Reviving the spirit of Rehov Dizengoff

Despite competition from other shopping venues, a decade-long program to restore this icon to its former glory is beginning to show results.

By
March 26, 2010 16:22
Kikar Dizengoff

Kikar Dizengoff 311. (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)

 
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Rehov Dizengoff, that three-kilometer stretch at the heart of Tel Aviv crammed with coffee shops and bars – and cinemas and clubs, boutiques and bookstores, Western-style restaurants and falafel stands, tattoo parlors and designer Judaica stores – has had many nicknames since its inauguration in 1934.  Called “the center of life” in the Forties and Fifties and known later variously as “the glamorous street,” “Tel Aviv’s Fifth Avenue,” “the street that never sleeps” and “the start-up of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies,” Dizengoff has always been a barometer for the prevailing atmosphere of Tel Aviv.

Today, after many changes and a decade-long renewal program, Tel Aviv’s undisputed main street is regaining some of its original sense of excitement and style.

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Right from its official opening in 1934, Rehov Dizengoff was intended to epitomize the young city of Tel Aviv – a sophisticated Jewish metropolis that combined European-style modernity with an independent Hebrew spirit. The new street was named in honor of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and inaugurated as part of the celebrations marking the city’s 25-year anniversary.

In his speech declaring his namesake street officially open, Mayor Dizengoff called on Tel Aviv’s youth to “continue along the path we have gone, continue to construct this city that bestows grandeur on us and on the People of Israel.”

Dizengoff was designed as a space where Tel Aviv’s citizens could mingle, stroll and shop, an open forum where public life could be enacted and culture created. At the heart of this space would be a large open square, named Kikar Zina Dizengoff after Meir Dizengoff’s wife.

The design of the square was chosen in a competition won by a young Bauhaus-trained architect, Genia Averbuch. Her award-winning idea was to surround a green garden with elegant Bauhaus buildings whose round balconies mirrored the garden’s circular shape. These structures include several gems of Tel Aviv Bauhaus architecture – such as the Esther Cinema by architect Yehuda Magidovitch and the Chen Cinema by Arieh Sharon. The Esther has been transformed into a boutique hotel, but the Chen is still a functioning movie theater.

Tzachi Ostrovsky, a professional photographer specializing in architecture, describes Sharon, Magidovitch and Averbuch as “three of the most important names in Tel Aviv architecture.”



Ostrovsky has a particular reason to be interested in the design of Kikar Dizengoff, as he was born and grew up there in the Fifties and Sixties. This beautiful square that Averbuch, Magidovitch and Sharon helped create formed the very heart of the White City and of 1930s Eretz Israel, Ostrovsky explains, adding that “before 1967, Tel Aviv was the real center; Jerusalem was an unimportant village.”

Within a short time, Rehov Dizengoff became the undisputed cultural center of Tel Aviv. By the 1940s, lively European-style coffee houses had sprung up along the street, drawing the Tel Aviv public, including poets, writers, actors, painters and playwrights, like moths to a flame.

In 1944, Polish-born Yehezkiel Weinstein opened  Cafe Cassit at 117 Dizengoff. The cafe was an instant hit among the city’s Bohemian cognoscenti; regulars included poets Avraham Shlonsky, Nathan Zach and Nathan Alterman, who would frequently spend entire nights at the Cassit drinking and debating.

“If I wasn’t a person, I would have liked to be a street,” Alterman once declared. Dizengoff, with its combination of high culture and street life, would have made a good choice.

Four years later, another coffee house made its debut a few doors down at 111 Dizengoff. Unlike its Bohemian neighbor, Cafe Rowal was a “luxurious coffee house” that prided itself on its traditional Viennese cream cakes and iced coffee. The Rowal rapidly became a firm favorite among Tel Aviv’s chattering classes, who nicknamed it the “temple of gossip.”

Although Cassit and Rowal were the street’s most famous coffee houses, there were cafes all along the length of Rehov Dizengoff and around the square, recalls Ostrovsky, reciting their names like a poem: “There was the Pizza, the Pinati, the Prague, there was the California and Lev Aviv…”

Each coffee house had its own clientele and specialty: Pinati was favored by performing artists and clowns; left-wing nonconformists frequented Cafe California.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Rehov Dizengoff was a bustling, fashionable place, a carnival of sights and sounds with stores boasting Western goods, fashions and culinary delights rare if not unavailable elsewhere in the country.

Like Tzachi Ostrovsky, Israel Weisbrot also grew up in the area and recalls vividly the Rehov Dizengoff of his childhood – a magical place of bright colors and exotic sights.

