Center Field: Dear Mayor Barkat – Save Emek Refaim!

If Jerusalem were Hollywood, we noble residents would be opposing evil corporate suits.

July 19, 2016 21:06
4 minute read.
Emek Refaim

Emek Refaim Street today, where it intersects with Rachel Imenu Street. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Dear Mayor Barkat,

I beg you: save Jerusalem’s charming, historic Emek Refaim Street. Forcing the light rail there will destroy the German Colony, Greek Colony, Baka and Old Katamon. It will be like running tanks through flowerbeds, sending traffic careening into narrow side streets, endangering pedestrians. Despite your good intentions it will add the urban “killer Ps”: parking problems, pollution and pedestrian peril. The danger to human life poses the greatest threat – and should be enough to end this folly. Add to that bankrupting businesses; destroying majestic trees, hundreds of years old; cars belching smoke into choked streets with tree canopies that encase pollutants. In short, ruining a Jerusalem landmark. You can prevent this: your decision will make friends – or enemies – for life.

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I love progress. I get a kick in my Zionist adrenals when I see the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway widened, train tunnels built. We need public transportation. While I wish you’d consider electric buses or people movers, I’m realistic: the anachronistic light rail won. The train will traverse Derech Hebron. This fight focuses on a small Blue Line offshoot.

We inherited Emek Refaim’s shops, trees and character; how dare we destroy them. Imagine aggressive drivers careening around the adjoining neighborhoods’ byways, most of which lack sidewalks. You risk the lives of pedestrians, kids, parents with strollers, the infirm, the elderly.

Many drivers crisscrossing our area can’t use public transport; they’re parents dropping kids off – often with multiple stops – at the area’s many ganim and schools. I already bear the scars of an unfortunate encounter with a rushing mother in an SUV who cut me off when I was bicycling, crossing one historic corner – with a blind spot.

To locals, “simtat Jimmy” captures the plan’s absurdity.

Jimmy’s Alley is a tiny footpath named after a dog who cavorted there. Considering running traffic along that walkway suggests this plan emerged from looking at maps, not walking the streets.

If Jerusalem were Hollywood, we noble residents would be opposing evil corporate suits. Your office arranged for me to meet the transportation master planners. They are smart, caring idealists trying to reduce traffic and improve Jerusalem. But given my intimate familiarity with this part of the plan, I am respectfully telling them and you: this extension is too costly; it’s idiotic and dangerous.

The planners admitted they skipped the logical route – the old train tracks (Train Track Park) in Baka. It offers younger trees, more space, no businesses to bankrupt, less traffic diverted and fewer residents disturbed. But residents vetoed it. I respect Baka’s concerns. You should respect Emek Refaimers’ rights too.

The experts challenge residents, demanding an alternative within weeks. That’s like sending a new driver to race in the Grand Prix. How can a citizen compete with your billion-shekel operation? The citizen’s task is to explain why this won’t work and the harm it will cause.

We can suggest alternatives, including bypassing the whole area via Derech Hebron or tunneling under Emek Refaim as you propose doing near Mea She’arim. But it’s your job, using your experts, to solve this mess.

If you wanted to run an orderly, planned city, run Disneyland – or Modi’in. As mayor of Old-New Jerusalem you have been ably balancing what is and what can be.

You must adjust your plan to respect history, reality.

Transportation systems imposed on existing cities always improvise, preserving urban ecosystems wherever possible.

This isn’t NIMBY – Not In My Backyard. This is DDSS – Don’t Do Stupid Stuff. The Hippocratic Oath applies to leaders too: first, do no harm. MK Erel Margalit, a visionary developer and entrepreneur who, like you, is a Jerusalem patriot passionate about modernizing our city, warns against ruining the “urban tapestry of the German Colony, Baka and their surroundings.” He urges “an alternative route and solution” enabling the shopkeepers “to keep open, working, making a living and serving so many Jerusalemites and tourists from around the world.”

He demands: “let us enjoy the beauty of the city and not block it.”

Every Israeli should defend Emek Refaim, this Jerusalem jewel. Jerusalem is a national and international treasure.

Preserving Jerusalem entails more than maintaining its walls. The city needs its quirky neighborhoods, its urban villages.

This struggle also tests Israeli democracy. Is this system, lacking city councilors tied to particular districts or Knesset members tied to regions, responsive to local concerns? If not, that must change too.

I hear the rumblings that only spoiled Anglos are complaining. While olim have rights too, the opponents actually are a “meorav Yerushalmi,” a Jerusalemite mix of immigrants and sabras, of neighbors and shopkeepers facing ruin.

We see the same dangers and are equally furious.

We speak for the trees, hundreds of years old, that this plan will eviscerate. We speak for the birds, who serenade the neighborhood, who will be banished. We speak for every Israeli and every tourist who loves this little corner’s cafes, shops and charms, and whom we invite to join our protest. We speak for parents from all over who send their kids to our neighborhood’s schools.

We speak for history; please don’t destroy cherished neighborhoods growing since 1873. We speak for our communities – unique urban spaces – intimate yet grand, lively and flourishing. And, we speak for the pedestrians, who shouldn’t be menaced by cars navigating ridiculous detours on streets designed for donkeys that cannot absorb more diverted traffic.

We speak for them all: save Emek Refaim, save us! The author, a professor of history at McGill University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. An oleh since 2010, his next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.

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