Before Bauhaus: 'White City, Black City' Remembers Tel Aviv-Jaffa's Forgotten History

Sharon Rotbard's newly translated book is an unsentimental take-down of the White City narrative that shatters Tel Aviv's founding myth.

Jesse Fox
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An African refugee looks at a Tel Aviv Bauhaus building.
An African refugee looks at a Tel Aviv Bauhaus building.Credit: Alex Levac
Jesse Fox

“White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa,” by Sharon Rotbard, translated by Orit Gat, Pluto Press/MIT Press, 256 pages, $24.95

Every city has its founding myth. Rome was built by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, according to legend. New York’s Manhattan Island was supposedly bought from an American Indian tribe for a string of worthless beads.

Tel Aviv’s founding myth goes something like this: After the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, a clique of talented Jewish European architects from the Bauhaus art school fled to Palestine. There, with few resources, they transformed the nascent Hebrew city on the sand dunes north of the biblical city of Jaffa into a “White City” containing one of the world’s most impressive collections of Bauhaus architecture.

Nowadays, that story is known to locals and tourists alike, and contemporary Tel Aviv has become so closely identified with the Bauhaus style that the two are virtually synonymous.

Yet that story is largely a fairy tale, and one of fairly recent origin, asserts Sharon Rotbard in his book “White City, Black City,” which was recently translated into English. Not long ago, the buildings lining the streets of Tel Aviv elicited little fanfare from glossy travel magazines, let alone global cultural institutions. In order for the city, and its architecture, to become the international brand-name they are today, Tel Aviv would first have to rediscover, perhaps even reinvent, its history.

“White City, Black City” opens at the moment when that transformation began. It was in the summer of 1984, according to Rotbard, during an exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Entitled “White City,” the quasi-retrospective was the first attempt ever, Rotbard writes, “to construct a history – the history – of Israeli architecture.”

The exhibition’s curator, Michael Levin, traced that history back to Tel Aviv in the 1930s, when thousands of residential buildings were constructed using the clean lines and simple functionalism of the International Style, which had been imported from Europe. The exhibition, according to Rotbard, was the “aha moment” when Tel Aviv’s buildings were first endowed with the magic of myth and nostalgia.

The show sparked an unprecedented interest in the city’s architectural heritage. The local media and cultural vanguard took notice, columnists began to write admiring profiles of buildings, and architects began giving tours and lectures extolling the White City. Two decades later, UNESCO would officially recognize the collections of buildings as a World Heritage Site, citing it as “an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century.”

What some view as a wildly successful rebranding effort, Rotbard – an architect, writer and lecturer, and a prominent voice in Tel Aviv’s planning discourse – regards as a selective and disingenuous whitewashing of history. The stories told by Levin and others were based on a “dreamy, idyllic reimagining” of the past, he writes – useful as a founding myth, perhaps, but only loosely based on historical fact.

‘Certainly not white’

The first part of “White City, Black City” attempts to debunk the myths that were established during the decade or so after Levin’s exhibition, starting with the assertion that Tel Aviv’s buildings were truly white. The city’s real color, writes Rotbard, was always “gray – pale at best, a dirty, dull monochrome at worst, but certainly not white.”

Rotbard also rejects the conventional wisdom that the city emerged “from the dunes” – that it was built upon a tabula rasa, as many early paintings and photographs would seem to portray it. In fact, the neighborhood of Ahuzat Bayit, which would eventually grow to become Tel Aviv, was founded in 1909 as a small, European-style suburb (Rotbard describes it as a “Mediterranean shtetl”) of Jaffa, then the economic and cultural capital of Palestine. The new city in no way emerged from a blank slate; it was born on the edges of a dense and diverse urban environment.

Rotbard also faults the White City’s myth-makers for the sin of omission. “The geography of a city will always tend to conserve the stories to be remembered and erase the stories to be forgotten,” he writes. While the notion of the White City has largely come to be identified with Tel Aviv as a whole, it leaves out those parts of the city that don’t fit neatly into its narrative – namely, the more disadvantaged areas of south Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Rotbard refers to these areas as the “Black City.”

The Black City includes “everything hidden by the long, dark shadow of the White City, everything Tel Aviv does not see and everything it does not want to see.” It is the White City’s mirror image, its “absolute Other.” The second part of Rotbard’s book attempts to unearth that “Other’s” forgotten history.

Many of the Black City’s neighborhoods (Florentine, Shapira, Neve Sha’anan, Hatikva) were built in parallel to the White City, in the 1920s and ‘30s. Others (Neveh Tzedek, Kerem Hateimanim) actually predated the founding of Ahuzat Bayit. Yet they were airbrushed out of the official White City narrative. Why? Rotbard blames the fact that they were mostly built and inhabited by poor, non-European Jews – as distinct from the White City’s Ashkenazi population.

