With a mixed, predominantly poor and transient
population, yet with a growing yuppie presence, and its location out on
the edge of the first Hebrew City, Florentin in south Tel Aviv is a
neighborhood literally and symbolically on the margins, an area of
contradictions and convergences.
is an industrial zone and a garment district, where Jewish and Arab
wholesalers buy and sell clothing and artisans build bespoke furniture;
in the Levinsky market, tiny shops sell Turkish, Greek and Romanian
specialties, kosher meat, non-kosher cheeses, spices and dried fruits;
foreign workers from Asia and Africa congregate every morning on Rehov
Chelnov, hoping to be picked up for a day's construction work; at
lunchtime, locals mix with Hasidic workmen and Arab shop girls in Rehov
Frenkel's Glatt kosher Shawarma restaurant; on Rehov Salome, Tel Aviv
ends and Jaffa begins - although nobody is sure exactly where; a
physical theater group, a soup kitchen and all-night kiosks share a
sidewalk with seedy lap-dancing clubs; every evening, after the
storeowners and factories close, Florentin is transformed into an
entertainment district, where tiny bars sell cheap alcohol and crowds
overflow onto the sidewalks for pizza and falafel.
For a large portion of Florentin's residents - the students,
the new immigrants, and the foreign workers - the neighborhood is only
a temporary home. When their economic status improves, when they
graduate from college, start a family or get a better job, they move on
to more affluent parts of Tel Aviv or to family-friendly suburbs. Only
Florentin's community of vatikim
, long-time residents who, in this case, are older and poorer and living in fixed rent "key apartments," continue to stay put.
Over the years, many marginal groups have found a home here.
Since the neighborhood was built in 1933, Florentin has been a first
home in Israel for successive waves of Jewish immigrants. The
neighborhood has provided hiding places for Jewish underground
fighters, flophouses for illegal workers from Gaza, a place of
inspiration for anti-establishment street artists and Orthodox
religious leaders, an industrial area for hundreds of artisans and
craftspeople, and a twilight zone where Tel Aviv and Jaffa merge. In
more recent years, Florentin has housed large numbers of students and
foreign workers. All who have passed through have left their mark on
FLORENTIN'S COLORFUL character - a mixture of
poverty and wealth, hard work and fun, transience and permanence - are
all inextricably bound up with its creation and its history. The
neighborhood's roots can be found in Salonika, Greece, almost thirty
years before the State of Israel was established.
In 1921, a group of 300 Zionists founded the Salonika-Palestine
Investment Company, aiming to develop commercial relations between
Salonika's Jews and Jewish settlements in Eretz Yisrael. The Jews of
Salonika had a long and prosperous history, but by the 1920s the
community faced a terrible crisis. After World War I, an influx of
Greek refugees from Turkey stirred a wave of anti-Semitism that
resulted in vicious attacks. Huge fires decimated the city's Jewish
quarter, and over 53,000 Jews lost their homes. Another 25,000 fled the
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1924, the Salonika-Palestine Company sent a special envoy to Eretz
Yisrael to purchase land in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv's Rehov Herzl. The
area seemed promising - it bordered the Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Neveh
Tzedek and Ahuzat Bayit, and was close to the Jaffa-Jerusalem railroad.
The purchases were successful but complex - Ottoman land-use laws meant
the new Jewish owners were unable to commence building in earnest until
As soon as they were able, the Jewish immigrants
from Salonika began to construct their new neighborhood. The community
had grand plans to transform the land from orchards into a new Jewish
urban settlement - a bridge between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Most
importantly, the new area would be an Israeli neighborhood, in which a
new type of Jewish community could be established.
Esterica Florentine Montecchio's grandparents were the first to
build on the new land, and the neighborhood, at least in her version of
events, takes its name from them. Others say that the neighborhood was
in fact named after David Florentin, a journalist and Zionist activist
from Salonika, who was the brother of Esterica's grandfather Meir
Esterica, who grew up in Florentin in the 1940s and early 1950s, explains the zeitgeist of the new neighborhood.
"My family and all the new immigrants were ardent Zionists and a
very strong community," she says. "They wanted to establish a new
Israeli society, to obliterate the old stereotypes of Jews that had
existed in Salonika. They wanted their children to be Sabras."
The new neighborhood of Florentin grew rapidly. Houses sprang
up in place of orchards and an urban infrastructure began to take
"The first houses were just one-storey huts," she says.
