Tel Aviv's Narnia

The city's dormant first train station will be transformed into Hatachana, a lively hub of activity.

old train 88 (photo credit: )
old train 88
(photo credit: )
In a year and a half, Tel Avivians who don't have the chutzpah to slide under the fence to see what's going on will have free access to the city's own secret garden that has been lying dormant for 60 years. It's like entering a world from which legends are made, and thanks to efforts by the Tel Aviv municipality, the city's residents won't need to make use of an armoire (or the old hole in the wall) to get there. The covert space is a 20-dunam plot of land replete with buildings, within earshot of waves tossing onto the beach near the Manta Ray restaurant. The heavy foliage obscures the view from drivers along Rehov Herbert Samuel. Visitors to the nearby Neveh Zedek neighborhood have overlooked the garden's treasures, as the area was previously ruled by trolls masquerading as derelicts and junkies. Yet curious wanderers need only trespass and sidestep a security guard watching TV to catch a glimpse of the city's first train station waiting in good condition as though the next train would arrive any day. A hundred and fourteen years ago, the railroad station and present-day secret garden were anything but a secret. This was a bustling hub carrying people and cargo between Jerusalem and Jaffa and stopped along the way in the Menashrea neighborhood, a suburb of Jaffa. Like the neighborhoods that border it, the old train station at Menashrea has seen many different people come and go over the past century. The rail station was built by the Turks and a French company that, among other things, built the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was opened to passengers in 1892, at the same time that the rail station in Jerusalem began operating. From the early 1900s until about 1930, a German Templer family named Viland supplied tiles and other building supplies to the area. Judging by the barrack-style shower stalls in one of the crumbling, roofless buildings and the penciled-in graffiti on another, an army made use of the station at some point. Architects and developers who specialize in building restoration are very eager to be part of the facelift. Instead of a staid, historical museum, developers will create a vibrant, cultural meeting ground for shopping, galleries and night life. "The events leading up to this new project was like the story of Sleeping Beauty," says Adi Hadar, the chairman of Ezra Ve'bitzaron, the city-owned development company. "There was a beautiful princess who went to sleep, and the thorns of the forest surrounded her. Then our prince, Mayor Ron Huldai gave her the kiss," jokes Hadar. "When the citizens have the opportunity to visit this old community, it will wake [her] up." The project is being called Hatachana ("The Station"), in honor of the old railway line whose path can still be traced from the Menashrea station up to Rehov Allenby by way of a string of parking lots. Architects and engineers qualified in restoration and preservation have been selected to renew the buildings to their former beauty. And the rejuvenation of the area is expected to unite Tel Aviv and Jaffa once and for all. "Today you have a no-man's land in the south of Tel Aviv. The area is neglected," notes Hadar, who manages the project. "If we revive the station area, then there will finally be a connection between the parts of Tel Aviv and Jaffa." Architect Amnon Baror, appointed to oversee the architectural restoration, says the most exciting thing is The Station's potential. His words echo those of Hadar. "Maybe we will finally find the bridge between Jaffa and Tel Aviv - a cultural bridge," Baror points out. "Until now, no public effort was directed to the south, but now you can see changes already happening in Jaffa. The Station is right at the border with Tel Aviv and Jaffa. For normal people they are just old buildings. For me, it's a kind of excitement you can't imagine." Baror is an expert in restoring buildings and historical communities. Prior to 1990, he was responsible for building conservation in the city of Safed. He has worked on private projects restoring the Russian embassy building in Tel Aviv, the Bank Leumi building on Rehov Yehuda Halevi, and Bauhaus buildings on Rehov Gordon. He comments on the historical significance of the site. "At The Station, most buildings are from the 19th century. Some of the buildings are from the Turks, and some belonged to the Templers who lived there. The Templers had moved to south Tel Aviv by the end of the 19th century and had been in Haifa since the 1860s. They came before the Zionists and gave examples to the Zionists - and proof to Jews - that they could build successful, agricultural communities in the desert." Many other Templer buildings, characterized by their thick walls and the somewhat mysterious people who lived there, can be found in the south end of Tel Aviv. Neighbors, some holding blueprints, report that the old train was used to smuggle in weapons during various wars and that inside the hills flanking the old railway line are hidden tunnels used for concealing and storing such weapons. About a month ago, the first tractors were spotted moving in at the site. Builders have started laying the infrastructure for water pipes and electricity. Since the area is slated for heavy recreational use, explains Baror, a lot of groundwork will need to be done. Under no circumstances, he indicates, will the old station itself be used for a restaurant. The building is too delicate for the amount of amenities needed for that. Beyond the station, about 20 other buildings will be renovated and are expected to attract cultural, leisure, shopping and club-hopping activities, although the exact who's who is yet to be decided by the municipality. Those interested in leasing buildings are expected to absorb some of the costs of building restoration. Businesses able to demonstrate earning power will be given priority over others. Banks and fashion houses could very well be part of the landscape, says one city representative. Although plans are tentative, the city bids that the project is part of a larger program to renew and repair north Jaffa and south Tel Aviv from Neveh Zedek to the old railway station, including the area of the Noga Theatre and the German Colony. With the land leased for at least the next 10 years from the state, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality has devoted NIS 12 million toward the restoration. As for the fate of The Station a decade later, it's anyone's guess. "The city received a special license to change the program from a residential area to other cultural uses," notes Hadar. "Yes, the big question will be what happens after 10 years. Hopes are that it will remain an area of preservation," he says, describing what the site is like at present. "The place gives you a very strange experience. It is close to the heart of Tel Aviv but gives you the opportunity to taste the colonial style of 100 years ago. In the middle of the very intense life of Tel Aviv, suddenly life stops and you are standing under big trees and can hear the music of the birds."