Jaffa old and new

A 4,000 year old city is rejuvenated.

modernjaffa521 (photo credit: Serge Attal/ Flash90)
(photo credit: Serge Attal/ Flash90)
Ilana Goor, the 76-year-old doyenne of the Jaffa artist colony and owner of a private museum in her name, has staked out a symbolic spot to stand. Dressed in jeans and a white blouse, minus her signature, oversized silver jewelry, Goor is positioned between an ultra-modern abstract piece by Israeli sculptor Yaacov Agam and a 19th century French bronze portraying a romanticized vision of an Arab riding a camel.
This is Jaffa’s story in a nutshell – the modern versus the Oriental, a mix of old and new that gives Jaffa its uneven gait as it drags its feet into the 21st century, part of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa metropolis. Tel Aviv is brash, modern and sexy with its nightlife, its relentless drive, its Bauhaus beauties and its Mediterranean cool.
Jaffa, with 4,000 years of history, is hyphenated to the upstart that sprang out of the sand dunes immediately to the north 103 years ago. The ancient port city from where Jonah the Prophet set sail on his ill-fated passage today has clusters of stone mosques and churches of all denominations, Ottoman architecture, a thriving flea market, and winding cobblestone alleyways. All serve as romantic backdrops for the brides who flock here each day to have their photographs taken at sunset.
Jaffa straddles the divide between old and new. Crumbling buildings abut new, highend developments for the rich. It is only in the past few years that a large number of fashionable cafés, restaurants and boutiques have opened in the flea market, creating a critical mass of commerce and nightlife. All this makes for a fascinating visit to an ancient town in transition.
In the works
Great things are in the works in Jaffa with the confluence of several major projects. In the past 10 years, the city has invested more than $250 million dollars in infrastructure, embarking on an ambitious program to remedy decades of neglect.
Tel Aviv’s sea promenade has been extended through the Old City of Jaffa to the port and south to a new 210-dunam park built on the site of a former garbage dump.
A new hotel is under construction at the entrance to Jaffa’s Old City in what was formerly the old police station. The famous Turkish clock tower nearby has also recently been restored.
Another new hotel is planned in the old port, which is also undergoing major renovations.
A third hotel will be a luxury, fivestar, 125-room hotel with 38 apartments in the historic building that housed the former French hospital in the heart of the Old City.
The Ottoman-period flea market, a popular tourist attraction once dominated by cheap kebab and falafel joints has undergone a major facelift, attracting new restaurants, bars and galleries. Several important cultural and academic institutions have moved into Jaffa in recent years, including The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and the world-renowned Gesher Theater, established by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Although most Israelis think of Jaffa as an Arab city, in fact, more than half of its 40,000 residents, or 22,500, are Jews, according to Ami Katz, director general for Jaffa affairs at City Hall.
The multicultural mosaic that is Jaffa got top billing at the 2010 Oscars when the film “Ajami,” set in the largest Arab neighborhood in Jaffa, was nominated in the Best Foreign Language film category.
“In my opinion most of the Arab population is pleased about the changes in the city,” says Kamal Agbarea, an Arab resident and head of the Ajami neighborhood committee. He is also an advisor to Mayor Ron Huldai on Arab affairs.
“There are two sides to the development,” he says. “On the one hand, it has made Jaffa into a pearl. Walking here is like walking inside a painting. On the other hand, the development has caused people to want to live in Jaffa, which has put pressure on real estate prices. The Arab population is not one that sells real estate. They are looking to buy apartments for their children and prices have gone up.”
The municipality has built a small housing complex of 38 units with another 20 units under way on municipal land exclusively for Arabs – even though it is not generally the mission of local government to build public housing. The city is pressuring the government to built hundreds of additional units, according to Katz.
“So much money invested in infrastructure has caused the value of real estate to go up sharply and it is now almost impossible for the people in Jaffa to afford housing,” says Katz. Young families wishing to live near their parents are finding themselves priced out of the market.
“It is viewed by the Arabs in Jaffa as a threat, a plot to raise the value of real estate and force them out. The city is building affordable housing for Arab residents to send a message ‘We want you. We need you. We want you to stay,’” he says.
The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality recently took a symbolic step and renamed a Jaffa square in the name of Fouad Ismail Dajani, a respected Palestinian physician who founded the first private hospital in Jaffa, in 1933.
Jaffa is considered to be the world’s oldest continuing working port. The city’s list of conquerors includes the rock stars of history – Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Napoleon – plus every Middle Eastern despot with a standing army. The latest gatecrashers are architects and real estate developers lured by the city’s beauty and its prime location on the Mediterranean Sea.
