Around the corner for a drink

Some of the pubs formerly located in the Russian Compound have relocated, but will they retain their charm?

pubs (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Last Friday night I went out to the city center with a friend who hasn't been to Jerusalem for couple of years. Passing through the lively Ben-Yehuda scene, crowded restaurants on Shlomzion Hamalka and traffic jams on Jaffa Road, my friend looked astonished. The contrast between the gloomy, empty streets of the intifada period and the busy nightlife of Jerusalem 2007 is unbelievable, she said. And when we got to our chosen restaurant and discovered it was full and we would have to wait in line to get in, she (unlike me, who was famished) was absolutely thrilled. "If there is a line, it means that Jerusalem has become normal again, just like any other capital in the world where you have to either make a reservation or wait to eat in a fashionable restaurant." Somehow she caused even me, who always complains that there are not enough decent places to hang out in Jerusalem, to see the city through different eyes. On our way we saw Jerusalemites and tourists strolling in the streets, couples cuddling in coffee shops, youngsters crowding pubs to see rock bands perform live - enjoying simple Friday night pleasures, which Jerusalem was denied for so long. Just a few years ago, during the intifada, only the most courageous dared to go out at night. Many restaurants closed during these hard times, other barely survived by catering to foreign journalists. Those who live in the city do not always notice the changes, but after taking a fresh look at the city, I had to admit that life is coming back to its center. After dinner at the Foccacia Restaurant and a nice walk on Ben-Yehuda and Yoel Salomon streets, my friend suggested we have a drink at a pub or go to a disco. She suggested Glasnost, Cannabis or Putin - places where thirsty Jerusalemites used to hang out for he past 10-15 years. Naturally, she was unaware of the recent change in the Jerusalem nightlife scene. The "pub district" in the Russian Compound closed down more than a year ago, and only old signs and faded ads serve as a reminder that this area was once crammed with young people partying until dawn. According to Assaf Vitman, CEO of Eden, a subdivision of the Jerusalem Development Authority, the existing buildings in the Russian Compound will be destroyed for a new building project by the Africa Israel Group, which purchased the property. A tall apartment building will emerge instead of squat two-story structures. Stripped of lights and music, they resemble barns or barracks. There is no argument that this part of town is in urgent need of a face-lift, but is sweeping away the whole hangout zone really a smart move, considering how much money is being spent by the municipality and the JDA to reanimate the city center? Perhaps the whole area could be rejuvenated to become Jerusalem's fashionable hangout walking district, like the Monot area in Beirut, which once used to be the "hangout area." During the civil war, it became a war zone and today, after certain investments and proper PR, it has again became the central attraction of Beirut night life, with posh discotheques, stylish restaurants and pubs attracting huge crowds. Apparently, in addition an apartment building at the site of popular leisure spots isn't the only change that is about to hit the Russian Compound. "The huge parking lot in the compound is destined to change its profile completely, as we are planning to relocate the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design to the city center," Eden's Vitman says. "We are planning to erect the new building on this plot of land, bringing a student and bohemian population to the city center. It will inevitably change both the atmosphere and the scenery, with the Russian Compound turning into our local 'Latin quarter.' As for the nightlife in the city center - during the past few years we have been working very hard on developing other areas, such as Shlomzion Hamalka, which has become quite a magnet for those seeking good food and entertainment at night. It has become fashionable since the Chakra Restaurant first opened up. Also there is the old railway station area - it's easy to get there, there is no parking problem and the place is flourishing." A Latin Quarter in Jerusalem? Sounds terrific, I think, at the same time mourning the parking lot to which I have become so attached to during the years. But where all these students will hang out after a long day at school? Recently a few pubs and discotheques that used to be in the Russian Compound have reopened just a few blocks away - some to the Shlomzion area, such as the Zebra disco, and others to Jaffa Road, such as the Putin pub. And pub-goers and revelers are thrilled. "I'm so happy that they reopened," says Jacob Frishman, who was a Putin regular since the day it first opened its doors almost 10 years ago. The pub used to be decorated with photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and others, and was not only a pub, but also a sort of local attraction for tourists, many of whom came to Putin out of curiosity or to enjoy its great selection of Russian beers. Putin is unusual, since it's not a regular pub, where you only can drink and struggle with the volume to have a conversation. Here you can also dance until the morning and enjoy both worlds, unlike in other pubs, where you can either dance or sit down and drink. The pub reopened on Jaffa Road, near city hall, where Champs pub used to be, last month, and it's already quite full: The regulars have remained faithful despite the relocation. "Of course we were used to Russian Compound, which was great, because everything was so close, and you could go to this bar, and then to that discotheque and come back, see your friends. But this spot is also not so bad either. It's not that far from the old one," says Victoria, another regular. Frishman thinks differently. "The Russian Compound was special. Every city has this sort of district that is known for its pubs and bars and everybody hangs out there. Sure, Putin relocated, but what about the others? And even if they open in a different area, it won't be the same. I believe that the city definitely lost something when it dismantled the pub district." But many of those at Putin that night believe the diffusion of hangout places and leisure centers is good for the city. "You cannot have all your restaurants and bars in the same spot," says Victor. "Jerusalem's center needs to grow and to expand beyond the triangle of Ben-Yehuda, Jaffa Road and King George Avenue. It's about time the authorities think about it, if they do not want to lose the young secular population of Jerusalem." He believes that with careful planning and investment Jerusalem's center can be transformed into a place which will attract both tourists and people from all over the country. "We have the most beautiful and magnificent city in the world. When I first came to live in Israel, I often heard 'Jerusalem is praying, Haifa is working and Tel Aviv is having fun.' Well, I believe that Jerusalem, our capital should have it all."