Problems at home

As tourists flock to the Old City's Jewish Quarter, residents feel they have been given a raw deal.

jewish quarter 88 (photo credit: )
jewish quarter 88
(photo credit: )
On April 24, the day of an Armenian procession through the Old City, an 80-year-old Jewish Quarter resident was returning by taxi from dialysis treatment at a local hospital. Because of the procession, no cars could enter the narrow street leading from the Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. The exhausted, ailing man asked to be allowed to remain seated in the taxi until the procession passed. The police officer on duty, however, insisted that the cab clear the area. The elderly man had no choice but to get out and walk from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. He was hospitalized the following day and died a week later. On Sunday, May 14, without advance warning, Jewish Quarter residents awoke to find that the route of their minibus line - No. 38 - had been changed. No longer did it travel past the old train station and through Keren Hayesod and King George streets to Jaffa Road. Now, it wound its way up Rehov Hativat Yerushalayim to City Hall and on to Jaffa Road, inconveniencing both schoolchildren and commuters who had relied on the previous route to reach their destinations quickly and efficiently. These two occurrences are only the latest in a series of incidents that Jewish Quarter residents point to as indicative of a decline in their quality of life - brought on, they claim, by the failure of the various authorities responsible for the Jewish Quarter to relate to their neighborhood as one populated by living residents and not just a tourist attraction. Over the past few years, the local post office has closed and the only bank branch has reduced its hours to only two afternoons a week. The parking situation, always a problem, has gotten worse, and residents complain that the authorities have become lax about keeping cars out of the narrow streets. In a neighborhood short on public open space, the Jewish Quarter's main square has been partially turned into a construction site due to the NIS 25 million Hurva synagogue reconstruction project. Renovation of the neighborhood's largest playground, Hatekuma Park, has been held up due to a failure to reach agreement between the two bodies responsible for the neighborhood - the Jerusalem Municipality and the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter. Neighborhood residents, who have been complaining for years about the filth and the garbage, now add illegal parking and illegal building additions to their list of grievances. Moreover, they are still smarting from the company's sale of a number of public buildings and national historic properties to private groups some seven years ago. The Jewish Quarter, adjacent to Judaism's holiest site, the Temple Mount, is home to approximately 600 families, totaling some 4,000 residents. In 1969, two years after the reunification of Jerusalem, the Israeli government established the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter. Its mandate was to rebuild, develop and repopulate the Old City's Jewish Quarter, which had been reduced to ruins during the 19 years of Jordanian occupation between 1948 and 1967. Reconstruction was largely completed by the late 1970s. In fact, the State Comptroller's Report of 1992 declared that the company's existence was no longer justified. Yet the company continues to serve as the Jewish Quarter's landlord, managing state-owned property totaling hundreds of millions of shekel. "The Jewish Quarter is a national treasure," states Shoshana Selevan, who has lived in the neighborhood for some 20 years. "This neighborhood should be clean, have decent public transportation, adequate parking, green areas, etc." "Despite the fact that we are the jewel in the crown of Jerusalem and Israel, we have the quality of life of a third-world refugee camp," says Ada Paldor, who has lived in the Jewish Quarter for about 30 years. For years, residents have complained about the lack of adequate parking. There are only 170 parking spots in the lot designated for the Jewish Quarter's 600 families. "The situation is catastrophic," relates longtime resident Kalman Cohen. "The parking is the major reason people move out of the Jewish Quarter. We have been complaining for years. But instead of building more parking, the company embarks on the Hurva project." "Not only don't we need another shul [synagogue] in this neighborhood, this project has turned our main public square into a construction site. "We are told there is no solution for the parking problem," Paldor continues, "but there are solutions. Using prefabricated parts, another level could be added over the existing one in a matter of weeks. This is not a long-term solution but it would go a long way towards alleviating things." The Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter responds that it is working with the municipality to find a solution that will enable a significant change in parking and traffic arrangements in the Old City and "sees this as a project of the highest national and strategic importance." A new 600-spot parking lot for residents and visitors has been planned. With access from under the Old City walls, the structure will still preserve the area's infrastructure, ecology and archeology. The plan has been approved by the city engineer's office and is currently in the final stages before submission to the district planning and construction committee. "The welfare of the Jewish Quarter's residents and visitors is our highest priority," explains the company's director-general Nissim Arazi. "Our job, as the government's sole arm in the Old City basin, is to preserve the character, balance and ratio between residential, commercial and tourism in one of the most sensitive areas in the world." But residents claim that the authorities no longer adequately control the number of cars allowed into the Jewish Quarter. At night, many of the neighborhood's narrow alleyways are clogged by illegally parked vehicles. "I