Baka’s ups and downs

From an Ottoman hub to a genteel district in the British Mandate, the neighborhood has more recently undergone transformed from an immigrant slum to a cultural, commercial and residential center.

Baka neighborhood in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Baka neighborhood in Jerusalem
Geulim is the Hebrew name of a trendy neighborhood in the south of Jerusalem, but most Jerusalemites know it better as Baka – the name it had when it was established in the late 19th century.
The latter name, which is Arabic for “valley,” is probably connected to the fact that the biblical valley of Refaim was the western boundary of the new neighborhood.
Baka was built on land purchased from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which was and still is one of the largest landowners in the Jerusalem area. In contrast to the residential suburbs that were starting to spring up outside walls of the overcrowded and unhealthy Old City, Baka originated as a commercial hub, because it was where the terminus of the Jaffa- Jerusalem railway, opened in 1892, was located.
As a result of the commercial activity that the railway generated, shops and warehouses were built.
Development was slow, however; Jerusalem was a provincial city in the vast but cumbersome Ottoman Empire, which moved at a snail’s pace. In addition, from the start of World War I in 1914 to 1919, when the British established their civilian administration, everything was in a state of freeze.
But after the British took over, the tempo of progress changed, and the area began to fill up – mainly with affluent Christian families. They built nice singlefamily homes with gardens, and it quickly became a genteel suburban area of palatial residences and shaded, leafy streets, favored by British civil servants and high-ranking military officers.
This idyllic situation did not last long, however.
By 1948, the War of Independence had started, and the fighting cut across neighborhoods. As the war progressed, Arab residents of the area fled their homes, planning to reoccupy them once the fighting was over. But at the end of the war, Baka was in the Jewish area of Jerusalem, and the original inhabitants were unable to return.
In the aftermath, the upper-class garden suburb slowly became a slum. Immigrants from mainly Arab countries moved into the empty houses – something that happened not only in Jerusalem, but also in Haifa, Jaffa, Majdal (now Ashkelon), Lod and Ramle.
Most of those who settled in Baka were from Morocco. They came from a very different cultural environment, and they did not easily adapt. In addition, there were two, three or four families crammed into each house, and in a short time, it became one of those areas of Jerusalem from which it was advisable to keep one’s distance. The government also built low-cost, stucco-faced “shikunim” housing projects in empty lots to provide shelter for the thousands of Jewish immigrants who were flooding the country.
If Baka did not deteriorate fully, as happened in similar areas, it was largely because the railway station at the edge of the neighborhood generated economic and commercial activity. In those early years of the state, it was the economic gateway to Jerusalem.
Because of it, Baka became a central location, and many of the residents, if not most, were lower-middleclass.
Incidentally the Jerusalem Railway Station is a historical building in its own right. It was in use from 1892 to 1998. Today it is a cultural hub and one of the attractions of Baka.
The decay of Baka did not last long; it halted after the Six Day War. Affluent Jerusalemites suddenly became aware of the potential architectural attractions of the neighborhood, and they started to buy property there. At the beginning, it was not so easy; some of the beautiful single-family stone homes housed three, four or even five families, and it took some effort to buy them all out. But once this was achieved, the new owners restored the houses to their former glory.
Some were restored as single-family homes, while others were converted into luxury flats. Many of these houses have high ceilings and arched doorways and windows. These days, such niceties command premium prices. And today Baka is one of the more expensive areas of Jerusalem. Much of the architecture has been preserved and is still standing, having undergone renovation while retaining the charm and beauty of the old-world motifs.
In the last decade, new immigrants from Europe and North America have bought large houses in the area, and it is common to hear French and English in the streets. Today the main street is Bethlehem Road, a street bustling with life and featuring designer stores, produce stands, restaurants and service stores.
From a real-estate perspective, the neighborhood is much in demand. With new construction coming on the market, such as the Park 8, Bustan Baka and Quadra developments, the housing supply in the area has increased and created more of a balance between demand and supply.
Although many of the new projects are expensive (starting at NIS 30,000 per square meter), they are selling to local as well as foreign buyers. Many local retirees, who are looking for a small boutique-like project, are opting to buy in these beautiful, newly built projects instead of moving out to retirement homes. Young families then purchase the homes that the older couples have vacated and renovate them to suit their needs.
The area of south Baka, below Yehuda Street and stretching down toward Talpiot, is also becoming a trendy area for young families. Many of the ’50s-era tenement buildings with stucco façades have been refurbished with stone façades and are receiving expansion rights for additional rooms and even open terraces.
Baka has some 10,000 residents, and the real-estate market is brisk. It attracts both the wealthier foreign buyers who want to be in the heart of Jerusalem, and young couples, who buy in the tenement area that borders it to the south.
Prices in the neighborhood range from NIS 20,000 per square meter for properties in the shikunim to NIS 40,000 or more for the new developments and the restored single-family homes.
Recent Transactions
• A restored single-family home measuring 165 square meters recently sold for NIS 6.5 million, which amounts to NIS 40,000 per square meter.
• A two-room, 51-sq.m. apartment with private parking and a terrace sold for NIS 1.5m.
• A five-room, 147-sq.m. apartment in a new development sold for NIS 4.4m.
• A four-room, 121-sq.m. apartment in a new development sold for NIS 4.65m.
• A four-room, 129-sq.m. apartment in an old single-family home that had been converted into flats sold for NIS 4.9m.