A landmark lost

Jerusalem's Cafe Atara, a "favorite meeting place for all the yekkes and artists," to close.

cafe atara 88 (photo credit: )
cafe atara 88
(photo credit: )
Caf Atara, one of Jerusalem's legendary eateries, will close its doors on April 20. Proprietor Uri Greenspan, whose father and grandfather opened the original Caf Atara on Rehov Ben-Yehuda in February 1938, says that he can no longer fight City Hall. He has done everything in his power, he says, to prevent the closure of the popular coffee shop, now located on Rehov Aza, but the Kikar Safra bureaucracy is stifling him. According to Greenspan, his troubles could have been resolved if City Hall would acknowledge its own mistakes. He is convinced that he is the victim of a subtle form of coercion designed to move him out of Rehavia and back to the center of town, where Atara had its beginnings. Atara vacated its initial premises in 1996 after the building was sold to Pizza Hut, and reopened in 1997 down the road at the site of what had previously been Caf Alno. A year later, it took over what had originally been Caf Egozit, a pastry shop with a small coffee bar on Rehov Aza. At that time, there was almost no competition. Neighborhood cafes were not yet a trend, and the dining facilities which dot both sides of the street, were not in existence. Caf Egozit had a huge open patio, which Greenspan decided to enclose when planning the new Atara. His application for a building permit, accompanied by the architect's plan, was approved. The plan did not include the pergola, which was illegally constructed at a later stage. Greenspan says that he didn't realize that the pergola was illegal, and when it was brought to his attention paid the fine for violating the building regulations. After that he tried to legalize the situation by putting in the proper applications, but City Hall then decided that the indoor restaurant was also in breach of building regulations and that no part of what had previously been an open patio should have been covered. Without the area that was once the patio, Greenspan is unable to conduct his business. He says he has spent most of the period that he has been on Rehov Aza traipsing from office to office in the municipality and in the local and regional urban planning committees trying to find a solution to his problem. Everyone that he has spoken to has been very pleasant. Some even took the trouble to come and inspect the nature of the offense, but no one came up with a viable solution. Atara is not the only enterprise that has infringed on the building regulations, says Greenspan, who blames the municipality for having given his application the green light. Proprietors of a lot of other private and commercial premises are guilty of similar infringements. Yet in the other cases, he notes, some form of compromise has been reached, or the municipality has chosen to turn a blind eye. In his case the municipality wants him to tear down the structure, and has obtained a court order to that effect. To the best of Greenspan's knowledge, none of the neighbors have ever complained, nor have any of the contractors who are building in the immediate vicinity. Mild-mannered as he is, Greenspan is not going to stage any protests. "That's not my style," he says. The hardest part of the impending closure, he says, was to tell his 92-year-old mother that Atara has reached the end of the line. Ruth Lonnerstaedter and Shlomo Margalit, who have been eating lunch at Atara on an almost daily basis for the past nine years, were shocked to learn that Atara might go the way of other legendary establishments, such as Alaska and Finks. "What a shame," says Lonnerstaedter, who recalled being taken by her parents to the original Atara when she was still a child. "It was a favorite meeting place for all the yekkes and artists. Even today, it still attracts important people. Bibi Netanyahu comes here a lot, and there are often lecturers and poets." "It's such a convenient and pleasant place," says Margalit, "close to home and close to town. It will be very sad if it has to close." Neither Lonnerstaedter nor Margalit could understand why City Hall was digging in its heels. Greenspan isn't holding his breath. "I was planning to celebrate Atara's 70th anniversary in 10 months. But we won't be here then. I don't believe in miracles," he says. "I'm pessimistic." In Jerusalem asked for a comment from City Hall, but received none by press time.