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Woodworking shops are sandwiched between thrift stores, cafes and bars in South Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood. Elderly working-class people rub shoulders with well-to-do young professionals and students.
Times have changed. Not so long ago, children played in the streets and families made up the majority of the population. "Now there are transvestites," observes Yulda Ben Abram, a 70-year-old convenience store owner in Florentine. "There used to be lots of women with children," the kippa-wearing Abram continues. "Now it's just women with cats."
As the area began to draw in Tel Aviv's young, artsy, hip crowd about 10 years ago, the neighborhood's working-class families who can no longer afford rent have moved away. "This is the last place I would want to raise my kids," says Michal Ravid, 30, out taking her terrier, Shlumpy, for a walk in the neighborhood's narrow streets.
Though she can afford to rent in more expensive parts of the city, Ravid moved to the area three years ago because she wanted to be around more "colorful people." "It's always lively here," she says. "At 4 a.m. the street is full of people."
As Florentin continues to attract young professionals and students, rents in the area have risen dramatically. Ravid started renting her two-bedroom apartment three years ago for $750. The previous tenant paid $400, but it's still a good price for Ravid, who owns her own web development company, Pixelit.
But such rents are prohibitively expensive for Florentin's traditionally working-class population. "It's not really development," says Ya'akov Mizrachi, a 68-year-old retiree born and raised in the neighborhood. "It's taking things away from people."
Mizrachi no longer lives in Florentin, but takes a bus to the neighborhood and sits on the same bench each day. The bench - located a block from the apartment in which he was born, across the street from his synagogue and directly in front of his friend's motorcycle shop - allows him to keep up with his childhood friends.
High-rise apartment buildings will soon fill the area, warns a sign posted by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality across the street from Mizrachi's bench. Local residents living on the property have 60 days to file an objection, he reads. "They've had their eyes on this area for many years," says Alon Niv, who owns the motorcycle shop behind Mizrachi's bench. "The problem is the rich are becoming richer and the poor are becoming poorer."
The municipality has failed to help, veteran residents complain. Starting in 2001, neighborhood residents began to experience major cuts in social services. In the 1990s, Florentin had a center for elderly people, but now it has been moved to the second floor of a building with no elevator. Florentin used to have a government-sponsored community center with scout movement youth programs, but that was also taken away. The local pharmacy also disappeared a few years ago.
"This is a disempowered community," says Yonatan Mishar, coordinator of Florentin's only community center, Mapach. "I believe the people who come [to live] here don't have bad intentions, but the families are forgotten in the process."
Mapach emerged after a five-year struggle to exist. When the founders decided to open a community center in Florentin, they asked the municipality for a public space, but the municipality told them there were not enough children in the neighborhood for a youth center. The building where Mapach is currently located, at the end of Rehov Florentin, was a school until 15 years ago when it was shut down. The municipality then gave the building to a group of artists who promised to do community work, but didn't, according to Mishar.
Finally, Mapach managed to take over part of the building. Now, they provide a learning center for children and invite the whole community to gather on holidays such as Tu Bishvat and Purim. The largest component of Mapach, however, is its center for reading and writing, since many children in the neighborhood, of all ages, are illiterate. "Where the system can neglect people, it does," Mishar complains.
If they didn't have Mapach, the children would be in the streets, getting involved with drugs, gangs and violence, according to Yafit Polad, 30, a volunteer at Mapach. "We are here to make the kids see another life," she says.
The students and young professionals who move to the neighborhood don't know the neighborhood and don't want to take part in the community, Polad maintains. "Some people think it's cool to be here, but behind it, it's a poor neighborhood."
Mishar believes that change needs to come from the grassroots. "I think the people should make the change and demand more," he says.
There is no rent control in Florentin. Landlords give apartments to the highest bidder. "People here really need to fight for their rights," says one Mapach volunteer, Giora Katzin, who grew up in the neighborhood but now lives in wealthier Petah Tikvah.
On the other hand, expensive apartments, according to the CEO of Halamish, the area's largest development group, will benefit the whole neighborhood. One project aims specifically to attract families to the area once again. The project, in accordance with the Tel Aviv master plan, will wipe out run-down businesses and apartments and build in their place about 450 higher-end apartment buildings on Hameshor, Tzrifin and Hatzerim streets.
Halamish CEO Eitan Padan told Metro that the neighborhood will prosper once it attracts more affluent families. "In order for a neighborhood to prosper, it needs residents other than students, because they are unstable. You have a lot of turnover and don't have the stable basis of a neighborhood that businesses and people are looking for - which also lets the community prosper in the long term."
The neighborhood's location, he says, combined with new infrastructure and housing can sustain Florentin, making the area an attractive place in which to live, work and do business for years to come.
Some local business owners like the changes they've seen in the neighborhood. Etzel Root (Ruth's Place), at the corner of Vital and Yedidia Frankel streets provides locals a heaping plate of tasty home-cooked okra, stuffed peppers or meat for NIS 30. According to Ruth's daughter Ortal, the changes in Florentin have been entirely positive, and mean more pubs, restaurants and discos. It is good for the neighborhood and good for her family's business, which opened 20 years ago.
The owner of Anubis Bar, Arad Ben Melech, agrees. He opened the burger restaurant two years ago in Florentin because he likes the character and nature of the neighborhood. He sees it as a neighborhood that is growing and developing, which will only help his business.
Florentin's development is an expected progression, according to Lior Segev, who opened the Titan art studio in Florentin eight years ago. It's a nice neighborhood, he says, unlike the Shapira neighborhood near the central bus station. "I like the neighborhood as it is, but it's a natural process."
In the next few years Florentin may look like a different place. High-rise apartment buildings will line its streets, and their wealthy tenants will have a lovely view of the sea and nearby Jaffa. The last remaining elderly people and low-income families in the neighborhood may no longer live here because of increasing rents. Trendy cafes and bars will pop up, while the woodworking and metal shops will continue to disappear.
But Ya'akov Mizrachi will probably keep coming to the neighborhood, sit on the same bench chatting with friends, and life will carry on in South Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood.