Why the white city of Tel Aviv is a World Heritage site
The expansion of Tel Aviv in the 1930s offered a blank canvas for a wave of young Jewish architects fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany.
Hello Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city and its most densely populated but with a notable tolerance that sees people of all cultures and religions live side by side. With its Mediterranean setting and youthful population, it has a reputation as the most expensive city in the Middle East but also its most entertaining.
I walk the streets of Tel Aviv’s beginnings, the ancient city of Jaffa, with a sense of deja vu. This is most certainly because just about all the historic centers of the world’s old cities are out to draw in tourists, and Jaffa is no exception. Its streets overflow with history. Archeologists say people lived here as far back as 7500BCE. It was one of the world’s most important ports and, says the Bible, the place from which the prophet Jonah set sail before being swallowed by a big fish.
Shops are packed together, their stock spilling onto the sidewalks. Most of it looks old, because this is what sells: anything that has resisted the passage of time. I see candelabras, lightbulbs, statues, radios, unpainted picture frames, watches, curved knifes and straight swords, even carpets in the process of being woven… objects that all fight for attention within that cosmic order that each antique store maintains. Set up in old garages, these shops occupy a few blocks surrounded by boutiques, artists’ studios and galleries inside centuries-old houses that give way to the city’s beautiful cobblestone lanes. Here the neighborhood narrows and becomes cleaner, more touristy in feel, rich. Between the history-hawkers and this more modern side is the old flea market, now reduced to a small esplanade of merchandise displayed on the ground. I can’t help but think that the art galleries and neat cafés have stolen some of the magic from ancient Jaffa.
I ask an Arab merchant what has changed about the area. I expect to enter into a complicated discussion but his answer sums it up succinctly. “Before, the neighborhood was filled with delinquents,” he says. “It was dangerous. Now it’s better for business.” Nobody wants to even touch politics. The philosophy on the street seems to be, live as best you can given the circumstances. As in many places in the world, the people who have lived here the longest, the poorest neighbors, have been the victim of various rounds of gentrification aimed at reshaping the neighborhood.
It’s Jaffa’s energy that fulfills me
Ilana Goor is Israel’s most internationally well-known living artist and one of the most fervent defenders of “artistic Jaffa”. We meet at her home, now a museum dedicated to her work, sitting on a hill in Old Jaffa with great views of the Mediterranean. “This is the place where I made my best works of art,” she says. “In 1995 I bought this house, and though I never thought it would be made into a museum, these days the people come to see it and it’s more popular than me. This place is special because it’s a living museum, it’s my home, and I’m constantly changing and repositioning things.”
She scans the view from her terrace out over Tel Aviv towards where the sun sparkles on the sea. “It’s Jaffa’s energy, its light, that fulfills me. It’s great that young artists have space here, not only to sell but to work and create. I lived for 50 years in New York, I have a house there, but my work is here. It’s magical.”
Tel Aviv is a city at once modern and old, a city under construction, destroying its past even as it struggles to preserve its Bauhaus buildings as if they were a part of the city’s trademark. It seems like a contradiction, but that is exactly what Tel Aviv is: a contradiction. It is a city in which different social classes live side by side in multicultural neighborhoods, where inhabitants come from every corner of the world, where ramshackle houses crumbling in the humidity rub shoulders with imposing skyscrapers that form the horizon of the new Tel Aviv, a city which can only build upwards if it is to accommodate new arrivals.
In 1909, the first wave of European Jews poured in, forcing the city of Jaffa to create a new neighborhood outside the old walls called Ahuzat Bayit, and later, Tel Aviv. Those arrivals, 66 families to be exact, exposed to black marketeers and bandits beyond the city’s protective walls, founded the city we know today. Jaffa is now but a small, picturesque neighborhood in Tel Aviv’s south, with a population 74 per cent Jewish and 20 per cent Arab.
