Jaffa Road - It's a long and winding road...

David Kroyanker (photo credit: COURTESY)
David Kroyanker
(photo credit: COURTESY)
’Don’t laugh when I talk about Jerusalem,’ David Kroyanker demands, only partly in jest. ’Cry! Cry! We shouldn’t laugh about Jaffa Road, we should cry about Jaffa Road.’

But listening to Kroyanker, it’s hard not to laugh. His Jerusalem stories are dryly witty, filled with a soft nostalgia for Jerusalem’s good old days and with love for Jerusalemites’ quirks and eccentricities.

But it’s hard not to cry, too. Because Kroyanker’s most recent book is, in his own words, ’the chronology of an urban tragedy.’

Kroyanker has just released Jaffa Road: Biography of a Street — Story of a City (published in Hebrew by Keter Books in cooperation with the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies, 2005). The carefully-produced, 388-page volume is beautifully designed, filled with photographs and diagrams painstakingly collected by Kroyanker and his wife and partner, Leora. The text is wonderfully readable, combining lyrical descriptions with analyses of the relationships between buildings, people, and history.

A native Jerusalemite, Kroyanker, 65, has been documenting the history of Jerusalem through architecture for over 30 years and has written some 20 books about the city.He began his research and documentation work while working in the municipality, over 30 years ago. As his interests developed, Kroyanker decided to write a series of booklets ’so that people would know the architectural and historical value of the streets and the buildings.’

The series was so popular that he decided, in conjunction with the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies, to publish the booklets in a wider format, one book every two years. This is the sixth, and last, in the monumental project that details the architectural, historical, economic and social history of Jerusalem.

The chapters are organized both thematically and chronologically, with an important chapter dedicated to hopes for the future. Many of the pictures are rare and enticing — the ’central station’ of horse-drawn carriages outside the Jaffa Gate, circa 1910. Busy commerce, foreign consulates, and small, elegant hotels along both sides of the street, along the walls leading up to what is now Kikar Tzahal. Old Mamilla and the Fast Hotel at the intersections of Mamilla and Jaffa roads. The triumphant British soldiers marching down Jaffa Road on December 11, 1917.And in later years, a German zeppelin in the skies of Jerusalem and a swastika flying from the Fast Hotel, owned by a German Templer and Nazi.

Veteran Jerusalemites love to reminisce about Jerusalem, and younger Jerusalemites who love to listen to them, will enjoy this book tremendously. The will love the pictures of Ben-Yehuda meeting Jaffa Road at Kikar Zion; the long-gone Zion Cinema; the ’bagelmacher’ who sold Jerusalem ’beigeles;’ the kosher hot sausages sellers, standing in the snow near Kikar Zion in the early 1940s. They will enjoy the pictures of the elegant clothing and shoe stores, and the cafes with names like Vienna and Europa.

But Kroyanker’s book is much more than a photo album. His thesis is broad, incisive and provocative. Kroyanker contends Jaffa Road has been in a continual decline for nearly a hundred years and the story of that decline is the story of the decline of Jerusalem.

He points to a picture on page 102 — a building near the failed Clal Center, its side covered with rusted corrugated iron, still waiting, as it has for nearly 40 years, for the building that will be attached to it and cover the ugly emptiness.

’I had thought of putting that picture on the cover,’ he says. ’But it would symbolize irreversibility. I don’t think the situation is irreversible — I’m just not hopeful that it will be reversed.’

Instead, he uses street signs as a metaphor for the degeneration and degradation of the city. Once, the signs were made of fired ceramics or carved in Jerusalem stone, decorated and elegant. Today, they are made out of plastic or cheap tin, thinly covered with chipped enamel.

Once, Jaffa Road was a major commercial center. Then, with the Mandate and the immigration of Jews from Germany and central Europe, British officers and officials, Jews and Arabs would sit together at European-like coffee shops with professional waiters. Classy and educated, in a time of relative prosperity, the customers demanded foreign newspapers and quality service.

Kroyanker never loses his sense of humor or appreciation and he has a good eye for some of Jerusalem’s most quirky qualities. The intersection of King George Avenue and Jaffa Road, for example, popularly known as the ’intersection of the x’s,’ where decades ago Jerusalemites refused to cross the streets according to the newly installed traffic lights, forcing municipal authorities to institute a traffic pattern that allows Jerusalemites to cross the intersection diagonally, as they always have.

