Unearthing the Palestinian Neighborhood Buried Beneath a Tel Aviv Park

Before building Charles Clore Park on its ruins, landscape architect Hillel Omer filmed a neighborhood on the cusp of destruction. Some 50 years on, his grandchild, Mai Omer, revisits Manshiya for a new exhibition

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destruction in the captured Manshiah quarter in Jaffa, Palestine, May 8, 1948. The sector was taken from the Arabs by Irgun Jewish forces after fierce fighting
Destruction in the captured Manshiyah quarter in Jaffa in May 1948.Credit: AP Photo/Malmed
Nurit Chinn
Nurit Chinn
Nurit Chinn
Nurit Chinn

Tel Aviv’s Charles Clore Park looks like it was designed for promotional photos, with its picturesque palm trees, evergreen Astroturf and panoramic view of the sea. The beachside expanse has become synonymous with the city’s annual Pride Parade, with over 100,000 people congregating to party there annually.

Yet underneath the park lies the rubble of Manshiya (aka al-Manshiyya), a historic Palestinian neighborhood that was captured in 1948, then turned over to working-class Jewish migrants and eventually demolished in the late 1960s. Its ruins were thrown into the sea and Charles Clore Park was built atop the debris. Only one original structure remains: the Hassan Bek mosque, built in 1914 and now encircled by high-rise hotels.

Ironically, a man instrumental in Manshiya’s destruction also made an effort to preserve its memory. Israeli poet and landscape architect Hillel Omer (known under his pen name, Ayin Hillel) designed the park in 1963 and filmed the neighborhood before its demolition. He documented its stone arches and alleyways, its markets and its children – smiling, waving and climbing on seaside rocks.

A half-century later, Hillel’s grandchild, the multimedia artist Mai Omer (who uses 'they' pronouns), discovered their grandfather’s footage, and with it, a world lovingly captured before its ruin.

Omer interrogates this dissonance in a new exhibition, “Alayam” (“To the Sea” in Hebrew and “The Days” in Arabic). It is curated by Eran Eizenhamer at Tel Aviv’s Liebling Haus, an arts hub dedicated to architecture, conservation and urban renewal. The installation splices together Hillel's footage of Manshiya with Omer's own footage of Charles Clore Park 50 years later, inviting viewers to reckon with personal and collective histories of destruction.

Looking inland from Charles Clore Park, south Tel Aviv.Credit: Chen Kaduri

As Omer puts it, “This is something that’s part of living in a conflicted reality. Everything is personal.” For Omer, the question then becomes “How do you relate to it? How does it change you? And how do you choose to act in the world?”

A bridge and a border

The neighborhood was established at the end of the 19th century, on the northern tip of Jaffa and the southern tip of what would later become Tel Aviv. Yet the moniker “Manshiya” more accurately represents an “abstraction of multiple neighborhoods with different names and different histories,” according to Prof. Daniel Monterescu, an urban anthropologist and Jaffa specialist conducting research on “Lost Cities” sponsored by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

A bustling and diverse enclave that mostly housed Muslim Palestinians but also a small Mizrahi population, Manshiya constituted a kind of bridge between Tel Aviv and Jaffa – what Monterescu calls a “creative hyphen.”

Yet during the 1948 war, this bridge became a militarized border. After the 1947 UN Partition Plan apportioned Jaffa to a would-be Arab state, Manshiya became the frontier between “Palestinian Jaffa” and “Jewish Tel Aviv,” Monterescu recounts. The neighborhood was one of the first targets of the Jewish pre-state underground militia, commonly known as the Irgun.

A still from the footage shot by landscape architect Hillel Omer in the old Arab neighborhood of Manshiya, between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Credit: Mai Omer
Children playing in the streets of Tel Aviv's Manshiya neighborhood in the early 1960s. Credit: Mai Omer

In April 1948, the Irgun captured Manshiya, forcing Palestinian families to escape to Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan, with some being transferred to Jaffa. “People felt they were leaving and could come back. But they would never be allowed to come back,” Monterescu says. “For Palestinians, it’s extremely painful to go through Manshiya because it was the ultimate site of urban erasure – erasure of the community, but also erasure of space.”

After Palestinians were forced to flee their homes, a vast array of working class, migrant Jews settled in Manshiya, including Monterescu’s father. These “very lively” communities were largely Romanian and Bulgarian, with pockets of Iraqi and Moroccan Jews. To city planners, however, Manshiya “symbolized the northern frontier of Jaffa: a dangerous place,” he says. It was the “alter ego” of Tel Aviv: a “derelict, dirty and transgressive” neighborhood in contrast to the modern, secular project of the White City.

Municipality officials purposefully neglected the area, allowing it to fall into disrepair so they could eventually demolish it and transform it into a commercial center. As the architectural scholar Or Aleksandrowicz argues, then-Tel Aviv Mayor Israel Rokach and City Engineer Yaacov Ben-Sira co-opted the narrative of wartime destruction to promote massive urban transformation. “Manshiya suffered much greater damages from the postwar actions of planners than war actions of poorly equipped paramilitary fighters,” Aleksandrowicz writes in his article “The camouflage of war: Planned destruction in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, 1948.”

