It takes a train to cry

Tel Aviv business owners fear the worst as light rail construction is set to begin.

A woman walks in front of a sign advertising the Tel Aviv Light Rail  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A woman walks in front of a sign advertising the Tel Aviv Light Rail
When construction of the Tel Aviv Light Rail begins on Yehuda Halevi Street on Sunday, Yitzhak Aharon says it’ll be a death sentence for his hole-inthe wall electronics store – and he’s got the noose to prove it.
It’s a bit small for a full-grown man, but the noose hangs on the entrance of the door, next to a sign reading “waiting for my death sentence.”
Aharon, 56, is one of an unknown number of small business owners who stand to suffer when the construction begins. Many, especially here at ground zero, where the heavy digging will begin on Sunday, see no way they’ll be able to stay open after the foot traffic stops. They also fear that no one in their right mind will bother driving into central Tel Aviv, where some of the city’s busiest junctions will be shut down for construction, jamming up traffic from Netanya down to Ashdod according to police predictions made this past week.
On Wednesday, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a suit filed by dozens of business owners demanding a temporary injunction to halt the launch of construction until new routes could be examined.
Aharon has run his business for 20 years, and though he’s survived the transition from cassette decks and VCRs to MP3s and smart phones – as well as a mafia bombing in December 2003 that killed three bystanders outside the change store a few doors down (“I was in my store, everything shook”) – he says the light rail will be a death blow.
For one thing, he says, even if people make it down to Yehuda Halevi Street, they may not be able to see the store. Up and down the sidewalks on the stretch of street outside his store will be three-meter high temporary walls erected 1.5 meters from the entrances of the businesses.
Store owners were told the contractors will post signs on the wall, but that seems to be little comfort for Aharon and fellow owners.
“What can I do? Just sit here like an idiot all day?” he asked.
“No one is going to come and at best I’ll stay open another three or four months before I close.”
To make matters worse, the building next door to his was leveled this past week, and a luxury residential tower is being built in its place, boxing Yitzhaki in between two major construction sites and their temporary walls.
“This is the best corner in the city, you can see it all,” he says, looking through the window at a major thoroughfare humming with traffic, horns, and passersby. “But now they’ve killed it, it’s time to say goodbye.”
Gil Maoz doesn’t have a problem with the light rail per se, he just doesn’t like the way it’s being handled.
The 44-year-old father of four has run the “Aba Gil” vegan restaurant for 10 years here on Yehuda Halevi Street, but on Thursday, he was boxing it up and trying to sell whatever wasn’t bolted down for pennies on the dollar. He said he figured it was better to cut his losses now, and not just wait to lose more and more money every month after the construction starts.
“If they’d told us a year and a half ago that they were starting, I could have found a buyer.
But they came to us just four months ago and told us it’s beginning, and they offered no compensation for us,” Maoz said, adding that his 12 employees are in limbo for now, and he doesn’t see himself opening up anytime soon.
“Sure, I can reopen, I just have to find NIS 300,000,” he says with a grin.
He expressed a sort of confusion that was common on Yehuda Halevi Street, where business owners said they knew the light rail construction would start someday, but it always seemed theoretical.
Across the street, 62-year-old barber Baruch Abijanov was doing a brisk trade, with about a half a dozen regular customers waiting to get a trim. He said he was busier than usual, as his regulars figured they’d get their hair cut now before the work starts. He said either way there’s nothing he can do about the construction and he’s not sure he’ll stay open. One of the old timers in the shop countered that – no matter what – the regulars won’t go somewhere else just because of the traffic, though he admitted he had no idea how transit and parking would work out.
In a briefing this week with reporters, the general manager of NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit System Ltd., the company building the rail system, said that full-scale construction of the Red Line – planned to run from the Petah Tikva Central Bus Station to the Bat Yam depot – will begin on Sunday evening at 10 p.m. with the closure of the intersection of Yehuda Halevi and Allenby. The closure will extend to nearby streets as well, and by 5 a.m.
they will be restricted to public transportation only. The Red Line is the first of eight planned lines, and will include nine underground stations, running beneath the surface from Petah Tikva to the Yehuda Halevi and Allenby station. It is slated for completion by 2021.
The closing of Yehuda Halevi will be followed 10 days later by the closing of the Ma’ariv Junction at the intersection of Carlebach and Menachem Begin streets on August 13, as workers prepare the area overnight. On August 16 at 5 a.m., the area will be restricted to only public transportation as construction begins on the Carlebach station – which will include the removal of the Ma’ariv Bridge that passes over it.
In the shadow of the Ma’ariv Bridge on Thursday, kiosk owner Eli Dubanov, 30, said he doesn’t think he’ll survive more than a few months, and that he’s already feeling the crunch.
He said in recent months a string of businesses have moved to suburban industrial areas, fleeing the city before the construction begins.
“It’s going to be impossible to survive, what can I do,” he says, adding that a light rail will be great, but he has to make a living for the next six years.
At a juice stand on Carlebach Street, Moshe sounded a different tone, both optimistic and fatalist at the same time.
He knows the street will be closed for all traffic just ahead of the summer season, when juice stores make most of their money, but, as he puts it: “Nu, how do you know you’ll wake up tomorrow morning? How do you know Iran won’t attack tomorrow and blow us all away?”