Competitive markets

'In Jerusalem' shops around the capital and Tel Aviv to find the best shuk.

mahaneh yehuda 224 88 (photo credit: Ben Jacobson)
mahaneh yehuda 224 88
(photo credit: Ben Jacobson)
Any urban living aficionado with even minimal levels of expertise will insist that there is no microcosm more representative of a given city's character than its shuk (market). At the heart of most cities is the place where its commerce buzzes most, where blue-collar distributes the staples of living and, in the best cases, a level of esoteric charm is accessible to all. Tel Aviv's Shuk Hacarmel and Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda can in many ways be seen as emblematic of their cities' spirit. Each market is currently undergoing extensive construction projects, Jerusalem's now entering its final phase and Tel Aviv's just starting to kick into gear, and each has a storied historical narrative that mirrors the progress of its host city. In 1913, Zionist leader Arthur Ruppin paid a visit to Jews in Russia, persuading them to invest in the first from-scratch Jewish city on a strictly symbolic level. A few years later, when the investors fled the Russian Revolution with no savings and no income, they were glad they'd bought land along Tel Aviv's Allenby Street. By 1920, the city's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, officially opened Shuk Hacarmel to allow these families to sell produce. Although Tel Aviv's municipal government offered limited cooperation in the growth of Shuk Hacarmel over the years, the market soon spread to overlap with the growth of the neighboring Yemenite Quarter, and, in recent years, the regular street fairs and swanky retail of Nahalat Binyamin. Today, Shuk Hacarmel comprises some 350 shops on its main drag, plus countless unofficial stands and related stores in neighboring alleyways. Mahaneh Yehuda, on the other hand, grew out of the need of the first Jews to settle outside Jerusalem's Old City walls for access to groceries. In the mid-1870s, the dense residential neighborhood of contemporary Nahlaot was little more than a sequence of shared courtyard gardens and wheat fields, with regular community harvest cart fairs allowing residents to obtain enough foodstuffs not to need to drag back to the Old City. As the Jewish community grew, so did its commercial needs, and when the Etz Haim Yeshiva opened its doors in 1908, the organization's administration decided that stalls for shops should be built into the courtyard's outer walls to provide income for the yeshiva. With the help of Jerusalem-born banker Haim Valero, the marketplace soon expanded into Agas and Tapuah streets, and in subsequent generations, additional sections - like the Iraqi Shuk - were added. After the Six Day War, when development in Jerusalem began to accelerate, there were many attempts to renovate Mahaneh Yehuda, and even to move it to Talpiot, but as Nahlaot tour coordinator (and de-facto Mahaneh Yehuda archivist) Dvora Avi Dan puts it, these initiatives failed because "the shuk is smarter than people." Mahaneh Yehuda and Shuk Hacarmel both offer dazzling arrays of inexpensive and fresh produce, meats, candy, baked goods and nuts; packaged goods like coffee and preserves; and home-made treats like pickled vegetables, smoked fish and humous. Both are dotted with stands offering short-order refreshments like felafel, coal-charred skewers of chicken livers and freshly squeezed tropical juices. Both are frequented by eclectic crowds of tourists, foreign workers, old-time blue-collar workers, bohemian urbanites and bargain hunters. And both are known for their share of boorish yet endearing shopkeepers. A random sampling of prices at both markets yielded interesting results: The time of day is decisively a far more determining factor in pricing than whether one shops in Shuk Hacarmel or at Mahaneh Yehuda. A bag of pita generally goes for NIS 7 in both markets; 100 grams of ground cumin for NIS 6; a kilo of cucumbers for between NIS 2 and NIS 3; freshly-picked almonds for roasting for between NIS 3.50 and NIS 5; seedless watermelon for just under NIS 3 and a kilo-sized jar of premium homemade honey for NIS 42. Supermarkets are sometimes cheaper - especially when it comes to bulk packaged items like paper towels - but the freshness and quality of the produce, fish and meats can't be beat at either market. A consumer searching for a given esoteric item is likely to find it in either market, if he or she is willing to put in the time necessary for the search - although, depending on the nature of that item, the duration of the search may differ greatly between Mahaneh Yehuda and Hacarmel. In terms of culture and wares, the marketplaces do have distinct emphases. At Shuk Hacarmel, pork innards hang from hooks (and there's even a store called Kingdom of Pork), while non-kosher meats are hard to find in Mahaneh Yehuda. At Shuk Hacarmel, shopkeepers hail from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, while the vast majority of Mahaneh Yehuda's proprietors are descended from Kurdish immigrants. Mahaneh Yehuda has more fancy bakeries, imported cheese specialists, clothing boutiques, art galleries (and is overall far cleaner and more spacious), while Hacarmel has more novelty knickknacks like heart-shaped flip-flops and neon-dyed dominoes. Hacarmel may have more grit, but Mahaneh Yehuda has more romance, having spawned generations of nationally known figures like the Banai family of musicians and actors, president Yitzhak Navon and musical theater mainstay Rivka Raz. Having relocated to the Holy City towards the end of his life, celebrated wordsmith Pinhas Sadeh even wrote a full book of poems extolling the charms of Jerusalem's Jewish market. Mahaneh Yehuda may be a world unto itself, but Shuk Hacarmel is just one set of arteries within the greater metropolis of Tel Aviv, with bohemian living, folk crafts and highbrow art galleries and eateries all nearby in bordering pockets like Nahalat Binyamin, Rehov Sheinkin and the coastal promenade. TWENTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD welder Tareg Sa'adi, who commutes to south Tel Aviv from his home in Nazareth, stands bleary-eyed on the corner of one of Shuk Hacarmel's side alleys, enjoying a cigarette. He's been working for a day and a half straight, putting together new water and sewage pipes on a street that's been completely dug up for about a week, its stores closed for the construction. Sa'adi says his team is almost ready to close the holes