Lure of the South

A series of grassroots projects are strengthening local south Tel Aviv communities and breaking the taboo of crime, poverty.

Gardening in SoTel_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gardening in SoTel_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With its elegant Bauhaus villas, art galleries and chic sidewalk cafes, Tel Aviv’s Sderot Rothschild epitomizes the spirit and culture of the White City. It’s almost impossible to imagine that, just a few streets east, a completely different world exists.
Rehov Salomon is Sderot Rothschild’s antithesis, a place where the bright symbols of mainstream Tel Aviv life are cruelly inverted.
There are no sidewalk cafes on Rehov Salomon, but there is a billboard advertising the latest trendy vodka brand.
Beneath it, someone has stuck a Russianlanguage leaflet for a charity offering help to alcoholic women. A refugee woman with a tiny baby strapped to her back hurries past an Israel Medical Association campaign poster. It reads: “There is no [doctor to give you an] epidural for your birth.”
City taxis and prostitutes cruise for customers past market stalls where tattered Christmas decorations still flap in the breeze. Across the street at a kiosk named Kingdom of Pork, chunks of glistening pink meat hang beneath a parody of a familiar sign: Not Kosher.
This is Naveh Sha’anan, Tel Aviv’s seedy underbelly and the flip side of the smart, clean, European-style UNESCO World Heritage Bauhaus and coffee shop White City, a place local architect and author Sharon Rotbard famously dubbed “the Black City.”
Yet Naveh Sha’anan’s population is far more diverse and complex than just foreign workers who can’t afford to live anywhere else and refugees who can’t afford to live anywhere.
There are also the neighborhood’s “veteran” residents, native Israelis who grew up here and cannot or do not want to move elsewhere.
And recently, Naveh Sha’anan and other southern neighborhoods have started to be home to a new population – younger Israelis from other parts of the city, drawn here by cheap accommodation and the colorful mix of people.
This new population influx has sparked a trend of grassroots community initiatives that are engaging local populations and opening up some of the city’s traditional no-go areas to outside visitors.
Architect and artist Roy Fabian is part of this new breed of south Tel Aviv social entrepreneurs. He belongs to a local artists’ group, Shvil Hahalav (Milky Way), which over the past year has created a very nontraditional social and artistic project in the unlikely venue of Rehov Salomon’s old central bus station.
“We want to create a link between art and the community,” he explains.
A year ago, Fabian and fellow Milky Way artists Michal Rivlin and Rami Tsalka persuaded City Hall to let them use the old bus station for a community project, Tahana Leshana (Station for a Year).
“The municipality wants to do something here, but because it’s a very problematic area, nobody could figure out what exactly. The Old Central Bus Station is public land, so it needs to be used for the public. One idea was that City Hall transform it into a public square, but people thought that wouldn’t work,” Fabian says.
“So we decided to do something different – create an art space for the people who live and work here, from business owners, street traders and refugees to local office workers.”
To try out their ideas, last month Milky Way ran a one-day “simulation” of the project.
“We invited other local organizations and created 12 different spaces around the old bus station,” he says, “including a bike repair station, an urban garden, a clinic, an Eritrean food stall, and a photography studio where people could have their pictures taken. Then we invited the public in.”
The aim of the event was to reduce the sense of alienation between the various populations in Naveh Sha’anan.
“There were about 1,500 visitors,” says Fabian. “There was something for everyone. Israelis came for the food, refugees came to have their photos taken, and everyone enjoyed the music. And City Hall liked it.”
Spurred by that success, last week Milky Way opened The Independent Salon, a free public art exhibition in the long-disused Egged offices on the bus station’s upper floor.
“The exhibition’s theme is ‘Taboo,’ which we thought was very suited to this neighborhood,” Fabian adds.
Seventy artists are taking part in The Independent Salon, which Fabian describes as an “antidote to Fresh Paint,” Tel Aviv’s mainstream annual art fair.
There’s nothing mainstream about Taboo, which provides an eerie glimpse into the city’s hidden “noir” side. The gallery space is a row of rooms with glassless windows, through which the grimy streets below are framed. Inside, artworks like Sad Panda, a fresco of two black-andwhite bears, project physical and emotional fragility.
Milky Way hope the exhibition will encourage visitors from other parts of the city to visit this “off-limits” area of Tel Aviv.
“We want to increase encounters between people,” says Fabian.
ITAY SARAG is another new south Tel Aviv resident with aspirations to show outsiders an authentic picture of the White City’s darker neighborhoods. With fellow student Yonatan Mishal, Sarag started South Tel Aviv Tours, an informal initiative that organizes guided tours of Naveh Sha’anan and the neighboring Shapira neighborhood.
Guided tours are a popular tourist activity in Tel Aviv, but almost all take place in upmarket neighborhoods such as chic Neveh Tzedek and the Bauhauslined streets of the White City.
