In South Tel Aviv - on the corner of Sderot Har Zion and Rehov Kibbutz Galuyot, just behind the Haaretz Building on Rehov Schocken - lies the industrial complex of Kiryat Hamelacha. Built in the mid 1960s by then-mayor Mordechai Namir, the complex of 12 four-story, concrete modernist buildings was built to hold light industry - printing presses, textile factories, carpentry shops. Forty-five years later, the rundown complex of nearly 500 units now includes more than 80 artists' studios.
"The complex started to become attractive when prices were low in the last recession of the late 1990s, around the last time Bibi [Netanyahu] was prime minister," says Uriel Miron, a sculptor and painter who exhibits actively and teaches at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. Miron moved to the building from Jerusalem about five years ago, following other artists who had made a similar move. "At that time, there were landlords who couldn't even afford their property tax, and people were invited to move in just to cover those costs."
According to Ido Bar-El, head of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design's undergraduate art department in Jerusalem, changes in industrial techniques and trends between the 1960s and 1980s caused many of the printers to either move or close down. He describes a similar process with the textile factories, which moved first to the West Bank, and then to the Far East. "A lot of the spaces here were empty, either because the businesses grew or because the owners aged, and the crowd starving for work space were the artists."
Bar-El bought a studio in the complex about seven years ago, after photographer Roi Kuper, who had been working there for two or three years, told him about the place. Kuper had himself found out about it from sculptor Itzhak Golombeck, with whom he bought a large space that they split into two parts.
"I found the place accidentally," recalls Golombeck. "I was looking to rent, not to buy, and had already agreed to take a place in a different neighborhood. But when I came to sign the contract, the landlord told me his brother had already rented it. Then I saw Roi [Kuper] on the street and told him I was looking for a studio. He told me that if I found something small, to let him know. I remembered I'd seen this place a couple of months before, but couldn't afford on my own, so we came and saw it together - and decided to take it. At that time, taking out a mortgage on this place was as cheap as renting it."
"It's good for an artist to buy a studio," says Kuper, " it's even more important than buying an apartment." He adds that since he bought his studio, the price per square meter has multiplied four or five times.
Miron, who bought his studio when prices were lower and admits he wouldn't be able to afford it today, says that most artists now likely rent their studios, and that fewer places are available for sale.
"ARTISTS HAVE a forward sense of real estate, of how the city works," explains Bar-El. He points out that there's a worldwide and historical trend of artists moving to declining areas, settling down to studios, organizing alternative art shows, and developing a cultural scene. In New York, he says, this happened with Soho in the 1960s and Chelsea in the 1990s, and in Berlin in the 1970s with the Kreutzberg neighborhood in the west of the city, and in the 1990s in the east with the Kunsthaus Tacheles and the general Mitte area. "After the artists come the galleries, designers, furniture shops, restaurants - until the area becomes too expensive for the artists themselves."
At the moment, the Kiryat Hamelacha complex and its surrounding area are still rough. "There's a mix of refugees, drug addicts and prostitutes," says Bar-El, "which isn't always appetizing for the larger art crowd or general public."
Miron explains that after the police crackdowns in Gan Hahashmal and the large park near the new Central Bus Station, many of that area's prostitutes and drug addicts moved to Kiryat Hemelacha. "There are lots of open stairwells," he says, "and the buildings are closed off [from the street]."
Golombeck, who has been in the complex nearly 10 years, describes bleak scenes of junkies on the stairwells and prostitutes with their clients near the elevators. "Without really meaning to, you get to know the prostitutes. Because they're also druggies, when they disappear you think they might be dead, or taken in by some institution."
"If the municipality could find social solutions to assist these people," says Bar-El, "they could enjoy the benefit of the area's development without putting in a single dime into the actual development."
BUT THE issue isn't just the social and criminal problems, it's also the employees of the different businesses. Golombeck says he's seen people walk out of their workplaces and relieve themselves in the stairways. "They're too lazy to walk up half a story to the bathroom," he says. He also complains that many of the industrial tenants don't keep the place clean.
David Lee - a designer and artist who received an education in architecture at the University of Southern California and returned after 20 years abroad - moved into the complex a little over two years ago. A year ago, he and two associates opened "5 Place 4 art," a not-for-profit gallery in a different section of the complex.
He remembers coming to the gallery and seeing men installing a sewage pipe along its adjoining wall. "They do the work on Saturday," he explains, "because it's illegal construction." Lee told them that if they didn't take the pipe down, he would sue them. A year and a half in court followed. "He took it down," says Lee, "and moved it to the other side of the building."
