Mr. Conti's Tel Aviv

An enigmatic man-about-town has become a real fixture in the White City.

contifeat 88 298 (photo credit: )
contifeat 88 298
(photo credit: )
Day in, day out, a portly gentleman in a white suit, who looks remarkably like Winston Churchill, sits outside an upscale menswear shop on Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv. Mr. Conti's gaze seems fixed on a splendidly renovated building belonging to Sotheby's directly on the other side of the wide tree-lined boulevard, the site of the first homes built by pioneers in the sand dunes of what was to become Tel Aviv. The elegant building on the opposite side of the road to Mr. Conti stands in front of a glass multistory monster of an office block. The glass accentuates the splendor of the small building at its glistening feet - a spruced-up beauty alongside a modern beast of architecture for Mr. Conti to mull over. Mr. Conti, a small smile puffing up his round cheeks, has a great deal to think about as present-day yuppies, professionals and more-than-obvious poseurs walk by in the footsteps of the state's building pioneers of the early l900s, especially those of the 1930s who brought with them a stylish design known as Bauhaus. Some two decades ago, following a Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibition focusing on the Bauhaus buildings, Tel Aviv picked up a new name - the White City. Unlike Mr. C from the shirt shop, most of the young business, banking and computer crowd who frequent the boulevard's trendy bars and restaurants rarely take time out to appreciate the superb Bauhaus style buildings of the White City, dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recent times. Rothschild, Bialik, Montefiore, Ahad Ha'am, Sheinkin - streets carrying the names of some of the greatest Jewish philanthropists, artists, writers and Zionist leaders - boast either Bauhaus buildings or other eye-catching styles, some of them an exotic mix of European and Middle Eastern architecture. Before Mr. Conti moved to Sderot Rothschild, he used to spend his days sitting outside - rain or shine - around the corner on Rehov Montefiore, at the entrance to the Barrio de Cuba restaurant trying to attract the eyes and appetites of passers-by. There, he also had plenty of time to think about the dilapidated state of some of the once-glorious buildings dotted between the renovated ones, and ponder the darker side of the gleaming White City. With business not exactly booming, the Barrio de Cuba closed and the all-in-white (except for dark gray tie), smartly dressed Mr. Conti found himself anew outside No. 41, the menswear shop to bankers of the new millennium on the boulevard named after another of the banking barons, Rothschild. Eyal Naftali, the 35-year-old owner of the menswear shop, is a friend of the former owner of the Barrio de Cuba. When the restaurant closed down, he felt compelled to give Mr. Conti a new position, hence the new pitch to gentlemen in an area where he so feels at home. Naftali is well pleased with Mr. Conti's performance. Many passers-by stop to check out Mr. C, and before they know it are caught in the shirt collar of a Burlington on the inner side of the front door where Mr. Conti passes the time of day, every day. What does Mr. Conti think about the dilapidated buildings dotting his White City and dwarfed by towering new ones or ornately renovated old ones? They, too, were once proud edifices, but nowadays their arched windows have been smashed by vandals and verandas filled with junk left behind by squatters. On some of these remnants of a glorious past, broken wooden shutters hang at all angles, dangling on a rusty hinge or two. Even with the rubbish, the beautiful stone carved verandas are still relatively majestic in the shadow of modern high-rises looming up from the streets behind. Most of the new glass-and-steel structures lack the warmth that radiates from even the most dilapidated of the old timers on that block. It seems that Mr. Conti keeps his opinions to himself, which is only natural as he was created from fiberglass - superbly realistic, a real Boulevard Burlington Bertie. Did Mr. Conti make aliya from Cuba? "You've got to be kidding. He was made in China," says Naftali of his "employee." The clusters of Bauhaus and other early 1900s buildings of the White City that have been renovated are truly magnificent and well deserving of UNESCO's World Heritage Site recognition. However, one wonders if anything is really being done to save their poor neglected cousins down the street.