Rarely do foreign and domestic tour groups step outside these invisible boundaries and visit the city’s more problematic areas.
“We want to create something different from ordinary Tel Aviv tours,” says Sarag, who runs the tours under the auspices of Pardes, a community group based in Shapira.
Rather than having a guide talk about local history and landmarks, South Tel Aviv Tours invite local residents to talk about their lives and communities.
“We want to give people a more complete picture of the neighborhood,” Sarag explains. “So we let them speak with people who actually live here. We show ordinary people and their everyday lives. We also talk about the history of the neighborhoods and of the various communities living here.”
One of the most popular tours is a nighttime walk around Naveh Sha’anan.
“We take visitors to a local Filipino pub,” says Sarag. “We want people to know that not all south Tel Aviv residents are prostitutes or drug addicts. There is a wider community here, and we all live together.”
Sarag also runs tours in neighboring Shapira, a working-class enclave adjacent to Naveh Sha’anan and bounded by the Ayalon freeway to the east, Derech Kibbutz Galuyot to the south and the eyesore that is the new central bus station to the north.
One of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, Shapira has always had an ambiguous relationship with the rest of the city. Meir Gezl Shapira, an affluent and eccentric real estate developer, founded the neighborhood in 1922 when he purchased plots in what was then a murky no-man’s-land between Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
Shapira resold the plots to less wealthy Jewish immigrants, who built a neighborhood of modest, single-story homes.
Among the first residents were Jewish families from Bukhara and Salonika.
“There is still a large Bukharan community in Shapira,” says local resident Karin Reingewertz, who, like Sarag, runs projects with the local community group Pardes.
When Tel Aviv’s new central bus station opened in the early 1990s, Shapira absorbed a large influx of new populations, including Chinese and Filipino foreign workers. Jewish immigrants from the former USSR also made their homes here.
More recently, African refugees from Eritrea and Sudan have moved into Shapira.
“It’s true that Shapira is very diverse,” says Reingewertz. “But there is a real sense of community among the people who live here, and they really want to preserve this ‘urban village’ atmosphere.”
WHEN I visit the neighborhood on a weekday afternoon, the streets are quiet, tranquil even. Shapira might be only a short distance from central Tel Aviv, but it’s very different from the White City’s bustling boulevards. Just a few people, mostly older Mizrahi Jews, are out for a stroll. An elderly man in a wheelchair is pushed not by a Filipino carer, but by a modestly dressed Jewish woman.
Instead of trendy street art and posters advertising nightclubs, Shapira’s walls are decorated with faded Likud election stickers, Israeli flags and banners calling on the public to remember kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.
People here aren’t wealthy, but the streets are kept clean: they care about their neighborhood. Reingewertz says the Pardes community organization wants to help residents nurture this community spirit.
“Pardes was founded in 2006 by a group of Shapira residents, mostly young people,” she says.
“Our aim is to strengthen the community and its character. Young people want to live in Shapira, and we want them to stay here.”
Pardes promotes values of pluralism and multiculturalism, explains Reingewertz – values that are reflected in the young organization’s diverse volunteers.
“Our volunteers are young people who grew up here, older residents, Israelis who moved here recently, new immigrants, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, men and women,” she adds. “The volunteers reflect the makeup of the neighborhood’s population.”
What unites this heterogeneous group, says Reingewertz, is a shared desire to work together to improve the local area and make life easier for local residents.
Pardes runs several community projects in close cooperation with local organizations and people, including an Information and Aid Center, an initiative sparked by discussions with local people.
“Many people have difficulties accessing municipal services at City Hall,” says Reingewertz.“There are a lot of weaker populations here, including recent immigrants. They often either don’t know or aren’t sure what their rights are as citizens. So the residents said they wanted a dedicated center that could help them deal with problems, and give them access to the information they need.”
Partly funded by the Tel Aviv municipality, the Information and Aid Center operates out of a dedicated office in the Shapira Community Center. A leaflet in Hebrew and Russian sets out the various services Information and Aid Center volunteers offer: filling out forms, applying for grants, helping parents choose a school for their children.
Since it first opened its doors, the center has also helped local people resolve disputes with neighbors, deal with conflicts at work and cope with health insurance matters.
“The project is all about Shapira residents helping each other solve their problems.
We even have a local lawyer who drops in to provide free legal advice,” says Reingewertz, who adds that around 600 residents use the center each year.
Although Shapira’s strong community spirit holds people together, the neighborhood does have its problems. This is a poor area, and many families struggle financially.
Local infrastructure and amenities are underdeveloped, especially compared with Tel Aviv’s richer neighborhoods.
“Housing is old and often poor quality, the infrastructure is run down, and there are no local high schools so kids have to travel to north Tel Aviv to study. The neighborhood does not have a dedicated community worker,” says Reingewertz.
ONE OF the many ways in which south Tel Aviv’s poorer populations lag behind the rest of the city is their relative lack of access to technology. To help bridge this gap, local resident and community volunteer Sarag came up with TeachTech, a local project to help teach basic computer skills to older residents.
Sarag says he and fellow student Eliran Aldoroti got inspiration for the project from a course they took at the Tel Aviv Jaffa Academic College.
“We were learning about entrepreneurship, so we decided to create our own initiative to help people cope with technology,” Sarag explains. “Not everyone can afford to have a computer at home, so some people don’t know how to use one.”
TeachTech offers courses for “technophobe” adults, helping them learn how to do basic computer tasks.
Perhaps even more importantly, TeachTech helps teenagers from south Tel Aviv’s marginalized and economically deprived neighborhoods connect with Israel’s hi-tech industries.
“We take groups of south Tel Aviv kids on tours of Israeli hi-tech companies,” says Sarag. “We want to help them understand that they can also have a future in hi-tech.”
While local groups like Milky Way and Pardes are quick to stress the cultural richness of south Tel Aviv’s diverse populations, this same mixed population is seen by others as a weakness, a demographic fault line to be exploited. In recent months, right-wing activists have organized demonstrations in the area against what they have dubbed “infiltrators” – foreign workers, Israeli Arabs and refugees.
Reingewertz says that community organizations like Pardes have been concerned by the recent disturbances in the neighborhood.
“A lot of right-wing activists, extremists from outside the neighborhood, started coming into Shapira and stirring up trouble,” she says. “We are against this. We emphasize pluralism and tolerance.”
Reingewertz points out a leaflet being circulated in the neighborhood by a group called ‘The Activist Committee of South Tel Aviv” – the same organization that was behind the recent anti-Arab and anti-refugee demonstrations in the neighboring Hatikva quarter and Jaffa.
Printed in black and red, this latest leaflet urges local residents to protest against “200,000 infiltrators and illegal residents” living in Israel. “If this continues, we will be foreigners in our own neighborhood,” it declares.
“There are a lot of difficulties here, a lot of weak populations, and it’s very easy to cause trouble,” says Reingewertz. “People here are frightened and worried.”
She adds that local people are also concerned that south Tel Aviv neighborhoods will lose their uniqueness because of an influx of wealthier residents.
“A lot of older people are concerned that they will lose their neighborhood to gentrification. They worry they or their children will be priced out.”
SOUTH TEL Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods have become a hot spot for property investors. In 2007, Tel Aviv’s Local Planning and Building Commission approved a redevelopment plan for Shapira, limiting construction to threestory buildings. Since then, upmarket apartment blocks are springing up around the neighborhood, like the project by development company D & A Entrepreneurship and Construction at Rehov Hizkiyahu Hamelech 56.
According to D & A’s marketing literature, the five-room apartments and penthouses are aimed at property investors as well as young families.
The Tel Aviv municipality is also rolling out new schemes that could change the demographic of the city’s poorer southern communities. Over the past week, City Hall has revealed a bold new plan to offer generous housing subsidies to students who agree to live in certain south Tel Aviv neighborhoods.
“The intention is to provide young people, particularly students, with access to housing at below-market prices and to strengthen the city’s southern neighborhoods,” City Hall Spokesperson Zohar Sosenko told Metro.
Under the proposed scheme, which is being developed in partnership with Tel Aviv University and the Tel Aviv Jaffa Academic College, students enrolled in a first or second degree at relevant institutions in the city will be eligible for the housing grants.
After a debate on the matter in City Hall last week, Mayor Ron Huldai announced additional details of the scheme on his blog.
“Between 390 and 650 students will move to live in Naveh Sha’anan, Hatikva and Jaffa and will be given housing grants of NIS 800 a month,” wrote Huldai, adding that he hoped to obtain City Council approval for the scheme so it can commence in the next academic year.
While the proposed scheme will aid students struggling to find cheap accommodation in Tel Aviv, Pardes volunteer Sarag notes that it may not be quite as beneficial for local residents.
“Some people don’t like the idea of students moving into the neighborhood,” says Sarag. “Students aren’t long-term residents. They come and go. So this isn’t really a long-term plan.”
Sarag’s comments reflect that of others in the south Tel Aviv informal network of grassroots community organizations: that as well as encouraging new people to move in to south Tel Aviv neighborhoods, City Hall needs to do much more to improve local infrastructure and amenities and ensure that existing residents are not forced out by rising prices.
“We want this neighborhood to be a place for young families; we want young people who were born in this area to be able to afford to buy an apartment here,” says Reingewertz.
“There’s a lot of potential for this neighborhood to continue to be a cosmopolitan urban village. We hope City Hall will see that potential, and work with us in partnership.”
For information about the Milky Way Group’s exhibitions and events in the old central bus station, contact Ilan Dotan on
South Tel Aviv Tours run monthly (Hebrew) tours in Naveh Sha’anan and Shapira. For more details, e-mail tlvdarom@