Renewal for Some, Ruin for Others

Projects meant to inject new life into the most downtrodden parts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv may have the opposite effect. Local artists and architects are mobilizing before it's too late

The writing was on the wall regarding the urban renewal projects on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem and the old central bus station in Tel Aviv. Urban renewal has become just another word for gentrification, higher prices, uprooting working-class residents and small businesses, widening the gap between rich and poor - all in exchange for improving the quality of life and the public landscape of the affluent.

No one has yet come up with the formula for renewal that will benefit all those who have rights to the city, while balancing improvement with fairness. But this needs to be the top priority for all those involved today in renewal, whether from a government or municipal standpoint, or from a practical or theoretical standpoint.

Tel Aviv's old central bus station
Rami Tsalka

"The Jaffa Road Botox Party" was the name (unforgiveable, indeed ) of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design's end-of-semester event organized by students enrolled in an interdisciplinary course that focuses on redesigning showcase windows. Held last week, it included a tour of the shops that participated in the project, an exhibit at the Yaffo 23 Gallery that provides documentation of the work done, and a study of preservation efforts on the street that includes interviews with merchants.

Jaffa Road has been scrubbed clean in recent days in the run-up to the launching of the light rail system, and the city of Jerusalem is making every effort to rid it of its pathetic and unjustified image - one created perhaps intentionally. For their part, local merchants are trying to come to terms with this new reality that has stirred both expectation and apprehension.

After all the tremendous efforts spent on building infrastructures in recent years, they find it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The clang of the bell as the light rail moves back and forth on test runs, for many of them, elicits ridicule. Sigal, who owns a local gift shop bearing her name, adds a dash of irony to the mood when she half-jokingly suggests setting up benches on the sidewalk so that the shopkeepers can sit and watch her royal highness "the princess" - the train, that is (which has forced less glamorous means of transportation in the city onto side streets, turning them into an urban hell ).

The Bezalel course was sponsored by the New Spirit organization, whose mission is to encourage students to remain in Jerusalem, and by Eden, the Jerusalem Center Development Company, and the Jerusalem Development Authority. All these institutions have close ties with the municipality, the very mention of whose name incites rage in the streets. The student experiment is an attempt "to bring the Ivory Tower closer to reality and vice versa," says artist and designer Neti Shamiya-Ofer, the lecturer at Bezalel who taught the course. The shopkeepers are unfamiliar with the world of design, she notes, so it would not be wise to impose a standard design on them. "Our process is to suggest different strategies, rather than a standard design, and mark the boundaries of utopia again and again."

The project has great pedagogical value. It provides the students with practical work experience, out in the field, working with clients. The results are also impressive. But the real issue is not about redesigning window displays of old shops, but rather, whether these shops can survive urban renewal, and whether shops like Intellect, an independent book store, or Sigal's Gift Store, where students invested considerable time and creative and energy, will not be forced out ultimately in order to make way for the large chains and designer stores that typically enjoy the fruits of renewal. The sad thing is that in the current state of affairs, the students, despite all their good intentions, have become more part of the gentrification process than part of the solution.

Good intentions, creativity, radical alternative thinking, and major doses of enthusiasm are also the forces behind "Open After Renovations," a cultural event to be held this Saturday, March 6, at the site of the old central bus station in south Tel Aviv. The neighborhood, Neve Sha'anan, is the poorest in the city, the home of migrant workers and foreign refugees designated for expulsion (the documentary film on the neighborhood's Bialik-Rogozin School won an Academy Award this week ). It is a center of crime, drugs and prostitution, but also an area with considerable potential, a population more eclectic than generally thought, and the next target of urban renewal in Tel Aviv, now that most of the other southern neighborhoods have been "discovered" and have hopped on the bandwagon.

The happening is a collaboration of the Milky Way artists group and the Menshar College of Art, which plans to make its home on the site. This will involve constructing a new building and renovating the historic 1940s bus station to suit its needs. Among the organizers of the event are artist Michal Rivlin and architect Roy Fabian, along with an extremely long list of artists, photographers, architects, and social community. They've banded together, they say, in order to "participate in the change the station is undergoing and create our vision of what the site should be used." The event was inspired by Lobbying for Art, a happening organized last year by Rivlin and Fabian as part of the White Night activities on Hagedud Haivri Street - also a hub of prostitution - and based on "Cross Culture Station," a project they recently submitted to the city as an alternative to the city's current plan to develop the area.

The city's plan is to turn the abandoned, paved site into an ordinary garden with grassy mounds and all the rest. Rivlin and Fabian, who love the tough urbanism of the area and its heterogeneous population, believe that it deserves a different focus, one more suitable to the location and its users that doesn't go against its grain. Their proposal is based on recognizing the area's unique characteristics and the variety of people who live there not under any sort of predetermined hierarchy, who believe "that a person is not measured according to whether he is a bank manager or a drug addict."

Their proposal includes turning paved areas into a venue for cultural encounters, including artist studios, a clinic, a photo gallery, a barter shop, a community garden, a catering center, and community activities "from the inside and not something that lands here from the outside." The municipality embraced the idea enthusiastically, but it is now stuck in the wheels of bureaucracy.

The happening on Saturday will be a simulation of the proposal and an invitation to the public to experience what should be there, in the hope of promoting their vision. "The central bus station has known glamorous days," Rivlin and Fabian note, recalling the Mizrahi music, the hundreds of buses that once traveled from there all over Israel and even to Cairo, the thousands of people that passed through each morning (and the unforgettable words musician Kobi Oz wrote about it ). Since the new bus station has opened, the area has evolve into a backyard for poor workers, but at the same time, an attraction to artists who have discovered a gold mine of urban acoustics and low rents - exactly as it happens in the textbooks on gentrification.

Artists are always first, and everyone else follows. The event will no doubt go down in urban history as a further stage in the process. Rivlin and Fabian admit that their project cannot combat gentrification and its effects, "but it can encourage the parties involved to understand that a proper urban environment includes poor people and marginal groups, too. Our question is whether it is possible to join the place without sacrificing its original inhabitants." The event, they say, expresses their desire "to do it differently in lost places like the old bus station. Running away from huge questions is a kind of impotence. The question is what we can do with our artistic power instead of whining. The small garden we planted has been here for two days and no one has touched it. For us, this is an achievement."

Who knows? Perhaps one small garden can save the world.