Neighborhood watch: Baka, a population tapestry

From Talpiot to the German Colony the real-estate market in southern Jerusalem is brisk.

Baka neighborhood Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimsk)
Baka neighborhood Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimsk)
The Arabic word for valley is Baka, which is the name of a high-end neighborhood in southern Jerusalem – probably so named because the biblical valley of Refaim runs along the neighborhood’s western boundary. Its Hebrew name is Geulim, but ask Jerusalemites where Geulim is, and nine out of 10 will tell you they have never heard of the place.
The neighborhood, located between Talpiot and the German Colony, was established around the mid-1890s with the completion of the railway that linked Jaffa with Jerusalem. The Jerusalem railway station was in Baka, and as such, there was much commercial activity in the area, with warehouses and shops gradually going up in the vicinity of the railway station.
During the first 30 years development was slow. Jerusalem was a Turkish city, and the empire was a cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus in which things moved very slowly. The tempo changed, however, when the British occupied Palestine and set up the Mandate.
By the early 1920s, the neighborhood started to fill up. The new residents were wealthy Christians who wanted to live outside the crowded Old City. Baka was an excellent choice: It was relatively near the Old City, and it bordered on another Christian neighborhood, the abode of the German Templers in the holy city. They built magnificent single-family homes with gardens, and it quickly became a genteel suburban area of palatial residences and shaded leafy streets much 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. Geographically it had all the aspects of a civil war, because the frontiers bisected streets and neighborhoods. As the war progressed and the Jewish forces advanced, the Arab residents, afraid of falling into the hands of the Jewish forces, fled their homes, leaving everything behind in the hope of reoccupying their homes at the fighting’s end.
But it was not to be. At the end of the fighting, Baka was in the Jewish area of Jerusalem – the wrong side of the border for the neighborhood’s original inhabitants, who were not allowed to return. And the quiet, upper-class garden suburb slowly became a slum.
When hostilities ended, the country was flooded with immigrants, most of whom arrived with only the clothes on their backs. The government housed these immigrant families in the empty homes of the original Arab residents.
Most of those who settled in Baka were from Morocco. They came from a different cultural environment than Israel’s, and they did not easily adapt. In addition, two, three or four of these families would be crammed into a house, and in no time the area deteriorated.
In addition, the government built low-cost, stucco-faced shikunim, housing projects in empty lots to provide shelter for the thousands of arriving Jewish immigrants, most of them from Arab countries. In the process, Baka was renamed Geulim, meaning “the redeemed,” because the immigrants felt redeemed from the bonds of the Diaspora, but the new name never caught on, and it remained Baka.
If Baka did not deteriorate like similar areas did, 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, and it made Baka a central location.
Incidentally, the station is a historic building in its own right.
It was in use from 1892 to 1998, when the new station in Malha was inaugurated. Today it is a cultural center and one of the main attractions of Baka.
The decay of the neighborhood did not last long; it halted a few short years after the Six Day War, and today it is one of the more expensive areas of Jerusalem.
After the 1948 war, the nearby neighborhoods of Old Katamon and the German Colony escaped Baka’s fate because, while they were also emptied of their original inhabitants and inhabited by immigrants, it was for a relatively short time. When the government built low-cost apartment blocks, those who came to occupy the empty houses were academics from the Hebrew University as well as civil servants, doctors, lawyers and political leaders. As a result, Baka had an upperclass neighbor.
At the end of the Six Day War, Baka started coming back into its own. By the early 1980s, affluent families who had shunned Baka as one of the slums of the capital became aware of its many charms and started buying property there. It was some time before new owners bought out all the homes, particularly since there were often multiple families living in them, but once they did, they restored the houses to their former glory. Some reverted to one-family homes, while others were converted into luxury apartments. Many of these houses have high ceilings and arched doorways and windows. These days, such niceties command premium prices.
Baka has some 10,000 residents, and it is popular with observant Jews from English-speaking countries and France.
The real-estate market in Baka is active and demand is brisk. The area attracts the wealthier foreign buyers who want to be in the heart of Jerusalem and young couples who buy in the shikunim area that borders Talpiot to the south. Prices in the heart of Baka can range from NIS 22,000 per sq.m., to NIS 40,000 per sq.m. for the renovated old Arab style.
For the smaller tenement buildings on Rivka and Ben-Yefuneh streets, young families can find properties in the NIS 20,000-NIS 23,000-per-sq.m. range. A small four-room property in one of these buildings can sell for as low as NIS 1.7 million. At these prices, even investors have shown interest.
According to RE/MAX Vision owner Alyssa Friedland, whose office is located in Baka, “the mix of both religious and secular people, the varied age ranges and the multicultural backgrounds create a diverse tapestry of populations. The varied price ranges also allow almost any buyer to find something that can suit their needs and their budgets.”