Behind the cement and stone

While most housing projects remain neglected, one building, once a drug den, has won a prize for quality of life.

ugly apartment 88 (photo credit: )
ugly apartment 88
(photo credit: )
The long low apartment project, known unceremoniously only as Derech Hebron 112, is just off a busy Talpiot thoroughfare, down a couple of stairs, nestled in-between a row of nondescript unkempt apartment buildings. You might not notice the building as you drive by, except that it's the only building on the strip where laundry doesn't hang out of every window sill. But if you stroll down busy Derech Hebron, then you would noticed the manicured lawns, potted flowers and palm trees that line the multiple entranceways and stand in stark contrast to the neighboring buildings, where cats sift through garbage-strewn yards and children run wild in the alleyways. It is certainly not the most beautifully landscaped building in the city, nor is it architecturally remarkable. Yet in a recent contest sponsored by the municipality and the Association for Better Housing, Building 112 was recently named "the best kept building in Jerusalem." The contest began as part of the municipality's "Cleaning up Jerusalem" ("Yerushalayim Berosh Naki") program, developed in an attempt to bring tenants to care more about the upkeep of their buildings, specifically in lower-class neighborhoods. The contest was advertised at the beginning of August and all entries were supposed to be sent via e-mail to the municipality's website. The deadline was 18 August and the first prize was NIS 5000, which would go towards the upkeep of the apartment building. However, as Sophie Sasson, head of the municipal department for community work and one of the program's organizers explains, as the deadline approached it became clear that there were problems with the contest. "The criteria were difficult to enforce and other criteria that were only determined later by the city's renovation committee should have been included in the original contest advertisements." And the organizers themselves were blind to the reality of poverty in Jerusalem: Many of the buildings and neighborhoods that the municipality was specifically trying to reach could not enter the contest because they often did not have e-mail and internet access. And of course, even the most basic building maintenance and landscaping costs both time and money - precious commodities in underprivileged neighborhoods. Though the deadline was extended and entries were accepted via regular mail, in the end only 14 buildings were submitted for consideration. When the winners were selected, only the first-place winner was specifically named. A list of the other winners was released but without determining the places those buildings received because complaints about the contest had already been filed by various residents of the competing buildings. "The tenant of a building at Derech Beit Lechem 46 claimed the criteria that were used were unfair, that there wasn't enough time for the buildings to send in their entries, and that many more buildings would have participated had e-mail not been the chosen method of competition entry. Another tenant in Kiryat Hayovel also complained both to me and to the Attorney General," explains Sasson. As a result, the panel of judges reconvened, revisited all of the buildings and reviewed their decisions. They have scheduled a hearing for January 4, to review the list of contestants yet again, together with the Attorney General. By the end of the session, they are expected to release a final list of winners and placements. Sasson, one of the organizers, says now that even the first place winner may not be certain to retain its place and that everything, including prize money is being held up until the Attorney General makes the final decision. However, Shlomi Halbani disagrees. Halbani is one of the judges, director of Project Renewal in Jerusalem and currently in charge of nine Jerusalem neighborhoods, including Talpiot, where Derech Hebron 112 is located. "When we went over the criteria the first time and chose winners, we were sure of our decision, and when we met to go over the criteria again and revisited all of the buildings in question, we came to the same conclusion. Have you been to Derech Hebron 112? All you have to do is visit the place to see why it was the clear winner," he declares. The competition, it becomes clear, involves more than the cash prize and the minimal public recognition. Building 112 was originally built in 1962 and renovated between 1999-2002 as part of the Ministry of Construction and Housing's Project Renewal, a program that was begun in 1977 by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Originally also supported by the United Jewish Communities, Project Renewal was conceived of as a way to rehabilitate impoverished slum neighborhoods throughout the country. Project Renewal enlarged apartments, updated building facades, created balconies, revamped lobbies and tried to give the residents of these buildings - almost all of them poor immigrants living beneath the poverty line - a sense of pride in their building and community. By and large, most experts agree, Project Renewal, in Jerusalem as well as throughout the country, did not meet these goals. A brief tour of some of the other renovated buildings - such as the housing projects in the Shmu'el Hanavi neighborhood, for example, confirms that opinion. The buildings are neglected and already run-down, the grounds unkempt and scattered with garbage. Gerald Hyman, the architect for the renovation of the project on Derech Hebron 112, attributes this building's success to the innovative architecture he employed in the building's transformation, including separate entrances, hidden balconies for hanging laundry and two extra bedrooms per apartment. "The building next door, building 110, was also part of Project Renewal," explains Hyman, "It was given the same budget as building 112, but if you look at it now, it barely looks renovated. Nothing changed. Somehow we did something right, something that lasted over at building 112, and it shows." Halbani however, says that Project Renewal's success or failure has absolutely nothing to do with the architecture of a building and everything to do with the building's tenants. "We can give the tenants of a building all the tools in the world, all the money in the world to help with their building's upkeep, but if the residents don't care and don't invest the time and effort, then the Project will fail. The success of Project Renewal has... to do with the people who live behind the stone facade." Halbani insists. "Building 112 was not the most beautiful building that entered the contest, by far. But it won because the people who live in the building cared the most. I can show you a dozen other Project Renewal buildings that are more beautiful architecturally than building 112, but they didn't win the prize, they didn't even come close." Evidence of this is seen in the fact that the forty families in this particular block took initiative and turned to Project Renewal to provide them with funds for a garden. Monies were found, and together with their own symbolic contribution, a garden was planted. Avner Shalom, a resident of building 112 since 1986, says much of the credit goes to Halbani. "We were trying to get someone to take interest in our building for many years and none of the Construction and Housing ministers cared. The people who were placed in charge of Project Renewal over the years cared even less. The Shlomi came along, he really got things going. It wasn't an easy process and the architect was not easy to work with, but now we have a beautiful building. I'm personally in charge of the upkeep of the garden and I work on it day and night. It's not easy, there are over 30 children in our building, but we are all committed to the building." Halbani doesn't believe that building 112 will lose its first place prize at the January 4th hearing. Neither does he think that much will come out of the hearing. He is already planning next year's competition. "We hope to give all of Jerusalem six months advance warning, so that buildings throughout the city will have a chance to enter. Perhaps six months will be enough time to even encourage some buildings to get together and make a change in their building so that they can enter the competition. That was the point of this contest, to reward tenants who care and take care of their buildings." Eli Amar, director of Project Renewal nation-wide agrees with Halbani. He says that the next step for Project Renewal is to focus less on a building's facade and more on education and social programming as a means to effect change in these neighborhoods. "Jerusalem is the country's city. I lived in a poor neighborhood for 14 years. I know the problems that these neighborhoods face. The only way to effect change is to get the tenants to change they way they think about their living spaces. "Since 2002 we have added no new neighborhoods to Project Renewal for lack of government funding for the project. We hope within the next few months to iron out these funding issues so that we can take Project Renewal in a new direction, using education as a means to effect social change." In the meantime, prize or no prize, the residents of Derech Hebron 112 continue to take care of their gardens and to take pride in their building. Avner concludes, "The prize is nice but all it does is tell us something that we already know. We have managed to fulfill our dream."