Storefronts are original and fun
“Jaffa has become a bit bourgeois. It’s great for tourists, but now the Florentin neighborhood is on the rise,” says Asaf, a young journalist who runs the website for the newspaper Hareetz. The small size of the city lets you change neighborhoods, and atmospheres, without even realizing it. I head south on foot. The reason Florentin is seeing a rise in good bars and interesting galleries that add to its artistic vibe is predictable: it is cheaper. It is now on the radar of artists and other young creatives looking for new opportunities, yet another Soho in the world of modern cities. Old warehouses are being turned into hair salons, outdoor restaurants or workshops for handmade furniture. As I go deeper into the neighborhood, everything around me changes like a revolving stage set. The outdoor bars are filled with customers on laptops and smartphones, while the storefronts are original and fun.
Tel Aviv is perhaps the most expensive city in the Middle East and its young people made it the epicenter of a social protest movement against the high cost of living. One legacy of that are the street kiosks that sell cheap coffee by day and alcohol by night for drinkers to consume openly in the street, adding literally to the city’s buzz. “Of course Tel Aviv is expensive, but like me, thousands of young Israelis wouldn’t live anywhere else.” Asaf says.
I can understand. High prices aside, this city has it all: good weather, endless beaches, youthfulness, energy and great food. I can feel the optimism in the air. The city sees almost three million tourists a year and expects to raise that number to five million very soon. Tourism in Israel falls into three categories: religious, vacationing and gay. Religious tourism is centered basically on Jerusalem; who could ever compete with it? The beach resorts of the Red Sea welcome thousands of divers and sun worshippers. For gay tourists, though, (see mini-feature) Tel Aviv is the place to go to find a paradise of freedom and acceptance.
Asaf Zamir, the youthful deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, is brimming with ideas and a desire to further improve the city that he says has: “Free wifi, only 5 per cent unemployment, the youngest citizenry in the world (one in three inhabitants is between 18 and 35 years old), 400,000 inhabitants and 1,758 liquor licenses.” As a tourist and journalist, I find having access to wifi everywhere is simply wonderful. It does not cover the entire city but certainly the most visited spots and it works well.
The city can survive without tourism
“You know what’s so great about Tel Aviv and tourism? The city can function and survive without it,” he says. “Economically speaking, we are active in other areas. Of course what tourism brings in is important and welcome, but the essence of the city, its creativity and dynamics won’t ever be lost.” An aide signals that his time is running short and Asaf Zamir rushes off. A similar frenetic pace is seen in the construction industry which monopolized by big hotels, while the service and tour industries is also booming in expectation of a spike in visitor numbers. Such growth inevitably brings change to the city, and a good example is entrepreneur Igal Zeevi. “I had a bar on King George Street,” he says. “It was going really well but the rent made it impossible to make ends meet. When the building owner told me he was putting in apartments and would raise the rent I knew it was over. Now I run tours and things are going great.”
He tells me this as we drink tea in a beauty parlor owned by his brother, just in front of the spot that used to be his bar. The place now stands empty, awaiting a new business ready to pay Euro 4,000 a month. Near us, a handsome young man dressed entirely in black pecks compulsively on his iPhone as he awaits a trim for his heavily waxed hair. Next to him a group of very young mothers laugh together while outside the terrace bars are filled with people who could be models taking a break from the catwalk. King George Street has become the place to see and be seen, as well as a destination for exclusive shopping. All around me the continual flow of people suggest that the economy must be clipping along pretty well.
Like any other big city, Tel Aviv is a place for young people to be themselves, throwing off the restraints of home. I meet Rubi, son of Orthodox Jews settled in Jerusalem, brother to ten siblings and part-owner of an Irish pub with kosher food and water pipe. He seems very young to be involved in a bar but his energy and drive have a reason: “I am eight years old,” he says. “When I was 16, I left home. I had to give up everything: my family, who I haven’t seen since, my community, everything. I started from scratch. That’s why I put my age at eight. Because I only started to live when I left home. I didn’t know anything about the world, about women, about people. I had to learn everything. I even spent a year living on the street.” I realize just what this open and liberal city must mean for so many like him.