came home one night and access to my street was blocked by illegally parked cars," relates Paldor. "If there were a fire or someone needed an ambulance, the emergency vehicles could not get through." When Paldor called the police to complain, she fell victim to what residents say is another of the Jewish Quarter's problems - they seem to fall between the cracks between the various bodies responsible for the neighborhood. "When I called the police, I was told this was not their responsibility - that I should call the municipality," Paldor explains. "The municipality told me to call the police. The same thing happened to me when I wanted to complain about illegal building in the neighborhood. I was bounced around between the municipality and the company." Almost every resident one meets complains about the filth and the garbage. "The municipality says it cleans but it doesn't know how to take care of a place with such large numbers of tourists," Selevan complains. "You walk through and see how dirty the streets are," says one resident who requested anonymity. "When the restaurants close on Friday afternoons, there are piles of garbage." Jerusalem Municipality spokesman Gidi Schmerling told In Jerusalem that, "The Jewish Quarter receives the highest level of service from the sanitation department. Garbage is collected six days a week, and there are daily sweepings and cleanings as well. A cleaning machine is operated every morning and manual sweeping is done every afternoon. It should be noted that in other parts of the city garbage is collected only three days a week." But Hatekuma Park, adjacent to the Old City walls, is littered with trash. Its water fountain is broken, fencing torn, and playground equipment in need of repairs. The company budgeted NIS 300,000 for maintenance and development work in 2005, but a dispute with the municipality has held this up, too. "The original agreement with the municipality was that upon completion of this project, the park would be transferred to the municipality, which would assume responsibility for its ongoing maintenance," a Company spokesman says. "On the eve of carrying out this work, the municipality set various conditions including specifications for cleanliness, gardening, safety rails, irrigation pipes, etc., costing some NIS 1 million. The company held comprehensive discussions with the municipality but a solution has still not been found that is satisfactory to both parties." In parallel, the company has begun work on the park. At this stage, the company has a remaining balance of NIS 162,000 from the original budget which, it says, it will use for the park, without transferring it to the municipality." Municipal spokespersons further told IJ, "Gan Hatekuma is located in a difficult topographical area. The municipality has demanded the implementation of safety precautions. Those demands apply to areas and parks that are about to be handed over to municipal maintenance. The municipality is committed to the safety of all those who use the park and will not compromise on these demands." Added to the ongoing parking, maintenance and garbage problems, the Jewish Quarter's residents now have two new pressing complaints - the changing of the bus route and the worsening access problem during holidays and processions. After 417 residents signed a petition protesting the bus route change, they were informed that "a representative of the municipal transportation department" would meet with them on June 21 at the Jewish Quarter's Community Center. But when they arrived, they found that "representative" Amnon Elian is, in fact, a community officer of the light rail project who didn't have the slightest idea about bus No. 38. Elian handled the situation with grace, listened to the residents' complaints and promised to pass them on to the relevant authorities in the municipality. "The route of bus No. 38 was changed," the municipal spokesman's office told IJ, as the result of a joint decision of the municipality, the Transportation Ministry and Egged, due to roadwork on King George Avenue and the need to connect the bus route to the Karta parking lot, the main parking lot for the Old City. The municipality hopes that this change will bring better service and a higher quality of life to the residents of Jerusalem, including those of the Old City, as well as visitors." "This is ridiculous," Selevan responds. "Our little minibus is the straw that breaks the camel's back. No other bus line has been changed because of roadwork on King George." As for the access problem, residents complain that the dialysis patient was not the only person affected. During Hol Hamoed Pessah this year, a community center bus returning from a trip with some 50 of the Jewish Quarter's children on board was not permitted to go to the Zion Gate parking lot to unload. "The driver was told the parking lot was full. He explained he didn't want to park, only to let the children off. But no one was listening," Selevan states. In response, Mickey Hacohen, executive director of the Jewish Quarter's Moross Community Center, wrote a letter to the local police commander, Yossi Parinti, on May 16, stating, "I regret that once again, there has been a lack of understanding on the part of the police to the sensitive situation of Jewish Quarter residents. I would appreciate it if you would again instruct all police officers to treat the residents more humanely, especially the sick and the elderly." Parinti response stated that with regard to the death of the dialysis patient, "Your assertion that the resident's death was caused by callousness and lack of knowledge [on the part of police officers] is problematic and unfounded." Parinti invited Hacohen to meet with him to discuss the matter further but they have yet to arrange the meeting. "Living here in the Jewish Quarter is becoming more and more of a fight about the post office, the bank, the garbage collection, street cleaning, the bus, the parking etc. It is a full-time job. And in every aspect, we are getting poor service. It is insanity what is going on here," concludes Paldor.