Like many major cities, downtown Jerusalem has seen its urban decay and flight to the suburbs. The main Jaffa Road was ripped up to lay a light rail that has been years over due and it’s been a struggle for business to survive.
But things are starting to turn around with the help of a modern cultural renaissance.
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“I’ve decided to move back downtown recently because it’s just become such an exciting place that I have to live here,” Karen Brunwasser, the deputy director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, told The Media Line
. “The main road of town, Jaffa Road, which was a disaster for a while, is now a pearl and is absolutely gorgeous. And I’m actually moving right to Jaffa Road, which is something I would have never thought of before,”
The center of the urban renewal is the Mahane Yehuda market, popularly known as the “shuk” A new festival called Balabasta, which is Hebrew for “come to the market stall”, is bringing musicians, performers and artists to a place better known for fresh tomatoes and surly vendors.
Kobi Frig, festival organizer, was born and raised in the area around
the market. His family owns a spice store there and after the
Balabasta’s successful first season last summer, he energetically
brought it back this year.
“People come and see culture and see other people and have fun, and the
musicians have work and the shops get money and it’s free, so people
come. It costs something like X and it brings something like five X, so
it works,” Frig says over the cacophony of rock bands, buskers and
hawkers, adding his motivation was to not only rejuvenate the market but
help the old-timers too.
By day Mahane Yehuda is the popular and boisterous market selling
everything from vegetables, olive oil and fresh fish brought from the
Mediterranean Sea. But by night, it’s transformed into the cultural hot
spot, the capital of cool, helping turn what was once a virtual ghost
downtown into a vibrant hub. Many of the stalls remain open late to
serve the crowds for the Balabasta, which is taking place every Monday
Tali Friedman, a chef and author of the book The Culinary Story of
Jerusalem, calls the century-old market a microcosm of Israel itself.
“It’s like a very small Israel. You see people from all over the world.
You see people from Iran, and Yemen, and Moroccans and Spanish, and
Italians. We have a huge mixture, which is a reflection of all Israel.
This is what Israel is. We are a lot of people from all different places
in the world. We bring our food to the market and we take advantage of
the lovely products that the market has. Each culture makes its own
beautiful food,” says Friedman, interviewed on her rooftop restaurant
overlooking the stalls.
“In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful markets that we have in the world and I’ve been in a few,” she adds.
The iconic market has also reflected the economic angst and violence
suffered by Jerusalem, the target of numerous terrorist bombings over
“After all the things we suffered in the market, the bombings and stuff,
it’s a great thing to bring the whole world here now,” says Motti, a
Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city with a population of some 760,000, of
which about half a million are Jewish and most of the rest Muslim.
Facing poor job prospects, high housing costs and until recently few
entertainment and cultural options, about 6,000 more people emigrate
from the city every year than choose to move to it, according to the
Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. The gap is slowly closing with
more and more people moving to the city.
“In terms of Jerusalem renewal, the shuk is probably the best example
because it taps into the traditional attributes of the city -- its
authenticity, its diversity, even its complexity. But it gives it a
fresh twist. You’ll see lots of new enterprises in the shuk, lots of
innovations, and we saw that at the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which
puts on this event, and we said ‘Wow, this has tremendous potential to
be a real culture hub,’” Brunwasser says.
Once the shuk sold just produce, but chic shops and upscale restaurants
have started to move in as the market becomes cautiously gentrified.
Across Rehov Agrippas, the street marking the shuk’s southern boundary,
the Zichron Yosef residential quarter is being spiffed up. New apartment
buildings are being erected and the century or more old homes are being
restored and expanded.
“There are a lot of new shops here and a lot of new restaurants, but we
are trying to keep from overwhelming everything because we don’t want
the market to change. We still need the parsley and the cilantro and the
onions and the potatoes here,” says Friedman, who is a member of the
Association of the Mahane Yehuda Market.
“I’m from Philadelphia and the center of Philadelphia, as the center of
many cities in the United States, has also undergone a process of
renewal,” says Brunwasser. “People are moving back to the center of
town. They’ve become safe. They become cleaner and more interesting. And
Jerusalem is at the beginning of that process but it think the
trajectory is very positive.”
A lot of the folks downtown have pinned their hopes on the new light
rail, already three years behind schedule but expected to finally start
carrying passengers this summer.
A plastic golden crown on his head, Ronnie Barak entices the shoppers with a plate full of halva samples in front of his stall.
“There is the beginning of renewal down here. But at the moment the city
is sad because the light rail isn’t running yet and there’s no movement
of people. Often merchants are just sitting around,” he says.
The trains have been trundling through downtown for the past several
months on trial runs. In the meantime, public transportation to the
areas is limited and often jammed up in the narrow, crowded streets that
buses have been consigned to make way for the light rail.
“At the moment there’s no renewal in the market area. But we hope the
moment the light rail starts to run it will bring it, says vegetable
salesman Eliyahu Mordechai. “And this festival brings new clients to the
market, people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to shop here.”