Derailing the market?

Current work on the light rail tracks has stymied business at a beloved Jerusalem landmark.

With the sounds of metal gates being pulled open, doors being unlocked and merchandise maneuvered into place at the Mahaneh Yehuda market, jackhammers, bulldozers and the yells of day laborers mix in. Track work for the city's light rail, which began months ago downtown, has now stretched up Rehov Jaffa and arrived at Mahaneh Yehuda, causing congestion and chaos at the market's already crammed entrance. Taking up a significant portion of Rehov Jaffa, the track work has left only a thin strip of asphalt for traffic to negotiate through; and the shuk's bus stops, formerly positioned a few steps from the market's entrance, are now across the street. A crossing, meant to serve pedestrians and vehicles during the temporary duress, cuts across the street and the track work, leading toward the shuk. But when buses arrive en masse, dozens of shoppers spill out and make their way toward the shuk. Pedestrians have to walk in the street, braving oncoming traffic. "You have a red light!" a woman yells at a cab driver racing through the crossing. "No, you have a red light," he shouts back. "This is dangerous," another woman remarks as she drags her shopping cart behind her. "Everything is dangerous," the first woman retorts. "These days, just to live is dangerous." Her words are especially poignant outside Mahaneh Yehuda. The gravity of the situation is not lost on shukgoers. Every shopper who spoke with In Jerusalem expressed outrage at the ongoing work, complaining of the danger, the slow pace of the work and their lack of faith in the municipality. "There's only one crossing," says Yehezkel, an elderly Jerusalem resident . "All the taxis come through here, and it just causes a mess. They should close down this whole light rail business immediately! How long is it supposed to take, anyway? I don't know if I'll even be around to enjoy it by the time they're done." But pedestrians aren't the only ones hurting. Local businesses, especially those facing Rehov Jaffa from the market, are losing customers in droves. "We're down 70 percent," says Yosef Tashor, the owner of a Judaica shop at the corner of the shuk's entrance. "We called the municipality and asked for a discount on our property tax, on our bills, something. They told us to write a letter!" Thank God we own this place and don't have to pay rent. If we had to deal with that every month, we'd be out of business by now. Our friend down the street rents two places, and all he can do is cry." Other store owners have similar complaints. "Does it look like anyone would want to come eat here?" asks Avraham Mizrachi, whose felafel stand is at the entrance to the shuk. "Nobody wants to come to a place that looks like it's been destroyed." Nonetheless, the city has yet to take any further steps - besides the pedestrian/vehicle crossing - to alleviate merchants' or shoppers' concerns. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who took office just last week, has stated that he is in favor of halting work on the light rail altogether if it would prove beneficial for the overall situation of Jerusalem residents. "The mayor has spoken about this before the election and afterwards," Barkat's spokesman Evyatar Elad says. "He wants to reevaluate the situation from the ground up, check all the various facets of the task at hand, and then he'll make a decision. A team has been set up to re-examine the light rail, and it's begun looking into it. The mayor will make his decision based on what it tells him. Whatever is best for the residents of Jerusalem, he'll do." For the time being, however, residents will just have to sit tight. "The mayor knows about the situation at Mahaneh Yehuda inside and out," Elad continues. "He's met with store owners many times and is working hard to tackle the situation. He knows quite well the hardships facing businesses there and is examining ways to alleviate them." But the resounding question at Mahaneh Yehuda is not how to alleviate the problems, but when the work is supposed to be completed once and for all. "In a year from now, the hardest work will be over, and the finishing touches will already be done on the Jaffa Road pedestrian mall," says light rail spokesman Shmulik Elgrably. "But right now, we're going through the hardest phase, and it's unfortunate but there are going to be some continuing inconveniences." However, Elgrably also recommends that merchants ask for lowered property taxes and utility bills, among other discounts. "We also plan to sponsor different 'happenings' in and around Mahaneh Yehuda to bring more shoppers to businesses that might be seeing a drop in sales," Elgrably adds. "We appreciate the Jerusalem public's enormous amount of patience on this project, but we are going to continue to ask for that patience over the next year. This is the first time any major public work has taken place in downtown Jerusalem since the time of the Turks, and it's the first time in the history of the State of Israel that we've tried to build a light rail inside a city, so there are going to be hiccups and there will be mistakes, but that doesn't mean the whole project is a failure. Whenever something is built, there has to be a period of transition, that's only natural. And I promise, when this light rail is finished and the work on the pedestrian mall is done, Jaffa Road will not only be the most beautiful street in Jerusalem, it will be the most beautiful street in all of Israel." Back at the shuk however, patience was not overly apparent. "We're down 50%," says Eliyahu, who works at a corner kiosk next to the crossing. "This is by far the hardest hit we've ever been, and it makes me sad. Mahaneh Yehuda is the heart of Jerusalem, and the city has put up a wall around it. I'm embarrassed to bring my friends here who come to visit. It's nothing short of a catastrophe."