And, then, of course, there’s the Ma’ayan Stub store — which, Kroyanker contends, wasn’t any more fashionable when it was established in the 1940s than it is today, but somehow seemed to fit right in with the elegant coffee shops.

’There was always a special Jerusalem modesty,’ he says. ’Jerusalemites were never ostentatious. But Jaffa Road was alive, a center of urban activity.’

But on a Saturday morning earlier this month, when Kroyanker took In Jerusalem on a tour of the ’urban townscape’ of Jaffa Road, downtown Jerusalem is nearly deserted.

A few haredi families with many children, all dressed in Shabbat finery, walk along the empty sidewalks. Foreign workers, some of them drunk, return from the Old City, carrying a few vegetables in plastic bags.

And the homeless seem to move more freely on Shabbat, uninhibited by the police.

Viewing the nearly empty streets, Kroyanker says, ’A downtown should never be empty. Not if the city is alive.’

Later, the Baroud restaurant and the ’Feingold Courtyard’ will fill up with Jerusalemites and even a few ex-pats from Tel Aviv, who come down to feel that ’special Jerusalem feeling’ that they miss before they flee back to their modern city.

Against the emptiness, the neglect and ugliness stand out even more sharply, unobscured by the traffic or construction. Proud Jaffa Road once welcomed kaisers, kings and generals. Today it is bruised and neglected.

The few who actually venture onto Jaffa Road on a weekday may not notice these details; maybe we’ve gotten used to them. But Kroyanker seems to see everything. And once he points out a detail, it becomes like a simile explained or a story brilliantly illustrated: you just can’t see it any other way anymore.

He points out the crude hand-painted signs that obscure beautiful, filigree like wrought-iron grills; the thoughtless additions that cover intricate moldings; air conditioning compressors that hide arched doorways.

’Look at these beautiful buildings, built over a hundred years ago,’ he points to five buildings just east of King George Avenue. ’This street could be beautiful. Truly European.’

But it isn’t.

’Once, Jerusalem had life, it had vitality. But Jaffa Road was amputated, crudely, cruelly, in 1948, and the natural development of the city was cut off,’ he explains.

And terror has taken its toll, too. ’No street in the world has had as many terrorist attacks, as many people killed as Jaffa Road,’ he claims.

But terror and conflict aren’t the only things that have led to the demise. Jaffa Road, like all of Jerusalem, has been undone by bad planning, politicians who didn’t care, and the poverty.

’Jerusalem is a poor city, with large numbers of people who do not work. Each time a good store closes, it’s replaced by a bazaar or a cheap eatery.’

He’s counted: Today there are 25 bazaar-like stores and 30 lottery booths along Jaffa Road.

’These cheap stores reflect the buying power of Jerusalemites. They are poor, and this is their shopping culture. There’s no reason for more upscale stores to move in — the people who live here can’t afford to shop at those stores.

’There isn’t even a black market economy in Jerusalem — and a black market economy would at least fuel the economy. There’s no buying power here.’

It’s a vicious circle, he says — the socially and economically stronger people abandon the city, leaving only the poorer and the weaker, who contribute to making the city less and less attractive physically, economically and socially. ’That is the story of Jaffa Road, and it’s the story of Jerusalem.’

Not that people leave Jerusalem because its main thoroughfare is neglected and derelict. Rather, the neglect and dereliction are symptomatic of the poverty and depression that drive people away.

There have been attempts to revive the city center but they have failed, Kroyanker says. He points to the failed Clal Center as an example.

’The Clal Center, built in the 1970s, was supposed to revolutionize Jerusalem’s business district. It was built around an atrium, and was supposed to attract thousands of customers. But Clal wanted to make money fast, so they weren’t careful about the kinds of businesses they bought in. They allowed banks to move in on the ground floor. Banks have dark fronts, they close early, and they aren’t attractive places to be. They can kill off a city.’

And now, he says, many of the stores are merely storage stalls for the stalls in nearby Mahaneh Yehuda market.

