Looking ahead

As we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalemites contemplate what the coming years will hold.

Nahlaot 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Nahlaot 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
'I've seen this city change a lot through many different phases," says Binyamin Mizrachi, owner of a convenience store in Nahlaot, where he was born over 60 years ago and has lived most of his life. "My father bought this shop in 1956, when I was a little boy," he says. "We sold wheat batter used for kubeh, and later on I turned it into a makolet [corner store]." Based on what he's seen, Mizrachi is like many seasoned Jerusalemites. Their vision of the future is both hopeful and unconvinced, a combination of dreams for what could be, anchored in the reality of what's already been. But all seem to agree that change is in store for the future of this city. What that change will be, they say, has yet to be seen. Jerusalem has always been changing - be it from the hands of Roman emperors to Saladin or from the control of Ottoman Turks to British colonialists. But today Israel's capital, lauded by some as the heart and soul of the Jewish people, is a city undergoing intense internal change, ambitious modernization and gentrification that are transforming it into something new, propelling it toward a future that remains unknown. Until the 1860s, Jerusalem's Old City constituted its entirety. Much like today, the Jerusalem of old was home to Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians. Overcrowding forced residents to move outside its walls, often at great risks to their own health and safety. Settlement began to cover the wide plains and rocky inclines that surround the Old City. Since then, the city has grown to nearly 50 square miles and is home to more than 700,000 residents - Israel's largest city and the main destination for millions of international tourists - a dream born from the squalor and neglect that characterized the city just a century ago. After all, when paratroopers broke into what is now the Western Wall Plaza during the Six Day War, they found a shantytown - a ramshackle enclave of housing that left only a narrow corridor to allow pious Jews, the Yerushalmim, access to the Western Wall. Still, the moment - captured in a famous photograph - seized them. With a gaze transfixed upward, the army chaplain holding a shofar in hand, the paratroopers must have known that they were changing the city once again. In the 41 years since the city was unified, construction has continued apace and tourists continue to flock here. The city's myriad hotels, restaurants and taxi drivers - among others - rely on their arrival for a livelihood. The city's museums boast international rarities, and its universities feature curricula envied the world over. The city is overflowing with religious centers and synagogues, testament to a free Judaism that is able to flourish in the very city deemed its holiest. But problems exist as well. Former mayor Ehud Olmert gave his blessing to a light rail system intended to link the city with commuter points from Pisgat Ze'ev to Mount Herzl, in a bid to drastically increase efficiency and assist commerce. But the mass-transport plans, including the light rail, laid out by City Hall have also added to residents' skepticism, as track work has caused traffic delays and changes to key bus routes, paralyzing some neighborhoods and cutting off businesses in others. Foreign investment in real estate, attributed mainly to wealthy Diaspora Jews, has driven housing prices up and long-time residents out, with the city's continuing battle over its character and religious-secular divide lurking just below the surface. The scars of the second intifada remain as well, and tensions between the city's Jewish and Arab residents are cause for concern. In light of these concerns, just how do Jerusalemites envision life in the city in the coming years? Mayor Uri Lupolianski is optimistic. "Jerusalem is the leading city in Israel," he says. "I see a bright future in store. The best educational institutions of learning and universities are in Jerusalem. The leading medical institutes and hospitals are in Jerusalem, and the city is a leader in health and technology advances as well. The city will continue to be a leader in these areas and others as it continues to grow." As far as the cost of living is concerned, the mayor sees no cause to worry. "Jerusalem is the only city that provides benefits and housing to students who study here," he says. "As part of the Lupolianski package, we have helped and are continuing to help students and hi-tech workers with their rent and other necessities." The mayor says his administration is planning to build thousands of new housing units to accommodate people who want to live in the capital, and has eased the burden of finding new housing for those who already do. He emphasizes the great expanses of greenery Jerusalem enjoys, citing Jerusalem's parks and green areas as the country's largest. "I appreciate the criticism heard from the residents," says the mayor. "But when I look around, I see a modern city that's one of the most advanced, where young people can one day raise their children among the vast and different groups that make up the city." But city council opposition leader Nir Barakat, who has made it clear that he plans to run against Lupolianski in the fall, takes on a slightly different tone. "The city's future will depend on its leadership and its vision and its ability to execute," says Barakat. "If the current trend continues, Jerusalem will continue to lose most of its young population due to lack of jobs and the high cost of housing. The future of Jerusalem can only be secured if new leadership is elected that has a holistic vision for the future and the ability to implement it," he asserts. "This vision must include protecting and preserving Jerusalem's special spirit, atmosphere, religion and other unique values such as developing the job market, improving education, and ensuring that Jerusalem remains the Jewish and undivided capital of the Jewish people." Barakat also touches on citizens' concerns over transportation. "The fact is that for the past four years, the city has been completely mismanaged," he says. "In some cases, it hasn't been managed at all. Transportation and the mismanagement of the light rail system are the perfect example. Double cost, double time and aggravation to the residents and visitors are troubling, to say the least. The business sector is suffering from lack of municipal services, and the migration out of the city is continuing at a rapid rate." What about the perspective from outside city hall? How do Jerusalem's non-politicians picture