With Jerusalem, It's Love-hate

A sobering conversation on the capital with its most famous architectural expert, David Kroyanker.

On Saturday I sat in Barood. Barood, a few of good friends and my three children (in reverse order of importance, of course) - these are the things that I miss about Jerusalem. There's no place in Israel like Barood bar, cafe and restaurant - beautiful and decorated with countless charming touches added over the years, but not overbearing with food. It's located in a lovely courtyard the likes of which you usually only find in Italy and, most important there is a clientele of varied ages, comprising the best of the secular preserve in Jerusalem and former Jerusalemites who, when they come for a visit, like me, always go to see what's new in the place that used to be their second home.

One can hardly exaggerate when describing the wonders of Jerusalem's summer climate, and considering the fact that I'd spent Friday and Saturday morning in the German Colony and Talbieh neighborhoods, and that on Saturday afternoon I'd taken my children to Barood and completely by chance met some of my best Jerusalem friends there it's understandable why for a few moments, the thought began to flicker at the edge of my brain, like an object vaguely detected by one's peripheral vision, that maybe I could really move back to Jerusalem, on condition that I remain forever with my children in Barood or in one of the aforementioned neighborhoods.

This thought only evaporated when I began heading toward the Egged bus station in Jerusalem. The way there passes along Jaffa Street, which between one visit of mine and another, seems to have grown increasingly wretched. This wretchedness reached a crescendo as I approached its northern side, the very ugly hotels at the entrance to the city and the central bus station.

Once, when I'd just arrived in Jerusalem, the bus station was in another location on Jaffa Street, but Jerusalemites to whom I turned for directions would often use the phrase, "where the old Egged was," or other similar phrases, like "opposite the old Knesset." Eventually, from reading the columns and books of journalist Amnon Dankner, I came to understand that all of these mysterious addresses had one thing in common: All, it seemed, were located exactly opposite the place where either Dankner's childhood home stood, or the cafeteria owned by his parents was. I would have been left in my ignorance about those places if not for the books of architect David Kroyanker.

For 30-odd years now, Kroyanker, 65 and a native Jerusalemite, has been documenting the architectural history, and incidentally the history of the Jewish populace in Jerusalem, according to the city's neighborhoods. I started reading his most recent book (the sixth in a series) "Jaffa Street, Jerusalem: The Biography of a Street The Story of a City," on Saturday night, right after I returned home from Jerusalem. This is an exceedingly attractive book. The numerous photographs, both old and new, are beautiful; the paper is of high quality; the design is praiseworthy and the text is wonderful (and there's even an extensive quote from an article I once wrote on the Ma'ayan Stub store. The book does tell the story of a city, of how its lost glory came to be supplanted by dreariness and of its dim hopes for the future.

Severe degenerationFrom this book I learned that it is not for nothing that I so greatly enjoy sitting in the Feingold Courtyard downtown, where Barood is located. Alongside the severe degeneration afflicting Jerusalem's main streets and commercial center, this courtyard is representative of the process of renewal that began in the city in the 1980s with the opening of Pini Levy's Pini Bahatzer restaurant, which has since moved to Tel Aviv, and later with other establishments such as Eldad Vezehu, Sakura, Adom and, of course, Barood.

Barood is blossoming, but "the last eucalyptus tree in Zion Square was cut down in 2003,? says Kroyanker's book.

"Three years ago, when I started on the story of Jaffa Street, people said to me have you lost your mind? Don't you have anything better to do? This filthy and decrepit street is going to be your topic of interest? I think that I thought it was appropriate to decipher the history of this street throughout its various periods and to see what the factors were behind the glorious times and the low points in its history," says Kroyanker.

He began his research and documentation work in the 1970s when he worked in the municipal urban planning unit headed by Meron Benvenisti. They waged battles then over issues of environmental preservation versus redevelopment, with the most important being the preservation of Mamilla and Rehavia. Kroyanker concluded that there was a need for a series of booklets on the subject "so people would know the architectural and historical value of the streets and the buildings." In wake of the big success of these booklets, in the 1980s, Kroyanker approached the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (then still in its infancy) and agreed with its directors Ora Ahimeir, historian Yehoshua Prawer and geographer David Amiran on the details of the institute's first project: a series of six books on architecture in Jerusalem to be published by Keter at two-year intervals. Today, he says, "that's exactly what happened and in 12 years we published six books and this is the last in the series." During this time he also published many other books on the subject of architecture in Jerusalem, "like the book I like most, which is the one on the Arab neighborhoods Talbieh and Katamon.?