The new neighborhood, initially administered by Jaffa City Hall,
extended south of several important Tel Aviv streets, including Herzl
and Nahalat Binyamin. Florentin was very different in character from
its northern neighbors Neveh Zedek and Ahuzat Bayit. In 1933, the Jaffa
Municipality approved a plan to allow trade and light industry to be
carried out in the lowest floors of new buildings in the area. As a
result, a new kind of building was created in Florentin, and small
factories and workshops were incorporated into the ground floors of
closely packed residential houses. A combination of cheap housing and
the availability of work close to home meant Florentin was very
attractive to new immigrants from the Fifth Aliya.
Igal Betzelel, a Florentin real estate agent born and raised in
the neighborhood, describes how his grandfather, who immigrated from
Afghanistan in the 1930s, decided to move from Jerusalem to Florentin.
"There was no work in Jerusalem, but there was here," he
relates. "My grandfather and grandmother lived in a single room in a
three-room apartment. They shared a kitchen and toilet with two other
families. That's the way many families lived back then."
Encompassing the north of Florentin up to Rehov
Eilat, a new industrial area was created, named the Volovelsky Center
after its founder, Russian businessman Shalom Volovelsky. It was home
to over 200 small factories and workshops.
Florentin's growing mix of residents, the burgeoning community was
cohesive. Neighborhood synagogues, like the Ahavat Chesed synagogue on
Rehov Abarbanel, played an important role in Florentin's public life.
The Rabbi of Ahavat Chesed - Yitzhak Yedidia Frenkel - was a popular
local figure and "spiritual father."
"There was nobody who didn't know the neighborhood rabbi," reminisced one resident in a memoir.
Rabbi Frenkel started the tradition of Hakafot Shniyot, the
second night of dancing in the streets with the Torah on motzei Simhat
Torah, a custom now well established in Israeli life. In 1942, when
European Jewry stood on the brink of disaster, Frenkel gathered the
people of Florentin to dance for their brothers and sisters in Europe.
One resident recalled:
"We went out onto the street, Salonikis, Bucharans, Bulgarians,
Turks, Iraqis and Poles, Hungarians and Egyptians, Chasids and Litvaks.
Each community stood out in its individuality, its multicolored
costumes, and in the knowledge that 'something special' was being
celebrated in Florentin in South Tel Aviv."
Ahavat Chesed still stands today, and the wide avenue -
stretching out from the synagogue building to Rehov Herzl - has been
renamed in Frenkel's honor.
Florentine Montecchio also recalls the close-knit community in the late
1940s and early 1950s, where neighbors looked out for each other and
for their children.
"Florentin was very crowded then, in that respect it hasn't
changed," recalls Esterica. "But it was a good place. Everyone worked
hard, families took turns to wash laundry - a big job back then - so
that there would always be someone to look after us children."
Even though life was often tough for the new immigrants -
Esterica's grandfather, for example, was a prosperous wine and tobacco
merchant in Salonika, but was unable to continue that line of work in
Eretz Israel - the community was rich in other ways. Esterica smiles as
she remembers the weekend traditions of her family and the wider
"Every Friday morning we would go to Grandma
Florentine's apartment on Rehov Emek Yizrael (now Rehov Frenkel). She
used to bake burekas for us all," Esterica says.
Even today, 60 years later, Florentin is famous for its burekas
- a traditional delicacy of Jews from Greece and Turkey, and now
considered an Israeli specialty. On Rehov Stern, just around the corner
from where Esterica's Grandma Florentine used to live, two Salonika
burekas bakeries, Burekas Mis and Konditoria Salonika, compete for
"Although back then, of course, we got burekas at home, nobody would buy them," recalls Esterica.
Later on Friday afternoons the Florentin community would get
dressed up and walk the short distance from the neighborhood to the
celebrated Ginti Yam coffee shop at the end of Rehov Allenby.
"Everyone, even us kids, danced to music," she recalls. "The Yekkes
- German Jews - went somewhere else, but all the Florentinis went to Ginti Yam. It was the place to go."
Today, Florentin is home to many coffee shops, but in the 1940s and '50s there were none.
"There were plenty of kiosks," Esterica remembers. "They sold gazoz
(a type of soda drink originating in Turkey) and a special drink called, tzuf
- nectar - which was soda with honey."
Florentine's oldest gazoz kiosk still exists today, on the
corner of Rehov Frenkel and Rehov Kishon; visitors may see the original
gazoz machine, although the kiosk now serves juices, Turkish coffee and
of course the ubiquitous burekas.
By the 1960s, despite the waves of immigration after the
creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Florentin had declined into a
slum. Esterica's family, like many of the original Florentin residents,
moved out. More apartments were turned into workshops.
"Everything moved further north," Esterica explains. "The
center of Tel Aviv moved north - away from Neveh Tzedek and Ahuzat
Bayit. The new place to go was Rehov Dizengoff."
Florentin became known as an area where cheap household items could be purchased.