“There is something very vivid and colorful about Jaffa,” says Ramy Gill, an architect who has lived here for 20 years and renovated one of the old warehouses in the port. He is also planning, with British architect John Pawson, the luxury hotel in the former 19th-century French hospital.
“Jaffa has a lot of interesting characters and a great deal of variety. You have Arabs and Jews, the old and the young. It’s not without problems, but Jaffa is full of surprises.”
Jaffa’s skyline will remain low, without the high-rise hotels that give Tel Aviv’s seashore its gap-tooth smile. The building code prohibits buildings higher than five stories on the coastline. Hoping to arrest the gentrification that could swallow Jaffa’s authenticity, the Tel Aviv municipality recently passed an ordinance prohibiting the opening of any more cafés or restaurants in the flea market.
Tourist mecca
All these changes make Jaffa even more attractive as a tourist destination. Ilana Goor’s museum is a great way to see the inside of a lovingly restored ancient Jaffa building and the art is a welcome bonus. Goor was one of the first artists to accept the municipality’s invitation in the late 1960s to move to what was then a dilapidated zone of crime and prostitution. The artists were a harbinger of the area’s renaissance.
The Ilana Goor Museum, also the artist’s personal residence, once served as the first hostel for Jewish pilgrims over 250 years ago. It houses over 300 works of art by Goor, in addition to her own eclectic collection of art including Henry Moore, Menashe Kadishman and Yaacov Agam.
Just six months ago, repairs to the kitchen revealed the original ceiling made of rows of upside down clay pots that provided insulation.
“I’m still digging,” says Goor.
Breathtaking views of the sea are visible through almost every window and, from the balcony one can see a panoramic view of the city’s rooftops and the ancient port.
In the stone alleyways around the museum are some 50 galleries and boutiques, and a short walk up cobbled steps lies a promenade lined with antique Turkish cannons and a spectacular view of the Tel Aviv coastline. A good place to get a sense of Jaffa’s history is the nearby Old Jaffa Visitors Center built inside an underground archaeological excavation that includes remains from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. A new multimedia animation helps the city’s colorful history come alive.
Local fisherman still go out every day to sea to haul a catch and visitors can trip over their blue nets drying in the sun, but there are sophisticated changes taking place in the port. Until recently, the crumbling wharf boasted a few lackluster fish restaurants and dilapidated warehouses constructed by the British in the 1930s to store oranges, Jaffa’s original source of prosperity and fame.
When the Tel Aviv port underwent a major renovation with a new wooden boardwalk lined with restaurants, bars and some of the city’s hottest night spots, Jaffa’s port fell into neglect. Recently, some of the warehouses have been renovated into sleek modern spaces that are attracting upscale restaurants and some interesting galleries. The Junction Studio exhibits whimsical furniture made of found objects. An old-fashioned standing hairdryer from the period when women put rollers in their hair has been turned into a floor lamp. A barrel has become a rocking chair. A few doors away is a large gallery devoted to Palestinian artists.
Also in the Jaffa port is a one-of-a kind theater, Nalaga’at, home to the world’s only performance group whose actors are all deaf, blind or deaf-blind. The waiters in the theater’s stylish Café Kapish are hearingimpaired and engage the clients in sign language, which makes ordering a cappuccino a mind-expanding experience. Jaffa has attracted other culture groups including an Arab-Jewish theater, and Mayumana, a dance troupe that uses a unique combination of rhythm, percussion and visual effects.
The Shimon Peres Peace House, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting peaceful relations between Arabs and Israelis, opened in December 2009, in the Ajami neighborhood, at a cost of NIS 100 million and serves as offices of the Peres Peace Center.
A distinctive architectural landmark on the Jaffa coast, it was designed by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas and is built of alternating layers of concrete and translucent glass, representing time and patience.
One grandiose renovation project that has turned into a white elephant is the former Turkish governor’s palace, known as the Seraya House, near the clock tower at the northern entrance to Jaffa. It seemed like a good idea in 2002 for the municipality to lease it to the Turkish government for 25 years with the caveat that the Turks would renovate the building as a Turkish culture center with a museum, a café and a library.
The building, constructed in 1897, was restored to its former glory at a cost of $1.5 million dollars and furnished with copies of furniture and fittings from the famous Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. A grand opening was planned for December 2008 but the timing was unfortunate. The IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza put a strain on Turkish-Israeli relations and since then relations between the two countries have gone from bad to worse.
Perhaps Tel Aviv-Jaffa officials will find solace in the fact that the contract with the Turkish government is only for 25 years, a fleeting moment for a city with 5,000 years of history.