Neighborhood Watch: Downtown Jerusalem coming into its own

The city center, with its old-world charm, modern light rail, and wide and clean pavements is quickly becoming a favorite shopping and entertainment area for Israelis and tourists alike.

Rain in Jerusalem, November 11, 2015 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rain in Jerusalem, November 11, 2015
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
From a historical perspective, downtown Jerusalem is that part of the Old City centering on Jaffa Gate and the area in the direction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
That was downtown because when the municipal area of Jerusalem was bounded by the city walls, that was the commercial and economic center. It was not much – the city encompassed an area of one square mile and had some 20,000 residents in 1860.
By the 1870s things began to change.
The Ottoman authorities had more or less eradicated brigandage in the areas surrounding Jerusalem. It was therefore safe to live outside the city walls, which incidentally were closed every day at nightfall.
Many – especially those who could afford it – moved to suburbs outside the city walls, and the downtown commercial center moved to Jaffa Road where, with some variance, it has remained to this day.
The city center of Jerusalem, or what we would call downtown, comprises the area stretching from the Old City via Jaffa Road, King George Avenue and the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall through to the Mahaneh Yehuda Market.
This was one of the first areas of Jerusalem to be urbanized when the city burst outside its walls.
This urbanization started in the 1870s with the Beit David neighborhood, a small walled community of 10 dwellings just off Jaffa Road. In the 1920s the neighborhood was extended to include, among other buildings, the dwelling of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine.
This dwelling still exists today and houses a museum at 9 Harav Kook Street.
Beit David was the first “suburb,” but its residents did not yet feel 100 percent safe.
It was a walled compound with its own water source – a well. Its stout walls could be entered only by thick wooden gates, which were locked at nightfall.
Downtown quickly became the commercial center of Jerusalem, comprising shops, restaurants, offices and apartment buildings. It was a typical downtown area, with commercial businesses and apartment buildings. These were constructed on Jaffa Road, King George Avenue and Ben-Yehuda Street, and many were for those days considered luxurious dwellings.
When the British occupied Palestine in 1917 and established the Mandatory regime in 1920, they made Jerusalem the capital of their new imperial possession and Jaffa Road became an important part of their organization. They took over the buildings of the Russian Compound as part of their administrative complex.
As a residential area, this downtown became unpopular in the early 1960s. The area became noisy and dirty and the majority of its residents moved to more congenial areas. Consequently, prices dropped and those who made it their home were mostly poor folk.
In the 1990s downtown Jerusalem received another blow. This time it was not residents who left in droves; it was businesses.
The area became congested and, with the opening of shopping malls, many of the leading stores along Jaffa Road began moving out. But even at its nadir, it was lined with shops, businesses and restaurants.
Perhaps they did not do as much business as before, but they survived.
Furthermore, the area was a tourist magnet, with some of the most imposing classical buildings in the city. This included the Russian Compound with the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the old city hall building, the central post office and the Generali building – all built in what can be styled as British colonial.
Nowadays, downtown Jerusalem is again undergoing big changes.
Alyssa Friedland, manager and proprietor of Re/Max Vision, one of the leading real estate brokers in the capital, told The Jerusalem Post, “Downtown Jerusalem is undergoing dramatic changes. It is changing the same way that downtown areas are changing all over the world, but the change has a distinctive Jerusalem twist.
“Up to the 1990s very few people were willing to go and live in downtown Jerusalem. The area was unattractive and the residential housing stock was run-down. Then things begun to change. People came back to live in downtown Jerusalem and business started drifting back.”
Jerusalem was and still is affected by the trend that can be called “back to the center” or the pull of downtown areas. People started drifting from suburbia to the city centers. Because of traffic jams, it had become difficult to get to work or to get from suburbia to the entertainment and commercial centers, and people decided to move as close to the center as possible.
To house these people, old buildings were restored or new ones built.
In Jerusalem this trend was helped along by the city administration, which wanted to rejuvenate the city center and from 2004 started subsidizing students who were willing to reside in this area. The back-to-the-center trend in Jerusalem was also helped along by the city’s importance in the Jewish world.
Many Jews want to live in Jerusalem; and to cater to the needs of the very wealthy, modern, very high-end luxurious and expensive apartment buildings were built in an area within walking distance of places of Jewish religious importance, such as the Great Synagogue and the Western Wall.
This includes high-end developments such as the Saidoff Tower on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem Heights just off Hillel Street, which is parallel to Jaffa Road, and Jerusalem of Gold and Africa Israel’s development on 7 Harav Kook Street. Another important residential trend in the area is developers buying run-down period buildings, restoring them and selling them as unique luxury dwellings.
One of the reasons that businesses moved out of the downtown area is that there were problems getting there. Most streets were usually jammed. The light rail has now solved this problem, since it dramatically shortens the time it takes to get from the suburbs to downtown Jerusalem on public transport.
With the sleek new look in the city center, Jaffa Road is now becoming a popular place for restaurants, leisure shopping and family outings. The city center, with its old-world charm, modern light rail, and wide and clean pavements is quickly becoming a favorite shopping and entertainment area for Israelis and tourists alike.
And this has a bearing on the real estate scene in the area.
• A five-room, 128-sq.m., modern apartment with terrace and private storeroom was sold for NIS 3.95 million.
• A beautifully restored, threeroom, 103-sq.m. apartment was sold for NIS 5.29m.
• A four-room, 106-sq.m., modern apartment was sold for NIS 2.92m.
• A small, old, 45-sq.m. apartment on Ben-Yehuda Street was sold for NIS 1.47m.