"It was a merchandise center, that was the only reason people went there," Esterica recalls.
Slowly, the neglected buildings fell into ruin. Florentin became
a home for poor residents and a flophouse for illegal workers. Tel Aviv
Municipality plans to clear and rejuvenate the area in the 1980s met
with only limited success. By the 1990s, many of the original buildings
were semi-derelict and "huge piles of garbage rotted in plain view on
the street," according to one Florentin homeowner.
JUST AT Florentin's nadir, the neighborhood experienced an
unexpected sort of renaissance. The availability of cheap living space
in large loft-style buildings - unthinkable in any other part of Tel
Aviv - attracted a community of artists and designers who created
trendy live-work spaces out of dingy, derelict buildings. By 1997, when
Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox created his eponymous TV drama series
following the lives of a group of young people living in the area,
Florentin had already achieved a reputation of edgy hyper-trendiness.
Bars and restaurants opened in the neighborhood, the
availability of large, semi-abandoned spaces brought nightclubs and
live music venues. Florentin became the place to see and be seen for
Tel Aviv's artsy crowd, attracted by the possibility of experimenting
with identity while escaping from mainstream society out on the
physical and social margins of the city.
However, despite regular predictions that Florentin - now
frequently nicknamed "the Soho of Tel Aviv" - would become
"gentrified," the area failed to become more affluent, and its
population remained largely transient.
In the second half of the 2000s, a demand for cheap housing
caused a property boom of sorts in Florentin. Many of the original
three-room apartments were divided and rented as single room spaces
that incorporated a toilet, shower, kitchenette and bed. Workshops
closed and became apartments once again. As Florentin became more
crowded, and as it edged closer to the mainstream, it lost some of its
bohemian chic to nearby areas like Gan Hahashmal. Community restaurants
like Shirale on Rehov Frenkel and the Pasta Bar on Rehov Vital closed,
as did a number of fledgling boutiques and galleries.
In place of the restaurants, bars and fast food
joints - including chains like the Mate Pub - are opening up in
Florentin. Significantly, these new places attract crowds of people
from outside the area. A recently printed tourist map of Florentin
explains that Rehov Vital is an "Entertainment Area." And as the
location changes, property prices - including rental prices - are on
the rise. A micro-apartment of 20 square meters on Rehov Cordovero
fetches a monthly rent of 2,000 NIS.
wealth of its nightlife fails to mask underlying problems of poverty
faced by the neighborhood's older residents. Empty bottles consumed at
night in Florentin's trendy bars are picked up in the morning - from
overflowing dumpsters and the sidewalk - by Florentin's poorest, many
of them elderly, who exchange the bottles for a few shekels at the
recycling yards on Rehov Salome. The bottle collecting has created
conflicts among the newer residents, with complaints that the
collectors make a mess, strew garbage on the ground, and store unwashed
bottles in communal areas of apartment blocks.
There is another side to Florentin's popular street parties
too. The thousands of revelers who flood the area to party leave the
sidewalks carpeted with broken glass, vomit and garbage.
TODAY, ALMOST 90 years after the first immigrants from Salonika
purchased the area and transformed it from orchards to a Jewish
neighborhood, Florentin is undergoing another metamorphosis. Drastic
plans to redevelop the neighborhood have been set in motion.
Construction of new residential buildings is underway on many of the
neighborhood's streets, and older apartment blocks have been given a
Many more new buildings are planned. Around the city, large
advertisements invite investors to purchase luxury apartments in a
large complex of four new blocks on Rehov Abarbanel, designed by Ilan
Pivko - a successful architect who has previously designed homes in
Savyon. The development will transform a currently semi-vacant lot into
an upscale residential complex. The historic Volovelsky industrial zone
south of Rehov Eilat is to be razed to make way for a residential area
aimed at families.
Reactions to these dramatic developments have been mixed. Some
residents of Florentin and of neighboring Neveh Tzedek have expressed
strong opposition to the plans. The "Fight 4 Florentin" protest group,
formed mostly from local people, argues on its website that the new
developments will destroy the character of the neighborhood, and
suggests alternative ideas, including the provision of cheap apartments
and more green spaces.On
the other side of the coin, the "Center for Artisans and Craftsmen," an
organization representing more than 100 factory and workshop owners in
the historic Volovelsky industrial zone, have said that they want "to
be a part of the new urban planning for a new neighborhood." These
business owners will receive shares in new apartments in return for
Esterica Florentine Montecchio is optimistic about the developments.
"The rebuilding is progress," she says. And if the new Florentin
does become an area for families, perhaps it will even be a return of
sorts to the neighborhood's original character. Although it's unlikely
that many of the new families will know how to make home-baked burekas.
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