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The Tel Aviv Municipality has denied claims that sweeping renovations made to the city's Independence Park were intended to clear out homosexuals who have used the park as a "cruising" spot for decades.
The municipality told The Jerusalem Post by e-mail Monday that while Independence Park had been renovated to serve all segments of the populace, in recent weeks, "we have witnessed actions carried out in the park that we suspect to be illegal. Because of this, enforcement authorities have been deployed to handle these actions, in order to allow the entire public to continue to enjoy Independence Park."
The message added that the city "has no intention of harassing or removing the gay community from the park," rather, it was seeking to preserve the park like all city parks.
Mike Hamel, chairman of the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association - also known as "the Aguda" - told the Post on Tuesday that he didn't believe the renovation project was part of some grand scheme to clear homosexuals out of the park.
"I think it's a bit paranoid to think the city would invest all this money in order to run off cruising gays," Hamel said. "We are important, but we aren't that important."
Hamel added, however, that he did not accept the city's practice of deploying clerks from the municipality to patrol the park at night. Hamel said he had received a number of complaints about city employees inspecting bushes and shining flashlights on visitors at night, asking them to present IDs.
The newly renovated area of the park was unveiled in July, as part of celebrations held by the Tel Aviv municipality to mark the city's 100th anniversary. The renovations spanned two years and cost around NIS 12 million, which was attained largely through donations from developer and Tel Aviv native Nachum Kalka.
Independence Park was designed and built by landscaper Avraham Karavan shortly after the founding of the state and was opened to the public in 1952. At the time, it was the largest park in the city. In the years since, and some say even before, the area became popular with the homosexual community, serving as a legendary meeting place and anchor - especially in Israel's earlier, more conservative days, when the homosexual community was confined to the closet for the most part, even in Tel Aviv.
The park was so popular as a gay meeting place that it was mentioned in the Gay and Lesbian section of travel guides for the area, including the "cruising/parks" section of the Aguda's "Gay Map" listing for Tel Aviv. The park was also used for events including "Wigstock," a yearly drag party held to raise money and awareness for the fight against AIDS.
Many in Israel's gay community say the importance of such a meeting place has tapered off somewhat with the advent of the Internet as a social tool, and with the fact that gays in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in the country feel more comfortable coming out of the closet.
The park sits atop a cliff on Tel Aviv's northern reaches, sandwiched between the Hilton and Crown Plaza hotels and affording sweeping views of the Mediterranean. It is almost directly on top of the city's religious beach and the adjacent gay beach.
On Monday afternoon, the park was nearly empty as the city experienced an unseasonably warm and sunny late-November day. Across the southern and northern halfs of the park, there were expanses of dirt that appeared to have been freshly laid, and along the footpaths stood several piles of brush. Dozens of newly-planted saplings stood in areas that had once been thick bushes.
Nonetheless, in several bush-groupings and clearings in the park, especially in the southern reaches, dozens of used condoms and condom wrappers could be seen underfoot, as could bottles of liquor and business cards for gay saunas.
Abigail, a young mother at the park with her toddler, said that while she still wouldn't come to the park at night, the improvements were very noticeable.
"I think today [the park] is very different, very safe, not like it was. I much prefer the way the park looks now," she said.