city. Even if it's only played in the street, there will always be bohemian indie hipsters with their beers and rolled cigarettes, littering the shiny veneer of the shopping mall with their weirdness and their rock n' roll.

Wikimedia Commons
Yael Engelhart