Up and coming

The Project Renewal plan for the Katamonim is already making waves in the neighborhood.

jerusalem city center 29 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
jerusalem city center 29
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sarah doesn't know her exact age and her Hebrew is mixed with Kurdish, her mother tongue. She lives on one of the narrow little streets of the Katamonim neighborhood, and she is so afraid to speak with a reporter that she doesn't give her full name or address. "I would like to die in my little house with my little garden and my old neighbors. I do not need a bigger house," she says. "The two rooms in which I have raised my family [seven children] are more than enough for me. "I don't trust these people I have never met before who come knocking at my door and offer me lots of things I don't even understand," she adds, referring to the deluge of real estate investors who are eager to buy up property at lower prices in anticipation of the area's development. "There are dozens or more people like my mother here, who feel threatened by all these new [proposed residential] projects in the Katamonim, and even though I do understand there might be some good in it, I feel uncomfortable because I don't think we can trust the investors who have suddenly arrived here," says her daughter. "When the community center issued a call to come and hear the details [in 2006 about development plans for the area], I went and even volunteered for a while," she continues. "My generation is different - we know we have rights. "In my family we have decided to leave [the neighborhood] for personal reasons," she adds. "I don't want to be identified since even my closest neighbor still doesn't know about it. "I am sad about the idea that this place, where I was born and raised, is going to change." The attitudes held by Sarah and her daughter are, in different ways, typical of the atmosphere these days in the Katamonim. The 34,000-strong southern Jerusalem neighborhood, made up mostly of immigrants from North Africa, Kurdistan, Iraq, Persia and Yemen, has for many years been considered one of the poorest areas in the city. But recently, the neighborhood has experienced a renewal and its slum-like living conditions have begun to improve. In the Seventies, the Katamonim became known as a center of social protest, with its residents demonstrating, often violently, for social and economic justice. Few wanted to live in what was frequently referred to as the "Harlem of Jerusalem," with many residents seeking to escape its poverty, lack of education, violence and even criminality. But over the years, its population has diversified, with its relatively cheap real estate attracting young couples and families, most of them educated, including Anglos, new immigrants and students. This gradual population shift coupled with changes posed to the area by a proposed comprehensive neighborhood plan titled "Community Renewal of the Katamonim" are both a source of hope and anxiety for many who live here. Under discussion are two projects that are different in scale and impact: the Pinui-Binui (raze and build) plan, a national initiative by the Construction and Housing Ministry that evacuates residents to reconstruct an area; and Jerusalem Master Plan 2020, which is based on three main mechanisms: increased density in some neighborhoods, expansion in others and creation of new neighborhoods. The first requires 75 percent resident approval for any one building, the second, 50%. At this stage the plans are expected to be implemented in five areas in all the Katamonim except Het and Tet. Renewal plans for the area got a push with the cancelation of the Safdie Plan in February 2007, which created a subsequent need for alternative solutions to the growing need for dwellings inside the city. One such alternative was prepared by Uri Bar-Shishat on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which proposed the addition of floors to existing low buildings. "The Ministry of Construction and Housing and the Planning Committee of the Ministry of Interior, who are in charge of these issues, revisited these ideas [such as of Bar-Shishat], and that's how we finally obtained the whole plan of urbanizing the dwellings in the Katamonim, besides the second initiative of Pinui-Binui, which is very different [from densifying an area]," says Dorit Peri, who was hired by the Construction and Housing Ministry as a social consultant for the development process in the neighborhood. In addition to the nixed Safdie Plan, the Local Planning Committee became very concerned by the large number of requests for building additions and retroactive permits for additions that had already been constructed. "We just couldn't stay indifferent to the ever-growing number of requests," says a municipal official. "It was clear that with the organic changes that were going on in the Katamonim with the influx of young couples and families who needed to embellish and enlarge the small original apartments, we were facing huge changes in the neighborhood itself. And it was clear that it was only a matter of time before we would be forced to institute some order, especially when we began to realize that some of the building requests came from contractors and real estate investors, who created some tension on the ground - like who's going to sell and who's going to buy and whose interests it will serve." THE GONENIM (Hebrew for Katamonim) Community Center's attitude toward the renewal project is predicated on empowering residents to participate in the decision and planning process. "It is not such a new thing," says center director Avi Nuriel. "We already faced this situation about 10 years ago, when former city engineer Uri Sheetrit decided to launch a renewal project in the Katamonim. "I told him then that he couldn't just show up and announce such a project, that it needed the residents' approval. So he and his assistants came to the community center to 'meet the residents,'" he recalls. "You know what happened? They [residents] threw him out of here, they shouted and yelled at him and he finally had to go and drop the whole idea, at least for a while." Nuriel is quick to clarify that the residents' response was not a personal affront to Sheetrit, but rather, "It was a clear case of people who no longer accept that someone somewhere decides something that will affect their life without consulting them first. "There was a meeting here [in 2006], at the community center, with representatives of the Construction and Housing Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the municipality. Hundreds of residents came, hundreds. And they also yelled and shouted at the ministry and municipal representatives," Nuriel recalls. "But at least this time, we [ministry and municipal representatives] all came with a different attitude: consulting the residents is no longer a masquerade, it is serious and the residents understand it so they react - ultimately - differently." One of the indications of the more serious attitude of the establishment toward the residents' will and participation came in the decision, "a surprising one" says Nuriel, to hire Peri, a former high-ranking employee in the municipal social welfare department. "Hiring Peri as a social consultant by the Ministry of Construction and Housing, especially for this renewal project in Katamonim, was a tremendously important message - both the position and the person chosen - as for years Peri has been very respected by the city in her capacity as a