It is also a refuge for women
On Tel Aviv’s famous beaches, I see this tolerance in action. The walled Nordau Beach is set aside for the religious community with separate days for each sex: Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday for women; Monday, Wednesday and Friday for men. On Saturdays, the Sabbath, it is mixed bathing and as packed as every other patch of sand along the coast. Right next to it is Hilton Beach, home of the gay community where men with gleaming torsos strut in tight Speedos or sunbath in even less. While used to a lesser extent by the female gay community, it is also a refuge for women who want to escape any sexual harassment on other beaches.
The northern part of Hilton is a place for the city’s dogs to run in the surf and do their business in the sand. Stretching a total of 12km, there seems to be a beach for everyone, albeit a crowded one on any of the many sunny days. Not that lack of space stops anyone enjoying a game of matkot, or beach paddleball, whose tap-tap rattle is part of the soundtrack of a walk along the promenade. Food is to be found everywhere and watermelon with feta cheese is among the most popular, not to say unusual, snacks.
Rubi’s energy propels me onwards toward the liveliest section of the city: Carmel Market. On the way a strong and strident blast of dance music catches me by surprise. It is coming from huge speakers mounted on a white Ford panel van that is parked in the middle of an intersection. Two men, very young and clearly Orthodox with their beards and curling sidelocks, dance like crazy on top of and around it, calling on everyone to join them. I ask them what is going on, as this certainly does not match my idea of Orthodox Judaism.
We have to live carefree
“We’re followers of Rabbi Nachman,” one says. “He tells us that we have to live carefree. Dancing and singing is one way of achieving that, so that’s what we’re doing.” I suppose every religion has to adapt in order not to lose followers and I later find that these followers of Nachman – a mystic who lived two centuries ago in what is now Ukraine – organize religious “mini-raves” anywhere, anytime, sparking off impromptu street parties as they go. While some people hate the traffic disruption they bring, and many Orthodox Jews find their behavior an embarrassment to a faith that others find male-centric and xenophobic at best, there is no denying the Na Nachs add a unique flavor to Tel Aviv’s streets.
At Carmel Market I wander freely through the crowds moving up and down the narrow street that hosts the shops and stalls. You can find anything here: clothes, kitchenware, home accessories, tools and, more than anything else, food. Fresh juices, Turkish delicacies, fruit, vegetables, meat or fish are displayed in as colorful an array of colors and smells as the people who live here. I sit for a while in the Hummus HaCarmel restaurant to try what I am told is the best hummus in town, not to mention some of the cheapest. Its stained glass entranceway and walls lined with Jewish religious texts make up a décor the owner says came to him in a dream. The whole is a veritable temple to the creamy snack that Israel and Lebanon both claim as their own.
Sitting and watching the buzz of the humusiot and the market outside, I can feel the energy of this Mediterranean city. With unbridled construction and tourism on the rise, Tel Aviv has room for sunny optimism despite a few dark clouds on the horizon. Waves of immigrants looking for work, especially from Eritrea and Sudan, are beginning to destabilize wages. At the same time, the Orthodox population continues to grow at a growing cost to the government due to their lack of economic productivity. But for now the inhabitants of Tel Aviv enjoy the day-to-day, knowing that change is something the city seems to take in its stride.
The expansion of Tel Aviv in the 1930s offered a blank canvas for a wave of young Jewish architects fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany.
The former artistic center of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, is losing its position quickly to Florentin, a neighborhood where bohemians and artists are coloring the streets cool.
Like any other big city, Tel Aviv is a place for young people to be themselves, throwing off the restraints of home.
Artist Ilana Goor: “This place is special because it’s a living museum, it’s my home, and I’m constantly changing and repositioning things.”
When the chance to visit Tel Aviv came up, I did not hesitate for a moment. Firstly, I had never been and it fascinates me to get to know our small world better. But the main reason was to fight against my own prejudices.