they've dug, so that the new surface can be put down and business can resume, allowing them to move on to the next alleyway. The business owners have been understanding, he says, because "Everybody wants these improvements." The renovations are an integral part of the ambitious plans to celebrate Tel Aviv's centennial next year. Former spokesman for Darfur refugees, radio commentator and reality TV show champion Eytan Schwartz is a member of the centennial commission's leadership, and he's been living down the block from Shuk Hacarmel for five years now. Excited about the progress of the renovations, "I come here because it's much cheaper than the supermarket - and better and fresher," he says. "Yeah, it's fun." Tel Aviv's City Hall announced a few months ago that the municipal budget had allocated a whopping NIS 150 million for renovating Shuk Hacarmel to include new pipelines, more easily cleaned surfaces, increased parking, two apartment towers, brighter lighting, a more practical and attractive roof and even a tourism center. Daniela Rub, director of the City Quarter Administration, has unofficially named herself "the coordinator between the professionals of City Hall and the big players among the residents and business owners." Rub clearly has her work cut out for her. The latest statement available from City Hall describes a project steering commission as still in the process of being formed. But the biggest hurdle this early on in the process is to amend the Israel Lands Administration records so that Hacarmel will officially be considered a market, rather than merely a street with shops, as it stands now. Pipeline work on the southern alleyways is on target to be completed within two months. "It's just the beginning," she says. When her vision comes to fruition, Tel Aviv's heart will be a continuous line of swanky cosmopolitan living, running from the eastern end of Sheinkin all the way to the coast. Some restaurants and bars are already starting to creep into the market, which is encouraging to Rub. "It's a sign of development, and we must enjoy it," she says. Shuk Hacarmel's shopkeepers, in the meantime, seem skeptical - not only about the planned construction but even about the concept of joining together to defend their collective interests. Speaking anonymously, one proprietor who was born three blocks from the market and whose family has been a presence in the market for three generations, says, "They've spoken 20 times about improvements. I've heard a lot of things, and I want to see deeds and not just words." Speaking while closing up his women's tank-top stand, Dudi Leviezer, himself a 30-year Hacarmel veteran, asks, "What unification and coordination? I only hear about these things from the newspaper." But even if things were moving forward within the community of shopkeepers, Leviezer wants Hacarmel's grit to stay exactly as it exists today. "The shuk is the shuk, and that's how people see it," he says. "If you make it more upscale on them, they'll be scared to come here. People don't want it to be like that - they want chaos, you catch my drift? This is all that's left [of] Tel Aviv's old charm - this brings tourism and brings business." BACK IN Jerusalem, the very same process of confederation, improvements and coordinating with politicians was also rough, but it got started over 20 years ago, and now Mahaneh Yehuda is like one big family. Back in 1985, Uri Amedi and Heriberto Winter, two leaders from the Lev Ha'ir community council, turned to then-mayor Teddy Kollek with a proposal to improve conditions in Mahaneh Yehuda. Perhaps looking down on the working-class bastion that is Mahaneh Yehuda, Kollek was skeptical. Even though gentrification projects were hot following the Likud revolution of 1977, Jerusalem was still licking its wounds because of the manner in which residents of Yemin Moshe had recently been forced out of their homes to make way for Kollek and Yigael Yadin's vision of a guest house and residence quarter for international aristocrats, intellectuals and artists. After mulling over Amedi and Winter's proposal for two years, Kollek was wise enough to give an official green light. As Avi Dan puts it, "The more you include people, the more they'll be invested in it, and the more likely it is to succeed." By then, Amedi and Winter had invested much effort in unifying Mahaneh Yehuda's businessmen. Over 80 percent of them were active in forming the first shop owners' council at the end of 1986, meeting weekly. "That's the most important part," says Winter, looking back. Three generations of those whose lives centered around working in the market joined a soccer league, went on nature hikes, and even performed community service as a group - activities that continue to this day. Together with City Hall, the Mahaneh Yehuda council worked directly with Moriah, the construction group overseeing the expansion and renovation work. "This meant investments of thousands of shekels and dealing with street closures," says Winter - not to mention all of the pipeline digging and street closures that Rehov Agrippas and Jaffa Road have recently endured in the name of Jerusalem's light rail project. Today, the work in Mahaneh Yehuda is largely complete, with widened gray surfaces, bright lighting and even domed roofing in parts. Upscale shops are scattered among fishmongers, and people from all over the country and all over the world come to spend money and enjoy the colorful scenes. Now the last phase of work is about to begin: resurfacing in the side alleyways parallel with Rehov Agrippas. Some of the workers in Shuk Hacarmel might look down on the improvements in Mahaneh Yehuda, ridiculing it as sterile and lacking old-time character. But for the municipal leadership in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, Mahaneh Yehuda is a model of what ought to be. "They all come to us to learn a little bit about how to do proper administration," says Ilan Cohen, a senior leader at the Mahaneh Yehuda Management Authority offices. Winter has held meetings in recent months with delegations from Petah Tikva, Ramle, Beersheba and Shuk Hacarmel seeking his advice on how to make things happen similarly to Mahaneh Yehuda. Shuk Hacarmel's Leviezer doesn't buy it: "If you make changes like they're talking about, why would people come here? They'd go to the mall." He yells out an offer to a passerby who had apparently haggled with him earlier and turns back to what he was talking about. "That's what people love: 'Hey you! Come here!'"