Neighborhood Watch: A home or a museum piece?

Buyers in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, David’s Village and Mamilla pay the price for a piece of history.

David's Village in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
David's Village in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The areas bordering the western walls of Jerusalem’s Old City – Mishkenot Sha’ananim, David’s Village and the Mamilla complex – are among the most expensive pieces of real estate in the capital, and probably in the country. Although most of those now living in these areas are affluent families, the area started life as apartments for the needy; during the period following the War of Independence, because of its proximity to the cease-fire line, the area was more like a slum.
Mishkenot Sha’ananim was the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the protection of the city walls. It is somewhat ironic that what is now the abode of millionaires was originally an almshouse that Sir Moses Montefiore built in 1860. A wealthy Jew from New Orleans named Judah Touro set up a special fund to finance it, and in return the residents were required to pray for his soul once a day.
In those times, it was difficult to attract Jewish residents from the Old City to come and live in what were then spacious modern dwellings, even though the homes in the Old City were comparatively cramped. The reason was the banditry rampant outside the safety of the city walls. The poor of Jerusalem were wary of living in a place where they could be pillaged and even killed by roving Beduin bands. Even though the compound of 28 dwellings was surrounded by a high wall and stout gates that, like those of the Old City, were locked at night, it was hard to persuade families to move in. The potential residents were offered money to live there.
While Mishkenot was built as a residential area, Mamilla was built as a commercial center; in essence, it was the continuation of the shuk at the Jaffa Gate.
Work on the first buildings and shops began in the late 1880s, by which time the rampant crime outside the city walls was under control. In contrast to Mishkenot, where only Jewish families lived, Mamilla had Muslim, Christian and Jewish businessmen.
During the first half of the 20th century, Mamilla was the commercial and economic center of Jerusalem. But all that changed in 1948. At the end of the war, Mamilla was divided by the cease-fire line: The eastern third was on the Jordanian side, and two-thirds were on the Israeli side. The fighting destroyed much of the neighborhood, which became home to new immigrants of low socioeconomic status after that, because living next to a dangerous frontier was no picnic.
A similar fate befell Mishkenot. Though the area was not destroyed in the fighting and remained within the Israeli cease-fire lines, the Old City walls and the Jordanian positions towered over it, enabling the Jordanian legionnaires to throw stones at the neighborhood easily. From 1948 to 1967, Mishkenot was totally abandoned.
In the aftermath of the Six Day War, when Jerusalem was reunited, Mishkenot underwent extensive renovation, but under strict building codes. As a result, the architecture of the neighborhood remains much the same as it was at the turn of the century. Any renovation work requires permits, which are issued only if the renovations are within the existing architectural regulations that aim to preserve the neighborhood’s historic character.
Today there are some 100 homes, where artists, painters, sculptors and others live and often have their workshops and showrooms on the ground floor of their houses. There is also a sprinkling of overseas buyers who are willing to pay premium prices for the privilege of living in a historical house, from $10,000 to $15,000 per square meter.
David’s Village, adjacent to Mishkenot, was built in the 1990s by the Africa Israel group near Jaffa Gate. In general terms, it is less popular than Mishkenot and less expensive – perhaps because since then, there have been more glamorous and expensive projects, such as Mamilla and the nearby Waldorf Astoria.
The architectural ambience in the 28-acre (11.3- hectare) David’s Village has a lot of charm, but in many ways, the neighborhood resembles a ghost town. It comes into its own in summer and on the High Holy Days and Passover, since the vast majority of the proprietors are foreigners who use the apartments only when they come for a vacation.
The area is well-guarded, with 24-hour security guards stationed at the entrances, and total electronic surveillance of all areas.
From its inception, the entrepreneurs targeted rich overseas clients, and so it has remained.
Prices for some of the ground-floor apartments can be below $10,000 per square meter, but prices for the bridge rooftop apartments – so called because they span one of the compound’s streets – can reach $16,000 or more.
David’s Village brings us to the Mamilla compound. After the Six Day War, Mamilla was earmarked for reconstruction, but this took over 40 years to implement. The master plan was to demolish all structures, with the exception of the Hospice of Saint Vincent de Paul, and create a multi-functional compound – no longer the commercial center of the city, but a mix of luxury residences, hotels and shops.
It took time to evict the residents and to overcome the opposition that arose. One of the causes of this opposition was the demolition of several historic buildings, including Stern House, which housed Theodor Herzl on his 1898 visit to Palestine. In this case, the house was dismantled and reassembled nearby.
Renowned international architect Moshe Safdie designed the current renovation plan, which called for the compound to be divided into four areas: a pedestrian mall, including a large multi-storied parking garage; a “boulevard” with three six-storied, terraced residential buildings in the center; and two hotels at the southern end, near City Hall.
Apartments in this area cost $20,000 per square meter on average.