Tel Aviv – A City of Sleepwalkers

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A man walking at a construction site.
A man walking at a construction site. Credit: Eran Wolkowski

A man in Tel Aviv walks along the sidewalk connecting Ibn Gvirol to Dizengoff, on one side excavations, on the other trash cans, construction refuse and a Wolt moped. The width of the sidewalk is four meters total, with two meters net walking space. Ahead a young mother pushes a broad stroller (twins?) and behind, on top and all around him, bicycles and scooters fly by at 30 kmh.

What does he think of, as he squeezes into the two-meter strip? What goes through his mind as a scooter clips him? As he’s jostled into a lamp post? Why, he asks himself, didn’t they get rid of what they could from the sidewalk? Why haven’t they paved a separate bike lane? Why is there no signage for the frequent detours that baffle Waze? And what, he asks himself, were they thinking when they put pedestrians, cyclists, recycling containers, benches and signposts all into these two meters, expecting them to manage?

What is the answer to these questions? The answer is that nobody gives a damn about him, he’s disrespected, his quality of life means nothing. “Thank you for your patience,” the planners and contractors snigger. It’s not too bad, said the head of the excavation project, it’ll be a little crowded, a little noisy, and a bit of pollution never killed anyone around here.

The man or woman walking along Arlosoroff have no exceptional demands except a safe and sensible passage. These they do not get and their conclusion is overwhelming: Laws meant to improve their quality of life aren’t worth wiping your ass with. (Yes, I said that. Let’s see you walk along Arlosoroff and not think the same thing.)

And then one remembers the Kanovich law, which prohibits noise, bad odors and environmental pollution. Since then 50 years have gone by and Kanovich has been joined by similar laws that have been likewise tossed into the trash, becoming environmental nuisances in their own right. Nobody took them seriously. The Kanovich Law was ridiculed just like the municipal bylaw prohibiting the entry of camels into Herzliya.

The Kanovich Law was meant to make life in the city reasonable. You can have a reasonable life even in the city. A city is not a tranquil place, but there’s a difference between urban hubbub and the clamor of hell’s bells. Walking down Arlosoroff, you know what hell sounds like. You’re forced to choose: Do you want quiet today or a subway tomorrow? Ugly tenements today or a housing shortage tomorrow? (Nobody has tried to do both.)

The choice of the Zionist ethos is clear: It prefers action and construction over improved living conditions. This is seen as a bourgeois whim, an elitist indulgence, an affront to the holy ethos build, build, build. You want quiet? You don’t want them working on the railway at night? Don’t want them flying over residential areas? Don’t want them building towers? Don’t want gridlock? Go to New Zealand. Herd sheep over there.

New Zealand is built for quiet. Israel is not. The Kanovich Law views noise as an environmental blight, and we live with it in perfect harmony. We shout and wave our hands around. Instead of avoiding noise we try to be louder. We live happily right next to the Ibn Gvirol excavations, even though the noise from a bulldozer backing up, a jackhammer and the city’s street-sweeping machines is equivalent to that of a volley of stun grenades.

It bothers you? Get used to it. When they place a TAMA 38 sign on the building next to where you live, meaning they will be earthquake-proofing it and adding stories, just resign yourselves to three years of noise, pollution and stress. Complaints over construction noises will have you tagged as “nudniks.” Complaints over harsh music in the wee hours will brand you as “boomers,” and complaints about bicycles that run you over will get you written off as boring pests best avoided.

Nobody wants to be a nudnik or a pest. That’s why we have donned the famous “don’t know, don’t hear” armor. A Tel Avivian knows nothing and hears nothing of the municipal mechanism that controls his or her life. Local media that used to inform him are dead, and with no local media there’s no public eye keeping watch. Tel Avivians know nothing about their representatives at city hall, what they do there and why.

You can drill right into their skulls, and they’ll say nothing. Build towers that block off the sea, and they’ll shrug helplessly. Like the Jerusalemites did when they stuck a useless bridge in their face. They know where every shekel of their tenants’ committee dues goes, but have no idea, nor do they care, what is done with the millions in property taxes.

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