Southern culture

erel margalit 88 (photo credit: )
erel margalit 88
(photo credit: )
As movie buffs from the Jerusalem Cinematheque make their way over to the Colony, a newly built restaurant, hidden away on the tracks just off Derekh Beit Lechem Street - a few minutes away, at the Khan theater, the performance is ending and people have to decide whether to dine in the theater's in-house restaurant, Limonim, or to make the five-minute trek to Emek Refaim, where they can choose from a broad range of eateries. Meanwhile, hipsters congregate at The Lab on Hebron Road for avant-garde video-art and then stay late into the night for drinks at the bar. Years ago, Jerusalem nightlife used to pulse mostly at the Ben-Yehuda promenade. Then, for many years, it seemed to have no pulse at all. Now, it all seems to be happening in the south, where Baka, Abu Tor and the German Colony intersect. And if Erel Margalit, Managing Partner of Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) and Chair of JVP Community, a non-profit established by the group, manages to implement his comprehensive vision, this area will gradually become a major cultural center and a very trendy night spot. The area is still a bit run-down, especially along Hebron Road, so it's difficult to believe that the Israel Museum is in talks to move a part of its contemporary art wing to the area or that Peter Bolan, who designed the Pixar building in Los Angeles and Bill Gates' home, was here just last week. Under the auspices of JVP and private businesses, Boland is making plans to turn the old Government Mint, across from the train station, into a 25,000-square-foot international media center, replete with an animation studio, gaming companies, high-tech media startups and a non-profit wing for emerging artists. "We believe that the next big breakthrough will come through a combination of technology and art. This is our future strategy," explains Rivi Beller, JVP's vice president of research development and vice chair of JVP Community. Margalit is no stranger to high-tech, having worked with Teddy Kollek in the early '90s to bring 70 such companies to Jerusalem. Later, when Margalit was starting his venture capital fund, Kollek offered to help raise funds - but at a price: the group was to base itself in Jerusalem and keep the city's name in its official title. Years later, not only has the promise been kept, but Margalit has made reviving Jerusalem his own personal mission, and as a result, found himself investing in the area around the train station. "I do not see myself as a philanthropist, I'm an entrepreneur trying to create a new center in Jerusalem that will connect between arts and technology," Margalit has said. As a personal project unrelated to his venture capital work, he decided to create The Lab, a non-profit center for performance art, aimed at inducing the graduates of the city's many art academies to stay in the area. "We started looking for a place and a real estate agent showed us this deserted area. We loved the two-sided Jerusalem wall and thought the dilapidated warehouse was amazing," recalls Beller. The sprawling warehouse soon became the home for the new venture, attracting young talents who receive grants to create, while established musicians, dancers, actors and filmmakers have a chance to show their work. "We look for a multi-disciplinary approach to the arts. We want to be a home for performances you would not necessarily see at other venues," says Lab director Guy Melamed, who has been in the position for four months. Projects, such as "XY God," an upcoming performance that includes a synthesis of cinema and Puppet Theater, is an example of the kind of work Melamed hopes to encourage. It is an adventure story about two images, created by an institution and born at a time when there are no other souls alive. The unusual storyline and the fact that the show brings together two modes of art in an unconventional way make it the perfect fit. "Connexion Francaise," a series of theatrical dance performances by top European artists, another good match for the Lab, will be performed all through next week. Yet, Melamed adds that the work ranges from the more cutting edges to the more traditional. The rustic, theater-in-the-round venue brings a new spin even to the more mainstream shows, and the Lab also hosts rock, jazz and world music groups. "I have two facets in mind at all times - the community aspect, developing new talent and the aspect of artistic excellence, making sure we host those at the top of their field," he says. In the two years since the Lab has been running, the area around it has begun a slow resurgence. About 100 meters away, a complex of new restaurants and bars is presently being constructed by various private businesses. Although they are unrelated to Margalit's initiative, the restaurants will likely benefit from the proximity to his planned media center and to the other venues in the area. A chic, non-kosher restaurant in the new circle is the only one within the complex to have opened for business. Three months old, it has been attracting a broad range of patrons, from families having dinner in the earlier hours of the evening to the young crowd who come for the live-music shows on Sunday nights. With its private wine room, plentiful champagne cocktails and lounge decor, it is no dive bar, and in fact Noam Rizi, Colony's owner, sees himself as "putting a lot of effort into the atmosphere." He also emphasizes his interest in working with other cultural sites in the area to create joint events. "We have personal ties and I'm sure we will work together in the future," says Rizi. The joint ventures idea is echoed by most in the area. A sign advertising an event that took place last summer involving the Cinematheque, The Lab and the municipality, still flies proudly alongside the rows of bleachers which the municipality helped to build for the festivities. Although it was hastily organized a mere two months prior to the event, the summer fun included movies under the stars provided by the Cinematheque and musical performances, courtesy of the Lab. Ariel, the municipal subsidiary company, performed most of the construction. According to Melamed, plans for more joint events with various area venues are already under way. "The more the merrier. We live in a time in which competition is good for us, not a time when we want to be the only one in the market," he says. With venues enthusiastic to work together, what remains to be seen is what cultural and social style will prevail in the area. With the rarified art and expensive restaurants in the area, will the clientele be mixed or mostly privileged? Margalit's stated social agenda includes outreach to weakened sectors of Jerusalem, a blend of support for the arts and a commitment to help poor neighborhoods. Active for some time in educating students from economically challenged towns, he has also helped to create theater groups for these young people, taught by actors who receive a stipend. Finally, the youngsters perform their shows at the Lab itself, and perhaps gain a love for the arts in the process. In addition to encouraging poorer Jerusalemites to get into the arts, the group would also welcome more involvement from the Arab community. Melamed cites past Lab programming that would be attractive to that audience, such as the play "Salome," adding that he makes decisions based on artistic, not political reasons and would welcome Palestinian artists alongside Israeli ones. However, Beller adds that "not enough" residents of East Jerusalem, Abu Tor or Beit Zefafa come to events regularly, something she hopes will change over time. The Lab also hopes to attract more patrons from the Jewish religious community. The former restaurant at the venue, Makom, now closed for renovations, will soon open with a difference. Like the Khan Theater's Limonim restaurant, it will soon be kosher. The two performances this weekend of Orthodox reggae singer Matisyahu, may also appeal to the kippa-wearing crowd. However, emerging religious artists and filmmakers, while welcome at the Lab, have not performed regularly thus far, according to Melamed. Finding an audience that reflects the diverse quality of Jerusalem is just one of the challenges that Margalit, JVP and other investors in the area will continue to face. For his part, Margalit believes the answer lies in a truly multifaceted approach to gentrification. "I believe that Jerusalem will not be redeemed by focusing on only one course of action. We need creative people for business. We need creative people for academic research. We need creative people for arts and for technology. Focusing on one of those areas alone will not make a real difference. Jerusalem needs a multi-dimensional vision that will connect between all types of creative people," he has said.