Rehov Dizengoff is where he first came across neon advertisements, recalls Weisbrot. “There was a big neon sign for the Electricity Company and another one for a pizzeria – the first one I ever saw.”

As a teenager in the early Seventies, Weisbrot remembers Rehov Dizengoff as a wonderland of entertainment, with cinemas showing the latest movies, cafes filled with local celebrities, and cafes serving foreign delicacies.

“Rehov Dizengoff was transformed into a place of fun, of food,” Weisbrot says. “We used to stroll from one end to the other, catch the latest movie at one of the cinemas on the square and stop off at the first ice-cream parlor to open on Rehov Dizengoff.”

Weisbrot agrees that no evening of fun would have been complete without at least a peek into the street’s legendary coffee shops. “On the way home, we’d look into Cafe Cassit or the Rowal,” remembers Weisbrot, “to see which celebrities we could spot.”

By the 1970s, Rehov Dizengoff was ingrained in the public consciousness as a metaphor for Tel Aviv culture – so much so that it was absorbed into the vernacular. The verb lehizdangef, which loosely translates as “to ‘do’ Rehov Dizengoff,” is an activity incorporating popular Tel Aviv pastimes such as strolling, window-shopping and hanging out in coffee shops.

The phenomenon of hanging out on Rehov Dizengoff was even remarked upon by the foreign press.

“Tel Aviv has the prettiest girls in Israel,” enthused Life magazine in a 1973 special issue named The Spirit of Israel, “and they congregate on Dizengoff Street.” These dizengofiot – “Rehov Dizengoff girls” – were au fait with the latest trends in Western fashion and keen to avoid the label of na’arot reiness – “Rehov Reiness girls” – meaning those not cool enough to hang out on Dizengoff, only on the street parallel to it.

Although the Seventies could be considered Rehov Dizengoff’s heyday, there were those who considered the decade a period of cultural decline.  It was certainly a period of rapid change.

Poet Nathan Alterman, who had presided over literary gatherings (and drinking bouts) at the Cassit, passed away in 1970. With his death, the era of Cassit and of Rehov Dizengoff as a center of Tel Aviv’s Bohemian life declined. Israel Weisbrot recalls that by the time he and his family moved away from the area, the street he had grown up with had altered yet again.

“We left behind us a street that had changed completely,” he reminisces. “It had aged.”

“We will clothe you in a robe of cement and concrete,” Alterman had promised in his poem “Song to the Motherland.” Two years after his death, the poet’s wish was granted, in a way: In 1972, construction commenced of the Dizengoff Center, the concrete, glass and cement palace that is Israel’s first shopping mall. In keeping with the spirit of Dizengoff St., the mall was intended as “a city within a city,” modeled on European rather than Middle Eastern culture.

Photographer Ostrovsky, whose images of the construction of the Dizengoff Center have become iconic, explains that the center was built on the old Nordia neighborhood, a run-down slum of single-storey shacks at the southern end of Rehov Dizengoff.

“Most, if not all of the people who lived in Nordia were Ashkenazi,” says Ostrovsky. “The neighborhood itself had been built on land belonging to an Arab from Jaffa named Hinawi.” In November 1939, Adib Mahmad Hinawi was discovered stabbed to death. The motive behind his gruesome murder remains unknown. “The suspicion was that Hinawi was assassinated for being too friendly with Jews,” adds Ostrovsky.

In the Seventies, Nordia remained a slum and had developed something of a reputation. “Some people were frightened to enter the neighborhood,” says Ostrovsky. Despite this, the plans to raze the area and build a shopping mall on the land – which involved relocating all its residents – caused considerable public controversy.

Dizengoff Center first opened its doors in 1977 amid yet more public outrage – this time over its decidedly non-Hebrew name. The mall proved popular, however, and soon store after store opened up. The Dizengoff shopping experience was transferred from the outdoor arena of the street to the enclosed world of the mall.

Just a year after the center opened, Mayor Shlomo Lahat caused more public outrage by making drastic alterations to Kikar Dizengoff, that green oasis ringed by beautiful Bauhaus buildings. In an attempt to relieve the street’s terrible traffic congestion, the garden was concreted over and the square elevated above street level to make way for a traffic bypass. The new, split-level square was not popular, and continues to be the subject of public controversy.

Dizengoff Center sparked the Israeli public’s passionate and long-lasting love affair with the Western-style shopping mall, but threatened to destroy the old pastime of shopping out on the street. New malls began to sprout like giant concrete and glass mushrooms all over the country, and a brand new Hebrew word – kanyon – was coined.