The same mistake was made when the Zion Cinema was torn down and in its stead, a bank was placed high above the street level. ’And underneath the bank, among the columns, the open space has become nothing more than a public toilet,’ he complains.

His quick eyes catch the signs of Jerusalem’s political extremism. Spray-painted graffiti warn that Kahane was right and that his message is still alive. The Arabic on many of the street signs has been obliterated.

’Jerusalem is a city that has no tolerance, especially in the western half of the city,’ he says. ’It’s a conflicted city, a city of people who reject each other.’

He notes a sign promising that the Messiah is coming soon, next to a hand-lettered sign promising that the owner of the hole-in-the-wall stall that sells faded kippot will be back in half an hour. ’Maybe the Messiah is coming in half an hour. Or maybe the kippot have faded while we’re waiting,’ he quips.

’In Bangladesh the main street in the capital city probably looks like this, too. But this is the State of Israel, and Jerusalem is the capital city. We consider ourselves Westernized. We have pretensions of sophistication and culture.’

He is galled by ugly store signs. ’The municipality is weak and simply doesn’t have the power to enforce the regulations. They do try, most of the time. But the merchants aren’t willing to take down their signs. This is the aesthetic culture that they and their customers are used to and they don’t want to change it. It’s all a mafia — the merchants put the pressure on the municipal council representatives, and they cancel the fines that the authorities give the merchants.’Yet when asked, Kroyanker, usually so outspoken, abruptly refuses to comment on any of the individuals who are currently playing such a critical role in the development of Jerusalem — from City Engineer Uri Shetrit to controversial architect Moshe Safdie and his plan for the development of west Jerusalem.

But he does readily add, ’The municipality just doesn’t attract the same caliber of people that it used to. Municipal officials just don’t speak on the same terms as I do, not on the cultural level and not on the planning level. They don’t even seem to have any common sense. Today, they are mostly low-grade politicians who are out to get what they can.’Nor is he reticent when criticizing Mifal Hapayis and the electric company.

’Look at that!’ he says angrily, pointing to a lottery stand. ’It’s a pillbox made of fiberglass that’s supposed to look like concrete. Mifal Hapayis makes millions of shekels from the public. Couldn’t it come up with something more attractive? This is part of our urban environment! This is Jerusalem’s culture of ugliness at its finest.’

He points to a knot of electrical wires, running from a pole to a once ornately decorated wall.

’These wires could be sunk into the wall, they could be hidden so that the beauty of the building would be revealed. But the electric company has a monopoly and they charge exorbitant prices for these changes. They just don’t care.’

He doesn’t spare the greens, either, and partly blames them for some of the stagnation.

’Some of the buildings in Jerusalem and along Jaffa Road are beautiful. But many are not. Some of these conservationists wage campaigns to preserve buildings that have absolutely no value. So now it seems as though anyone who opposes development is good and anyone who agrees to demolish any part of any street is in bed with the real-estate sharks.’

There have been some successes along Jaffa Road, he notes, including the pedestrian promenade on Rehov Ben-Yehuda, the gentrification of Nahlat Shiva, and the municipal campus. And he believes that the light rail could genuinely make a difference, as it has in other cities.

But Jerusalem is too poor to attract private investors, he says, and any real change will require massive public investment.

’When the government or the municipality decide to do something, they can. They rebuilt Mount Scopus, they built the neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem. They could invest in the center of the city, too. Bring the Bezalel Arts Academy back into the center of town. Build student dorms downtown, so the students will bring life back to the city. These are projects that could really make a difference.’

But most projects in Jerusalem, he complains, are politically motivated and have little to do with the needs of Jerusalem as a living, breathing city.

’I’m skeptical,’ he concludes. ’Plans, plans. There have been so many plans. I don’t know of another city where every lot has been planned five times, and still nothing has happened.’

So David Kroyanker continues to live out his love-hate relationship with Jerusalem, with his caustic humor, sweet nostalgia, and deep sadness. He says that he is glad that his children have chosen to live in other cities, where they enjoy more hope and opportunity.

But as for himself, he says, ’I couldn’t live anywhere else. I know this city so intimately. It is a part of me, and I am a part of it. I have no relationship like that with any other city.’