In the mid-1960s, city officials razed Manshiya as part of a “megalomaniac plan to modernize Jaffa,” Monterescu says. Its working-class inhabitants tried to resist, but to no avail. “The municipality or the planning discourse in general found it very easy to just disregard them and delete them from the historical register,” says Monterescu, whose father was one of the many evicted from the area at that time. “And this is a tragedy.”

Charles Clore Park beach, Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

‘A magical, naïve place’

Before Manshiya was destroyed, Hillel Omer filmed it in detail, capturing the bustling yet transient working-class Jewish community about to be evicted, and the homes of Palestinian refugees who could never return.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Hillel’s footage is the sensitivity and wonder with which he captures a place on the cusp of destruction.

Though it is possible that filming Manshiya was part of his design process, the footage feels more artistic than pragmatic. According to his grandchild Omer, “he created a very magical, naïve place.”

Omer traces this naivete to two artistic traditions: the orientalist photography of the 19th century and the diaries of colonial “explorers.” In these perspectives, Omer recognizes a gap between an “ethos” of creation and a “reality” of destruction. “Was he aware of this gap?” the artist wonders. “Because to me it’s very obvious.”

Houses on the coast of Tel Aviv's Manshiya neighborhood in the 1960s.Credit: Mai Omer
Fisherman angling at Charles Clore Park, with Tel Aviv in the distance. Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO

Replacing Manshiya with artificial lawns and manicured landscaping fit neatly into the Zionist ethos of “drying the sea” and “making the desert bloom.” As Omer puts it, “In Israel, we feel that the landscape is so poetic. It is designed to tell a story.”

In “Alayam,” Omer splices Hillel's tapes with present-day footage of Charles Clore Park and its environs. Shots of Manshiya’s bustling streets and stone buildings give way to shots of desolate footpaths and glossy office buildings.

“A lot of people perceive Jaffa as an antique, old-timey place and Tel Aviv as a modern place – and that’s intentional, that’s not a coincidence,” Omer says. “There’s an ideology which comes with that separation of the past as antique and primitive, and what is modern as progressive.”

Omer's footage confronts this ideology, contrasting Hillel's orientalist view of Manshiya with muted shots of modern, barren Tel Aviv: a few people paddleboard in a vast sea; a fountain erupts in an empty park. We see the space differently: now in terms of what was destroyed.

“In many, many ways, municipalities and planning authorities are much better at destroying than building,” Monterescu says. Tel Aviv failed to transform Manshiya into the “city center” it envisioned in the ’60s. The municipality didn’t have the resources to realize such a project, and private investors weren’t “enthusiastic about investing in a place that was associated with delinquents and slums.”

Save for the park, little was built in Manshiya’s place. Charles Clore Park’s 29-acre expanse pales in comparison to the 112 acres that were razed. “The reality is that it’s a no-man’s-land,” Monterescu says.

Children in Tel Aviv's Manshiya neighborhood in the early 1960s. Credit: Mai Omer

A site of longing

Omer’s project reckons with their grandfather's legacy. The artist invites their audience to revisit the history of Manshiya in light of ongoing urban renewal and destruction in the name of creation. Instead of treating the archival footage as something sealed off or untouchable, Omer turns it into “something that you can converse with and challenge and continue the conversation, expand it, resist it: deal with it, process it.”

Omer will never know whether their grandfather was conscious of the gap between his “ethos” of creation and the “reality” of destruction. Instead, Omer argues that his consciousness must live on in them, as history lives on in each of us. “This is why it’s interesting to dig into this gap and understand that this is where I come from,” Omer says. “You need to dig in and understand where you position yourself within that gap: How do you heal it? How do you process it yourself, and how do you grow from it?”

These questions prove particularly potent in light of new plans to transform Manshiya once more. Last summer, Tel Aviv approved a project by the Israeli architecture firm Derman Verbakel – called the “Manshiya Master Plan” – to “rebuild the bridge” between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, according to the architects.

A sign in Tel Aviv's Manshiya neighborhood in the early 1960s, pointing the way to galleries and other attractions. Credit: Mai Omer
A view looking south from the Manshiya neighborhood, toward the clock tower at Jaffa.Credit: Mai Omer

The plan mirrors the aspirations of those Tel Aviv officials in the ’60s who sought to revitalize the city’s south. Yet only recently have poor neighborhoods in this area – including Jaffa, Shapira and Hativka – become “sites of longing” for Israelis, Monterescu says. Now, people go there “to gentrify: to live in authenticity.”

For Palestinians, however, Manshiya has been a site of longing since its destruction. The rare times refugees are allowed to enter Israel, they return “to Manshiya to deal with the ghosts of the place,” Monterescu says. “Many of them look for what was once there. It’s a search that is reminiscent of what the Jews do when they go to European cities. They look for where they lived. They look for traces of a world that is no more.”

“Alayam” is on display at Liebling Haus, Tel Aviv, until February 1, 2022.

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