tomorrow? What do they believe will be the next change, big or small, for the sacred city? What hopes do they hold for the future and which seem most likely to take hold? "I want to see a special Jerusalem," says Mizrachi, sitting outside his shop. One of his main concerns for the future of the city is the possibility it might be divided as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, a move some feel will take away from the relative security the city has enjoyed over the past few years. "People should be able to come here without fear," he says. "Tourists shouldn't be afraid to come here. They'll bring the work that the city needs." Mizrachi is also opposed to the ongoing light-rail construction and, in particular, the large bridge that has been erected near the Central Bus Station as part of it. "It's spoiling the view," he says of the bridge. "You build a bridge over water, not a city. The Jerusalem view is extremely important," he asserts. "If you go up on the hill over here and look out on the rooftops of the city, it's beautiful. There's nothing like it in the world." But Mizrachi's most personal concern is the gentrification of his childhood neighborhood, Nahlaot. Development and investment have made it one of the city's most expensive, and the neighborhood's veteran residents are either moving out or passing away. "Nahlaot used to have three separate sections," Mizrachi says. "There were the Yemenites, the Halabim (Syrian Jews from Aleppo) and the Kurds." Mizrachi belongs to the last group. "Over the years, the old people died, the young people left, and new people from all over the world have come in." Mizrachi isn't opposed to the newcomers per se, but he does feel as though he's been pushed out of a place he has called home for years. "Our kids who want to come back and live here, can't do it," he says. "It's just too crowded and expensive." Mizrachi is not alone. Even those who would be moving into those neighborhoods closest to the city center, such as Nahlaot, find it exceedingly difficult to secure a place to live. "Property prices are rising," says Daniel Ben-Nun, a 26-year-old transplant to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. "My job brought me to Jerusalem," he says, "but I can barely afford to live close to where I work." Ben-Nun believes the solution to the housing crisis lies with the city's leadership, and he wants to see them embark on initiatives that cater to the young professional sector. "I think the return of a large number of Israeli youth would be positive," he says. "My father lived in Jerusalem in the mid-1970s and told me that at that timepoint, Jerusalem was like Tel Aviv in that Israeli youth from across the country came to the city to work after the army. There was a nice cross-section of Israeli society at that time - moshavnikim, kibbutznikim, secular, religious. I would like to see incentives given to accomplish that again," he says. "Something similar was done in Tel Aviv, when that city realized it was losing its young students and workforce," Ben-Nun explains. "A rent control policy was instituted that stabilized the market and prevented those people from leaving." But Ben-Nun also believes that there is a religious-secular issue in Jerusalem that Tel Aviv doesn't have to deal with. "There seemed to have been a relationship between the secular and the religious that was built on mutual respect. I think that has changed in recent years," says Ben-Nun. "Both sides have become more extreme, and that's certainly illustrated in Jerusalem. I think there should be promotion of coexistence between the two groups. Making Jerusalem more pluralistic would definitely be something I'm in favor of." Ben-Nun's sentiments aren't reserved for Jerusalem's secular population alone. Yael Inbar, originally from Ramot, identifies herself as modern Orthodox. Her concerns echo many of Ben-Nun's and are apparent in her vision for the city she calls home. "It's hard for young people to live here," she says, standing in front of a gift shop near the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. "There's a reason people are leaving this city, and it's not because they don't want to live here. I'm more than happy to live with secular people, religious people; it doesn't matter so much. What matters to me is that property taxes and electricity in Jerusalem are the highest in the country. Where do we have the money for that?" Inbar explains that she and her husband have been forced to move to Adam, a small community east of Jerusalem, while they decide where to relocate permanently. There, she explains, bills are more manageable and the cost of living is at a level they can afford. Still, the Inbars prefer to live in Jerusalem, a desire that has proven hard for the young couple. While the two still work in the area, their commute has become more of an issue, and her vision for the city reflects that. "The new train and the changes to bus routes have created a lot of traffic, and it's hard to get around," she says. "I think the city should figure out what they're doing with transportation and speed it up. Then, I would love to see the city thrive and become more attractive. We need more cafés and restaurants. I'm not the type to go to pubs and such, but it would be nice to have more places to go out and enjoy yourself." In the Mahaneh Yehuda market, where opinions are often bellowed out at the same volume as prices, similar sentiments are heard. "I want to see something simple," says Ya'acov Ben-David, proprietor of Ben-David Spices. "I want everyday kind of people to be able to live in Jerusalem, not just rich people. Some neighborhoods are just impossible to live in anymore," he says. "I want everyone to be able to afford to live here. I love this city and I want my children to live here, but at the pace things are moving now, I don't know if that will happen." Concerns over the city's future, however, are not met without the distinct impression that Jerusalem residents, while vocal in their criticism about the hardships and difficulties associated with living here, all seem to do so out of a deep love for their city. "Jerusalem is a unique and beautiful place," says Mizrachi, "and it's our job to keep it that way. We have the responsibility of taking care of this city, nobody else." But as the early summer evening sky mellows with the cool Jerusalem breeze, Mizrachi sits outside his store, greeting customers with a joke and a smile and soaking in that beautiful Jerusalem view, the way he has nearly every evening for over 50 years. While he has seen people come and go and the face of the city change over and over again, he's one Jerusalem resident who's happy to stay put - proof that some parts of Jerusalem aren't changing so readily just yet.