municipal employee in the field of community and social work," he says. "Basically, it [hiring her] said that 'we, the government and the establishment, take you, the residents, the inhabitants of the neighborhood, seriously and treat you with respect,' and that made all the difference," he explains. "Although don't get me wrong, the decision to renew, build and extend the Katamonim has yet to be approved and it's not going to be easy. "This time, the first step was to ensure that the residents would not only be consulted, but first and foremost, to ensure that they understood their options and had the tools to decide what was best for them," he continues. "So many times before we had seen how citizens were swamped by options and proposals, while in fact, they didn't have a clue of what it really meant in terms of their own interests. I wanted to be sure that this time that wouldn't happen here." "We need to be cautious," says Peri. "I know that during and after the conclusion of these projects, there will be people who will suffer, and there will also be quite a lot who will be frustrated, even angry. But I also know that we are all - the ministries involved, the community center, the resident action committees, the residents and activists - doing our utmost to make it better," concludes Peri. "I AM AWARE of the fact that it could turn out to be something good for us, residents of the Katamonim," says Bracha Arguani, chairman of the Association for Housing Rights. "The problem with contractors is that they usually do not share our interests. For example, I live on a nice and quiet little street, Rehov Antigonus. I have a nice and calm little apartment, which I hope to enlarge once I have the means to do so, and I also have a nice little garden, which is my paradise. I don't want to see large dwellings around me one morning. "My apartment building has only two floors, like almost all the dwellings here. I really wouldn't like to discover one morning that in place of my neighbors, I have a four- or seven-floor building, which would totally change the local atmosphere I have known my whole life," she continues. "But not far from here, where my mother has lived since she arrived here in the Fifties, in a huge tenement block which is falling apart, that's where I would like to hear from contractors that would offer some honest proposal - like destroying the block and building a nice building instead. I wouldn't mind five or even seven floors, as long as it is affordable and modern," she says. "But the problem is that the exact opposite is happening: Contractors and investors are hounding me, not my mother and her neighbors, because it's not economically interesting. "And it's not only me or my mother. We can stand the pressure, but others cannot," continues Arguani. "Take the old people here, or the many single mothers, who live below the poverty line, contractors buy them with a piece of cake. They offer them close to nothing to convince them to leave, and where to? To the streets? To a place where they will not enjoy the community atmosphere we have here? That's the problem." Journalist Yossi Sayidoff moved to the Katamonim five years ago. The married father of a one-year-old is typical of the neighborhood's new residents: young, educated, secular or national religious and eager to find a nice, calm and relatively inexpensive place to make one's home. Sayidoff and his family live near Rehov Ma'agalei Yavne, in what is considered the third of five sections of the proposed neighborhood renewal project. However, he and his closest neighbors, Sayidoff says, were among the last to hear about the project. "When we finally heard about it, and since we are very active on issues of [creating and maintaining] green spaces, we all came to the [Gonenim] Community Center to hear more," he recalls. "I agree that 600 residents or even more who come to hear and participate [in a community center meeting about the renewal project] is a very impressive figure, but let's not forget that we're talking about [an area with] some 16,000 people." While Sayidoff is cautious not to dismiss the project, he insists that, "things are not at their optimum. It is crucial that those responsible - whether it is the Gonenim Community Center, the Construction and Housing Ministry or the municipality - obtain the necessary funds to expand the knowledge [of the renewal project] and thus the participation of more residents [in the decision-making process]," he says. "I think we should have elections in the neighborhood so that any decision made will have the authority of an elected representative," he adds. COMMUNITY ADVOCACY head Barbara Epstein believes the way the project is handled will determine its success. "People have to understand that no one is obliged to agree to a proposal. All the people and institutions involved will have to understand what is at stake. There are people who came here because they wanted a quality of life they couldn't afford somewhere else - the Katamonim is in fact in the city center, with the atmosphere of a village. "People will ask themselves what happened to the little house surrounded by a garden that we came here for? They will ask about the plans - will there be towers built? How shall we ensure green areas? Of course the quarter needs embellishment, improvement - but what kind? Who's going to decide what?" continues Epstein. "I think that in this particular case, the most important thing is to ensure a real dialogue with the residents," she adds. "I'll put it this way: Raising residents' awareness is the key for the success of the whole project. Also they [the municipality] should be very careful not to try to use this project to fulfill all that was canceled in the Safdie Plan - this is a project for the Katamonim, not a reparation for something else. "I have confidence in City Engineer Shlomo Eshkol, whose vision takes into consideration residents' needs, but still, we should all be very careful and remember that residents have the basic right to decide what's good for them," says Epstein. THE PROPOSED area for development was divided into five sections, each one with its own volunteers and activists, who then sent their representatives to the various committee meetings, and not only as spectators but as well-informed participants on even ground. "They come with their own proposals, their own solutions that they formulated after consulting the residents," says Peri. "They don't come just to listen to what others decide to give them or not. This process has been very different than usual, and in fact, I hope it will serve as a model for the whole country, wherever there is a renewal project." One way the Katamonim succeeded in involving residents in the process was to create an online network of volunteers. For example, the Gonenim Community Center Web site has a special link to the renewal project, with all the latest information, upcoming meetings, the details of the different proposals and a discussion forum - all of which are frequently visited by residents, Nuriel says. The increased transparency of the process brought about a tremendous change in the residents' attitude toward the renewal project, say Peri and Nuriel, which is reflected in their high participation in the online forum. "Nothing has been approved yet," says Nuriel, who is leaving his position at the end of the month. "But at least for the moment, the focus is clear to all: Residents have rights, and the community center and social services are the vehicle through which they can ensure these rights."