Rotbard takes the reader on a guided tour of the Black City, exposing how the municipal establishment systematically neglected and destroyed much of its built environment, starting with large swaths of Arab Jaffa during and after the 1948 War of Independence.

In fact, in 1949 a decision was made to demolish the entire Old City of Jaffa. Having been emptied of its original Arab population in 1948, the area quickly filled up with recently arrived Jewish immigrants, and the authorities viewed it as an unhygienic and overcrowded slum. The decision was only partially implemented, however. In the 1960s, after its last inhabitants were moved out to newly built public housing projects, the Old City’s surviving streets and buildings were converted into an artists’ colony and a tourist attraction.

Manshiyya, a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood along the seafront, was less fortunate. Manshiyya’s urban fabric survived the 1948 war still somewhat intact, only to be almost completely erased from the landscape in the decades that followed. A handful of its buildings escaped the bulldozers, including the Hassan Bek Mosque, which still functions today. Another surviving building was transformed into a museum for the Etzel, the Jewish paramilitary organization that conquered Manshiyya in the war. In the 1970s, Sir Charles Clore Park was built on the site, along with the Textile Center, a complex of modernist high-rises.

Other areas of the Black City, such as Neve Sha’anan, were targeted for “development” and “renewal” schemes. Before the 1960s, that neighborhood had a placid, semi-agricultural character, with pleasant streets laid out in the form of a menorah. Then, against the advice of unnamed urban planners – who, according to Rotbard, argued that what Tel Aviv really needed was an underground metro, like the one being built in Cairo at the time – city hall allowed private developers to advance plans for a massive bus terminal in the neighborhood. Completed decades later, in the 1990s, the New Central Bus Station is now loathed and widely credited for turning the once-charming Neve Sha’anan into a rough-edged slum and, for many, a place to be avoided.

A permanent border

“White City, Black City” is an attempt to take a more honest, critical look at the creation of urban space in Israel. When the book was first published in Hebrew, in 2005, it was greeted as something of a revelation by many in the local architectural scene. While other authors, such as Eyal Weizman and Walid Khalidi, had explored similar topics before, Rotbard was one of the first to attempt to deconstruct Tel Aviv’s urban environment.

At the time, UNESCO’s recognition of the White City was still fresh, and the city government was pushing hard for a historical preservation plan that would grant protection to its Bauhaus buildings. The plan was unprecedented and controversial, especially among property owners, who questioned its legitimacy and feared its financial implications.

In that context, the book’s unsentimental take-down of the White City narrative resonated widely. A decade later, however, with the acrimonious public debate over historical building preservation largely forgotten, parts of the book have lost their immediacy and feel somewhat dated.

Of course, much has happened in Tel Aviv since Rotbard’s book was first published. Gentrification has gobbled up most of the city center and is now aggressively colonizing parts of Jaffa as well. Tens of thousands of African refugees have arrived in the city, making their home in the shadow of the New Central Bus Station. Housing prices have risen dramatically, sparking the social-justice protests of the summer of 2011 – Israel’s version of “Occupy” – which centered on Rothschild Boulevard, the very heart of the White City. However, aside from a brief afterword appended to the English edition, the text of “White City, Black City” has not been updated to reflect these events.

Meanwhile, city hall is promoting a new master plan for Tel Aviv, which mostly ignores questions of distributive justice. That plan, now approaching the final stages of the approval process, contains perhaps the ultimate physical expression of the spatial separation that Rotbard describes: a continuous row of high-rise towers to be built along the seam between central Tel Aviv and south Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Effectively, the plan would create a 40-story wall of glass and concrete as a permanent border between the White and Black Cities.

Rotbard’s narrative contains fascinating insights and anecdotes sprinkled throughout. However, it rambles at times, veering between historical storytelling and architectural polemic, which may make it challenging for non-Israeli readers to follow the author as he journeys through unfamiliar cultural and geographic terrain.

Despite this, the book’s central insight, the dichotomy of “White” and “Black” cities still holds, perhaps more so now than ever. (An earlier essay by Rotbard, “Ayalon City,” which predicted the rise of a corporate high-rise district on the banks of what used to be the Ayalon River – now a highway – also reads as eerily prescient today.) Central Tel Aviv still receives a disproportionate share of municipal investment, while the south still hosts more than its share of crime, pollution and other forms of urban blight.

Rotbard, ultimately, is neither impartial observer nor objective researcher. His writing is impassioned and emotive. He makes no secret of the fact that he is deeply invested in the subjects he writes about, particularly the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, where he lives. “Whoever wants to change a city must first change its story,” he writes. And that is precisely what “White City, Black City” sets out to do.

Jesse Fox is an urban planner and writer. He lives in Jaffa.

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