Lee has also encountered troubles with the Tel Aviv Municipality. First his landlady called him and asked why he was illegally adding meterage to the studio. The city, he says, had sent her a letter accusing her of building seven additional square meters without a permit and increasing her property taxes. He told her he was doing no such thing, and they started fighting the claim. "The city sent someone to measure the place - he didn't have a measuring tape on him," says Lee. "Three times they sent someone, three times without a measuring tape. The fourth time they sent someone with a measuring tape."
His most recent trial with the municipality is over his right to live in his studio. He says that when he moved in, the city came and inspected the place, took pictures, and gave him a permit to live in the space. This allowed him to pay residential rather than industrial property tax, a break usually given to artists who take up studios in industrial areas. "Two months ago, we got letters from the city," he says about himself and approximately 35 other units where people both live and work. "We all have to be in court because suddenly we all live here 'illegally.'"
Despite the various frustrations and difficulties, the artists who work in this complex seem to appreciate the place. "I like the combination of being with other small industrial shops," says Kuper.
For Miron, it's a similar feeling: "I like to think of art as light industry," he says. "For example, next to me there's a key-chain manufacturer - someone who makes things, like I make things."
BAR-EL BELIEVES there's still potential to be realized here, and that it's happening. "It's a city development that no one predicted, planned, subsidized or sponsored - it just happened," he says. "If people had seen or understood this, it would have been easier for the municipality to plan art days here, rather than on Sderot Rothschild."
Still, he'd prefer if this were done with the goal of improving the area, not transforming it into another upscale neighborhood. "I don't want to see the area become chic. I like that it's a bit rough."
One major recent change in the direction of chic has been the move of art galleries to the complex. In 2005, Shimon Ben-Shabbat founded Raw Art Gallery, which in 2007 opened a new 232-square-meter space that includes a private showroom. And last month, the Rosenfeld Gallery, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the country, moved to the complex from Rehov Dizengoff.
"Three years ago, this space was used by two of the gallery's artists as a studio," explains Rosenfeld curator Sari Golan. "Later it was used as a showroom for private collectors. We believe this space will create a real community between the artists studios and galleries."
Nearly 1,000 people came to the gallery's opening, in which Rosenfeld introduced four new artists to a new audience. One of them, Efrat Galnoor, prepared two site-specific paintings for the show, "Amal Umeretz" and "Amal, Tnufa Umeretz," depicting the industrial area around the studios in the works themselves.
People had to wait as long as 25 minutes to get into the opening, overwhelming Rosenfeld's expectations. "The reactions we got were wonderful from all sides - from people who already knew the gallery, from our collectors and from artists." Golan and gallery owner Tzaki Rosenfeld believe that art has to foster a dialogue that's challenging and yet in communication with their audience. This larger space, says Golan, allows them to do this more easily than did the original Dizengoff gallery, which over time came to be surrounded by wedding dresses and shoe stores.
STILL, NOT everyone has the same positive experience: "5 Place 4 art" was able to sell enough works to cover its expenses during the first six months, but in light of the global financial crisis and worsening economic situation, the organizers are now considering shutting the gallery down.
"There's a big debate about Tel Aviv remaining sustainable," says Bar-El. He mentions the large difference between the Shapira neighborhood next to the studios, and those in the north of the city which are only for the rich. "My children will have to fight to stay here, and if they succeed, then their children will have to fight." As he puts it: Tel Aviv can't simply keep expanding invariably.
"If this were New York," says Kuper, "this place would be amazing. Studios, coffee shops, fresh paint jobs. Here everything goes slowly."
For some, this slow pace is perfectly acceptable. "I don't want this place to become a nature preserve for artists," says Golombeck. "It's nice that it's connected to other activities, other lives. I also wouldn't want real estate developers coming in here and building high-rises."
Still, he admits to an egocentric desire for the neighborhood to undergo some improvement - to be a little cleaner, quieter, less hectic. "When a printing house leaves," he says, "I'm happy, because they don't take care of the place."
Golombeck has a fantasy: "For all the balconies to be covered by potted plants, and for the narrow sidewalks along the service roads to be lined with trees." He'd also like to see restaurants and cafes open up. However, he believes that artists alone can't bring about these changes.
"Artists are quiet," he says. "They close their doors and work. As long as there are four printing houses on the same floor, what can an artist change?"
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