Taking matters into their own hands

Residents of a neglected Haifa neighborhood pulled together to draw up a renovation plan.

ein hayam 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy of Clore Community Center)
ein hayam 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy of Clore Community Center)
If you and your friends were fed up with the condition of your neighborhood, what would you do about it? Probably grumble over a cup of coffee, reflecting for a moment at the prospect of tackling the labyrinthine Israeli bureaucracy, before resigning yourselves to the potholed streets outside and the garbage that litters them. Accustomed to doing just that for years, the Jewish and Arab residents of the Ein Hayam neighborhood in central Haifa took the initiative of developing their own plan to breathe new life into their long-neglected home. In a virtually unprecedented case, the residents' vision, drawn up with support from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), eventually became a reality when it was accepted by the Haifa Municipality. Part of the NIS 1 million plan has already been implemented and the remainder is slated for development when funds become available. Rita Michael, project coordinator and community social worker at the Clore Community Center in Ein Hayam, describes the neighborhood as the "Face of Haifa" because it lies close to the seashore along Route 4, which runs through the city. "Everyone who comes from Tel Aviv to Haifa passes by the neighborhood, but until now there wasn't much investment in the neighborhood. Perhaps it was forgotten along the way," explains Michael. "It bothered people and they wanted to do something about it," she says, adding that one of the residents' main cause for complaint was the appearance of the neighborhood, plagued by litter, broken and dilapidated sewage pipes and other problems. Avigail Dolev, an urban planner for the SPNI who worked with residents to develop the plan, adds that the lack of open space in the area, particularly for children to play, is also a major problem. Kamil Sari, who - like his parents before him - was born in Ein Hayam, believes that the area was due for a refit: "The neighborhood was established in the 1930s, some of the houses are old and have not been renovated or looked after until now." Sari, who works for the Israel Antiquities Authority, says that apart from physical improvements to his environment, an additional benefit of the neighborhood's beautification has been to give something back to the residents and to lift their spirits. Improvements can already be seen in the external appearance of Ein Hayam in the shape of a long green promenade and the main road into the city. As well as beautifying the area, it provides valuable open space and connects with other neighborhoods and the beach itself for pedestrians and cyclists. "The sea is separated from Haifa by Route 4 and the railway," says Dolev. "The connection between the sites is important so the citizens can use the open space to get to the beach. In Haifa, there's not a lot of open space and this is an opportunity to give citizens space along the shore and connect neighbors." Sari says he is pleased with the progress to date and hopes that other parts of Ein Hayam will also reap the benefits of urban renewal. In the coming weeks, work is due to turn to the interior of the neighborhood, including playgrounds, public gardens and parking spaces, the current lack of which forces cars on the pavements. Dolev is also scheduled to meet with Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav later this month to discuss additional funding for the project from the city's budget. The process of urban renewal has also been a vehicle for coexistence in the mixed neighborhood. "Relations between Arabs and Jews have been good all these years and it was the same during the planning process, too. We sat down together, we worked together and we discussed the neighborhood," says Sari. Michael, while she acknowledges that relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel as a whole are "not the ideal situation," insists that she has never felt any ethnic tension in the neighborhood itself. "Jews and Arabs have been living together here for many years," she says, noting that, in common with many places in Israel and across the world, neighbors are less close than they were 20 or 30 years ago. "We don't bring politics or sensitive issues into the [community] center. We provide a place for dialogue and common interests. At the beginning people were talking about their own problems, their yard, their lives, or what bothered them personally. Then they started looking at the neighborhood in general, their shared goals, and were working with professionals," adds Michael. "When people were working together for a common goal they forget about being Jews or Arabs, they worked together as a team. It was a great achievement." "[Ein Hayam's] location is very special. It is the closest neighborhood in Haifa to the beach, but for some reason it has been very neglected," reflects Michael. Dolev notes that in other cities such prime real estate would be a beautiful place populated by the wealthy, "but not in Haifa," she insists. "All the neighborhoods located on the shore are very neglected, like Bat Galim and Neveh David, too." The municipality did not respond to Metro's question regarding why Ein Hayam and other seashore neighborhoods have been neglected to date. Despite its prestigious location, Michael admits that she was surprised when the city gave the plan a thumbs-up: "Most people were skeptical, they didn't believe the municipality would approve it and let them [implement] their plans. After all, it's a very large budget." Dolev believes that the residents' efforts resulted in an offer that was too good for the city to pass up. "The neighborhood had never been planned by the Haifa Municipality... Now there was a chance to take a project that people [had already] planned and assist them. It was ready, they didn't have to prepare anything." According to the Haifa Municipality's landscaping production manager, Nur Eldan, the project in Ein Hayam "was derived from the needs of the residents, as well as considerations based on engineering, aesthetics and how the neighborhood will be managed. "The Ein Hayam neighborhood, as all the other city neighborhoods, is inspected and apprized in coordination with its residents all the time. Two years ago, residents of Ein Hayam presented a request to upgrade the section of their neighborhood that faces the main road. The request was discussed, approved and funds were allocated; and the first phase of renovations was completed last year. Preparations are currently underway for the implementation of the second phase," says Eldan. "This project isn't something trivial. It's very special, [because] it generally doesn't happen that a municipality takes a plan [drawn up by] local people and puts money into it," observes Dolev, adding that other parts of Haifa's coastline haven't been so fortunate, and the view of the sun setting over the Mediterranean has been completely obscured by high-rise hotels. "It also protects [the neighborhood] from real estate developers. We don't want to see another Carmel Beach."