Then, in the Nineties, as Rehov Dizengoff started its long decline, disaster struck. Two terrorist suicide attacks, the first in 1994 on the No. 5 bus and the second outside Dizengoff Center in March 1996, killed and wounded hundreds of civilians, including children celebrating the Purim holiday.

In the aftermath of these horrific events, public enthusiasm and confidence in Rehov Dizengoff waned. Shops stood empty, and even on weekends the street was devoid of its former hustle and bustle. Yet the spirit of the street could not be snuffed out completely.

Fashion designer Yosef Perez opened his flagship store on Dizengoff a decade ago, at the very nadir of the street’s post-attack depression. Perez, whose Rehov Dizengoff store features gorgeous bridal gowns and elegant evening wear, says the street has changed considerably since he first opened there.

“When I first came here, after the pigiuim [terrorist bombings], the street was quiet, totally empty,” he recalls. “There were so many empty stores. It was easy to find a place. Today it’s packed. There are no more shops standing empty.”

Perez is one of many Israeli fashion designers who have opened up shop in Rehov Dizengoff over the last decade as part of a program of renewal that has transformed the northern part of the street into a fashion quarter. “Rehov Dizengoff is the fashion street of Israel,” says Perez. “The stores here are of international quality.”

Today, established designers like Perez share the street with up-and-coming names like ultra-trendy shoestore Couple Of.  “This is a very interesting place,” Perez muses. “Dizengoff is a mythological street.”

Tel Aviv fashion writer Simona Kogan agrees that north Rehov Dizengoff is regaining its status as an Israeli fashion center, with homegrown designer labels like Yosef and Shani Bar. It is geared toward higher-end, expensive clothing, in contrast to Dizengoff Center, which houses big-name global fashion brands like Zara and Mango, highly popular with Israeli youth who want to wear the same clothes as their American and European counterparts.

While other areas like Gan Hahashmal and Sheinkin are the places to buy cheaper, indie designs, Kogan says that Dizengoff’s iconic status as Tel Aviv’s main fashion street still prevails among tourists and new olim.

“If you’re someone coming to Israel from abroad, the picture that you have in your mind is that Dizengoff is where you're going to find all the stylish items in Tel Aviv.”

The concept of Rehov Dizengoff as a higher-end, stylish address is also reflected in two large-scale residential real-estate projects. 46 Frishman is a luxury, 28-story residential tower designed by architects Moore Yasky Sivan, and In Dizengoff is a project by Bar Oryan to renovate an original Bauhaus building on Kikar Dizengoff. These projects are in harmony with the spirit and style of Rehov Dizengoff, says 46 Frishman architect Rachel Feller.

“Even though it will be a modern tower incorporating the very latest technologies, the architecture looks to the past,” she adds. “It is influenced by the Bauhaus buildings in Kikar Dizengoff and uses many similar elements, like circular balconies.”

With Rehov Dizengoff established as a venue for high-end designers, can Kikar Dizengoff regain any of its former glory? The once-elegant garden square has deteriorated into an unwelcoming circle of grimy concrete popular with the street punks who congregate there in the evenings.

“Tel Aviv Belongs to Street Punx Hooligans,” announces graffiti scrawled across the benches that flank Yaakov Agam’s Fire and Water sculpture. Deputy Mayor Assaf Zamir explains that the Tel Aviv Municipality has plans to revitalize the square and the area around it.

“We are looking at a number of possibilities for rejuvenating Kikar Dizengoff,” says Zamir. “One option would be to return the square to its roots by restoring it to ground level.” Zamir adds that this possibility has serious implications for traffic congestion and for public transport in the area.

“Twenty-eight bus lines currently use the underpass under Kikar Dizengoff,” he explains. “This option would require making huge changes to bus lines.”

Also under consideration is the construction of an underground car park near the square to ease congestion and parking problems. “Another possibility would be to make cosmetic changes to the square, to lay grass and make it green again,” says Zamir. Cost is an important factor, he stresses.

Although there is still some way to go, it seems that the decade-long program of renewal is showing results. Despite competition from Tel Aviv’s other malls and shopping centers, Rehov Dizengoff is filled with stores, bars and cafes and is never quiet – particularly at the weekend, when its sidewalks are packed with throngs of Israelis and tourists shopping, eating, drinking, seeing and being seen. 

“Rehov Dizengoff is returning to its history,” agrees Deputy Mayor Zamir. “The number of people going there has increased, there is a huge amount of new development on the street, new projects are being built, there’s going to be a new cinema just off the square, and more and more bars and cafes are opening.”

Some of the spirit of Tel Aviv’s original “glamorous promenade” has returned to 21st-century Rehov Dizengoff.

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