Kroyanker says he has an ongoing love-hate relationship with the city in which he grew up (in Rehavia). "Like many of the leftist Ashkenazim of my socioeconomic class, I debated for a long time over whether the time had come to leave this city. Almost all my friends have homes in Tel Aviv and my daughters don't live in Jerusalem, either. But I have moments of love for the Jerusalem in which I was born and this city is the source of my interest as a researcher. And while in recent years I may love it less than I did in the past, the main thing is that it's so ingrained in me I know every tree and every building here.?

Does Jaffa Street have a future?Kroyanker: "Maybe, it's possible, but I'm doubtful. In the book there's a long chapter about the street's present condition and this chapter reflects an extremely grave situation and I don't know if it's possible to rescue it. Of course, there are renovation and improvement plans that I'm not sure will be implemented. For example, it could be that the light-rail system, which in other cities like Strasburg, sparked a resurgence of the downtown area, will really save Jerusalem's downtown, but I don't know if this will happen.

"The book surveys different periods in the history of Jaffa Street, which is the main thoroughfare in the city, and the central conclusion is that the 'down' periods were much longer than the 'ups.' The main 'up' period was during the British Mandate, when there was a time of prosperity thanks to the fact that the Allies' subjects resided in Jerusalem, and educated Jews from Central Europe came here, too, and sought a European lifestyle. So they built the Cafe Vienna and the Cafe Europa and these were places where Brits and Jews and Arabs sat together, and everyone danced together to the sounds of the orchestra. The Jerusalem of those days was a cosmopolitan place. But then there were 'down' periods like the one we have been experiencing lately. I don't believe that anywhere in the advanced Western world, which we presume to be a part of, there is a main street that compares to Jaffa Street in terms of urban degeneration and neglect. But I believe that in certain circumstances it still has a chance of salvation.?

Which circumstances?"I talked about the light rail and about investment in infrastructure, but the most important change has to be a change in the city's economic and security situation. There is no street in the country that has been struck by terror as much as Jaffa Street has. There are still Jerusalemites who are afraid to go there because they're afraid to get blown up. And the population in Jerusalem is poor. The main problem in the city isn't the mayor or the planners, but demography. The increase in the ultra-Orthodox population is very problematic and there's a chance that in another 15 years, Jerusalem will be Bnei Brak. I definitely see some very disheartening trends. Jerusalem of 1967 was a city of 300-something thousand residents. Today the number of people is double and there are malls and shopping centers that have sapped the low purchasing power of the very poor population in Jerusalem and weakened the downtown. The cinemas also fled the downtown area and for many Jerusalemites, the malls are the last refuge for shopping and entertainment. On the other hand, I also see the budding signs of renewal such as on Shlomzion Hamalka Street and Koresh Street and in the Feingold Courtyard and it's possible that with the renovation that the streets and buildings will undergo, with the light-rail project, commercial life in the city will resume and attractive shops will replace the 24 'everything for a dollar' or 'everything for NIS 2' stores that are there now.?

Would you recommend that secular people move to Jerusalem?"Not as of now. Secular people wouldn't have anything to do in this city. The city is neglected and decaying. We have relatives in Ra'anana and I'm always envious of them for the way the sidewalks there look and for the clean streets they have.?

And if they insist? Where, for example, would you suggest that I live in Jerusalem?"Why are you asking me? You know very well where you'd want to live. All of you leftist Ashkenazim, myself included, would want to live in the same places. You want to live in the German Colony. You want to live in Hovevei Zion. You want to live on Bnai Brith Street. You'd also be willing to live on Oliphant Street.

"These are the most beautiful streets, but what makes them beautiful is the patina of time. Maybe in another 100 or 200 years, with the patina of time, the Ramot neighborhood will also look beautiful, though I'm dubious about that. Jerusalem's problem is the present and the future.?