Making Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station Child-friendly

Against all odds, a preschool for the foreign community has opened its doors inside the station.

The entire fourth floor of Tel Aviv’s central bus station shakes every time a bus rumbles along one of the platforms above. In a corner stands a clinic specializing in venereal diseases. Across from the clinic, in one of the “lost spaces” of the cavernous station, an experiment in community restoration has begun: a preschool and daycare center for the children of foreign workers and refugees who live in the area.

“We’re interested in turning the ‘lost spaces’ trapped in the central bus station into spaces that serve the residents of south Tel Aviv. We’re identifying these spaces and adapting the programs the community needs to the spaces’ particular configurations,” says architect Yoav Meiri, the designer of the new preschool and daycare center that recently opened.

Preschool  and daycare cent for children in Tel Aviv central bus station.
Yoav Meiri

“We believe in a slow, informed and thorough process to discover the added value of the central bus station building as part of the social space of the city,” Meiri adds with irrepressible optimism, the kind that allows someone to work instead of sinking into paralyzing inactivity.

With cosmic irony or perhaps poetic justice, the central bus station, which brought destruction to an entire urban neighborhood and its urban and human fabrics, is atoning albeit very partially for the wrong it inflicted by providing a home for a humanitarian endeavor, the UNITAF Preschool, Daycare Center and After-school Center Project, founded by the Yehuda Tribitch Memorial Fund for Social Involvement. The effort provides both an immediate solution for preschool children without making the families wait for government decisions, and uncompromising architecture and design that give the lost space a human dimension, a momentary respite, and a humanizing touch. “The greatest and most complex challenge we faced was how to create reasonable conditions under impossible circumstances,” says Ofra Paz, director of the UNITAF Project. Below the school is the commercial bazaar whose photogenic, romantic and multicultural charm does not make up for the station’s original sin.

Model of artificial  outdoor playground slated for Tel Aviv central bus station.

Meiri sees the proximity of the preschool to the clinic, public transportation and bazaar shops downstairs as “a continuation or even an enhancement of the mixed usage motif that characterizes the neighborhood.” More than simple optimism is necessary to be able to view things this way. The preschool inside the door is the light at the end of the tunnel literally. It is orderly and well-appointed, as well as aesthetically pleasing by any standard. Constraints such as the elongated space and leaky ceiling have been turned into advantages. The rooms are spacious and airy. One of the decisive factors in choosing this lost space was the expansiveness of the windows, originally part of the bus station building itself, letting in copious amounts of natural light. Even the bus ramps viewed through these windows look like a legitimate urban landscape.

The UNITAF Project, which opened its doors in 2005, operates preschools, daycare centers and afternoon programs throughout south Tel Aviv. It serves some 3,000 children, three years old and under, from the community of migrant workers and refugees. In addition to the central bus station location, the project operates preschools in Hatikva and Shapira neighborhoods as well as near the Carmel Market. The central bus station houses two preschools for some 100 children: a long-established infant daycare center slated to be redesigned and refurbished, and the new preschool for children up to age four.

Other project partners are the Tel Aviv Municipality, which leases the spaces for the schools, the municipality’s Mesila aid center for the foreign community, the Tel Aviv Foundation and the Central Bus Station Management Co. Equipment is provided by private donations (which can be made through unitaf@gmail.com). The schools and daycare centers are run by preschool teachers and aides who themselves belong to the foreign community and who previously ran pirate babysitting services, often in surroundings bordering at times on the life-threatening. UNITAF’s contract with the teachers stipulates that they must maintain satisfactory childcare standards, says Paz. The plan and design of the new space are welcoming and supportive. Because the children are there from 7 A.M. until 6:30 P.M., the teachers get extra help from National Service volunteers and others who volunteer there regularly. Some are teaching professionals while others “come with lots of goodwill and the love that the kids need so much,” says Paz.

Nonetheless, she admits that the picture is far from rosy. Some of the children and their parents live under the threat of deportation, and live with a constant sense of impermanence and fear, dead-end violence and conflict.

UNITAF’s next goal is to erect an indoor playground inside the central bus station an artificial “outdoors” as a stand-in for the real outdoors that is unavailable in the neighborhood, especially for the very young.

The site that has been chosen is a wide spot with tall ceilings that “will be a place for play, creativity, wandering about, and letting off steam for the children at the preschools,” says Meiri, who is also designing the playground for UNITAF. This project is in a sense a mirror image of his previous social/architectural project the open public library in nearby Levinsky Park.

The designated spot is still a black hole; at a glance, it doesn’t seem ever to have had or be capable of having any sort of human purpose or justification. But judging by the plans and 3D imaging, it will be a brilliantly colorful playground with jungle gyms, a sandbox, wading pools, climbing structures and slides, swimming pools and artificial, neon-green grass all underneath a ceiling painted in blue “to create the illusion of freedom,” as Meiri puts it.

In light of the recent and ongoing outbreaks of violence directed at the community of migrant workers and refugees in Tel Aviv and at various aid organizations, along with the lack of any official government solutions, a bottomless well of optimism is indeed needed to maintain this vision.