What Brings Tourists to Tel Aviv's Shabby Florentin Neighborhood?

The tourists don't arrive here by chance. Neglect is a dog whistle for young people who lack standards

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A graffiti tour in Florentin.
A graffiti tour in Florentin.Credit: Moti Milrod
Shir Reuven
Shir Reuven

Before the Jewish fall holidays there’s a change in the tourists who come to Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood. In the summer they come from abroad, mainly Americans who walk on the street in big groups, drink beer and speak in shouts. That’s another way to boast about abundance – to signal to the homeless population and the girls who make their shakes: “I’m so rich in opportunities that I have a few months to burn on being an idiot in a foreign country.”

They don’t arrive here by chance. The basic tourist instinct is to figure out which areas you would hang out in, had you been born here. You try to place yourself in the body language of local strangers, in their clothes, how often they laugh during a sentence and look at their cell phone, and when you find it you stay there.

In Europe or North Africa, real estate can get down to specifics, neighborhoods for families and artists and religious people and sects. But Israel doesn’t have a wealth of urban locations to offer, and these nuances are lost in translation. Here we’ve got Tel Aviv, the only place to which you can escape. In other words, when someone in Israel grows up in a place he hates and fantasizes about getting away from there, he doesn’t dream about Nes Tziona.

They identify Florentin as a young and lively place in the city. That doesn’t happen because of the composition of the population but because it’s neglected, and neglect is a dog whistle for young people who lack standards.

A graffiti tour in Florentin.
A graffiti tour in Florentin.Credit: Moti Milrod

Once it was possible to rent a room so cheap that potential tenants would agree to soak in streets that are filthy with the sawdust of wholesale commerce during the day, and so dark at night that rapists turn around every few steps to make sure nobody is following them. Prices have gone up since then, but the neglect remains like an open tourist trap, calling on people from the outside to believe that something unusual can happen here.

One summer a few years ago someone got rid of a desk identical to the one that my parents bought for me in second grade. I decided that it would be nice to fall asleep in two different rooms and to look at the same thing, so I went to get it, a few blocks away from my house. A short and muscular American tourist saw me dragging it in the street, ran after me and offered to carry it in return for two beers. That’s one of the most despised characteristics of tourists: The assumption that they have arrived in a desert where anything is possible. They can throw garbage on the floor, speak too loudly on the street and assume that the randomness in the world is working in their favor in some mysterious way.

For instance, you can get a beer in exchange for delivering a desk, a romantic barter that seems to belong to earlier times. If the area is a tourist trap, I’m the cheese they put under the spring. I said, “I’m not from the Bible, I only look that way.” He said, “What? Haha.” I said, “Never mind, okay, two beers.” He lifted the desk over his head and walked with it to my street at a quick pace. His head turned red the closer we got to my house. After a few minutes I heard him tell friends how he got the beers, as though he were bragging about a hickey.

Now, as the days grow shorter, these groups are gradually thinning out. Every night I go out on the balcony in an attempt to catch the last American who will stay here for a night before the flight home, wearing an Israel Defense Forces undershirt, weaving and shouting at cars as he walks alone, a drunk and loud wagtail who tries to hit on waitresses on the night shift.

A tourist takes a picture of a graffiti-covered wall in the Florentin neighborhood in Tel Aviv.
A tourist takes a picture of a graffiti-covered wall in the Florentin neighborhood in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod

After they leave, the domestic tourists traditionally arrive. The parking lots are taken over by company cars and young people emerge from them, smelling too good for what the neighborhood has to offer. Unlike the Americans, they want to come to a strange place and see whether it can release a different personality in them. They try on new slang, wear new clothes and wait to see whether the new city will swallow the bait. The decent thing to do is to stand on the balcony every Friday and shout spoilers for their evening (“Nothing will happen!” “Bourekas at 2 A.M.!”).

Being a successful tourist is a talent, like knowing how to cook well or play the guitar beautifully. It requires practice and perseverance. People who come to a strange place for the first time and expect something amazing to happen to them operate on the axis between laziness and naivete, the fuel of places with a false mythology like Florentin. The bars and the restaurants are prepared for the people who come to visit, ready to give them a drag of urbanism.

For example, their walls are covered with fake graffiti wallpaper with words in English like as "salad" and "coffee," which really are popular inscriptions among local artists. Every once in a while, the theme song of the TV series “Florentin” is heard, because otherwise the customers would turn over the tables and demand their money back. Until a certain hour everyone insists on trying to enjoy themselves as if the place were an escape room and all they have to do is find the code that stands between them and everything they’ve heard about it: the right number of shots, the combination of sauces suitable for dipping industrial French fries. At about 2 A.M. they get into their parents’ cars, confused, and return home. There’s nothing to be done. Cities, like cats, aren’t nice to people who want their company.

The last to arrive are the families, who come when the weather becomes reasonable and there are no animals left to pet and no flowers left to identify. It’s hard to say what activities there are for a family here. Unloading and loading goods for all ages? The extreme sport of avoiding dripping air conditioners? A few weeks ago I saw such a group and joined it for a tour from a distance. My strategy was to look eccentric, as though I was walking behind them to collect bottles that they would throw on the sidewalk, and then to pretend they were my kids.

The guide explained that the neighborhood was built by Jews from Thessaloniki, whose community perished almost entirely in the Holocaust. It’s a workers’ neighborhood and therefore the apartments are very utilitarian: a room, a kitchen, a shower. Because it was built quickly and without forethought, the children who were born here had nothing to do and they used to go up to the roof to play soccer. From there we went to a delicatessen and I participated in a cheese and wine tasting. Then they found me out and said it was a private tour and would I please go home.

A graffiti tour in Florentin.
A graffiti tour in Florentin.Credit: Moti Milrod