Florentin - from Salonika to Soho

Florentin in south Tel Aviv is a neighborhood literally and symbolically on the margins, an area of contradictions and convergences.

With a mixed, predominantly poor and transientpopulation, yet with a growing yuppie presence, and its location out onthe edge of the first Hebrew City, Florentin in south Tel Aviv is aneighborhood literally and symbolically on the margins, an area ofcontradictions and convergences.

Itis an industrial zone and a garment district, where Jewish and Arabwholesalers buy and sell clothing and artisans build bespoke furniture;in the Levinsky market, tiny shops sell Turkish, Greek and Romanianspecialties, kosher meat, non-kosher cheeses, spices and dried fruits;foreign workers from Asia and Africa congregate every morning on RehovChelnov, hoping to be picked up for a day's construction work; atlunchtime, locals mix with Hasidic workmen and Arab shop girls in RehovFrenkel's Glatt kosher Shawarma restaurant; on Rehov Salome, Tel Avivends and Jaffa begins - although nobody is sure exactly where; aphysical theater group, a soup kitchen and all-night kiosks share asidewalk with seedy lap-dancing clubs; every evening, after thestoreowners and factories close, Florentin is transformed into anentertainment district, where tiny bars sell cheap alcohol and crowdsoverflow onto the sidewalks for pizza and falafel.

For a large portion of Florentin's residents - the students,the new immigrants, and the foreign workers - the neighborhood is onlya temporary home. When their economic status improves, when theygraduate from college, start a family or get a better job, they move onto more affluent parts of Tel Aviv or to family-friendly suburbs. OnlyFlorentin's community of vatikim, long-time residents who, in this case, are older and poorer and living in fixed rent "key apartments," continue to stay put.

Over the years, many marginal groups have found a home here.Since the neighborhood was built in 1933, Florentin has been a firsthome in Israel for successive waves of Jewish immigrants. Theneighborhood has provided hiding places for Jewish undergroundfighters, flophouses for illegal workers from Gaza, a place ofinspiration for anti-establishment street artists and Orthodoxreligious leaders, an industrial area for hundreds of artisans andcraftspeople, and a twilight zone where Tel Aviv and Jaffa merge. Inmore recent years, Florentin has housed large numbers of students andforeign workers. All who have passed through have left their mark onthe neighborhood.

FLORENTIN'S COLORFUL character - a mixture ofpoverty and wealth, hard work and fun, transience and permanence - areall inextricably bound up with its creation and its history. Theneighborhood's roots can be found in Salonika, Greece, almost thirtyyears before the State of Israel was established.

In 1921, a group of 300 Zionists founded the Salonika-PalestineInvestment Company, aiming to develop commercial relations betweenSalonika's Jews and Jewish settlements in Eretz Yisrael. The Jews ofSalonika had a long and prosperous history, but by the 1920s thecommunity faced a terrible crisis. After World War I, an influx ofGreek refugees from Turkey stirred a wave of anti-Semitism thatresulted in vicious attacks. Huge fires decimated the city's Jewishquarter, and over 53,000 Jews lost their homes. Another 25,000 fled thecity.

In1924, the Salonika-Palestine Company sent a special envoy to EretzYisrael to purchase land in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv's Rehov Herzl. Thearea seemed promising - it bordered the Tel Aviv neighborhoods of NevehTzedek and Ahuzat Bayit, and was close to the Jaffa-Jerusalem railroad.The purchases were successful but complex - Ottoman land-use laws meantthe new Jewish owners were unable to commence building in earnest until1933.

As soon as they were able, the Jewish immigrantsfrom Salonika began to construct their new neighborhood. The communityhad grand plans to transform the land from orchards into a new Jewishurban settlement - a bridge between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Mostimportantly, the new area would be an Israeli neighborhood, in which anew type of Jewish community could be established.

Esterica Florentine Montecchio's grandparents were the first tobuild on the new land, and the neighborhood, at least in her version ofevents, takes its name from them. Others say that the neighborhood wasin fact named after David Florentin, a journalist and Zionist activistfrom Salonika, who was the brother of Esterica's grandfather MeirFlorentin.

Esterica, who grew up in Florentin in the 1940s and early 1950s, explains the zeitgeist of the new neighborhood.

"My family and all the new immigrants were ardent Zionists and avery strong community," she says. "They wanted to establish a newIsraeli society, to obliterate the old stereotypes of Jews that hadexisted in Salonika. They wanted their children to be Sabras."

The new neighborhood of Florentin grew rapidly. Houses sprangup in place of orchards and an urban infrastructure began to takeshape.

"The first houses were just one-storey huts," she says.

The new neighborhood, initially administered by Jaffa City Hall,extended south of several important Tel Aviv streets, including Herzland Nahalat Binyamin. Florentin was very different in character fromits northern neighbors Neveh Zedek and Ahuzat Bayit. In 1933, the JaffaMunicipality approved a plan to allow trade and light industry to becarried out in the lowest floors of new buildings in the area. As aresult, a new kind of building was created in Florentin, and smallfactories and workshops were incorporated into the ground floors ofclosely packed residential houses. A combination of cheap housing andthe availability of work close to home meant Florentin was veryattractive to new immigrants from the Fifth Aliya.

Igal Betzelel, a Florentin real estate agent born and raised inthe neighborhood, describes how his grandfather, who immigrated fromAfghanistan in the 1930s, decided to move from Jerusalem to Florentin.

"There was no work in Jerusalem, but there was here," herelates. "My grandfather and grandmother lived in a single room in athree-room apartment. They shared a kitchen and toilet with two otherfamilies. That's the way many families lived back then."

Encompassing the north of Florentin up to RehovEilat, a new industrial area was created, named the Volovelsky Centerafter its founder, Russian businessman Shalom Volovelsky. It was hometo over 200 small factories and workshops.

DespiteFlorentin's growing mix of residents, the burgeoning community wascohesive. Neighborhood synagogues, like the Ahavat Chesed synagogue onRehov Abarbanel, played an important role in Florentin's public life.The Rabbi of Ahavat Chesed - Yitzhak Yedidia Frenkel - was a popularlocal figure and "spiritual father."

"There was nobody who didn't know the neighborhood rabbi," reminisced one resident in a memoir.

Rabbi Frenkel started the tradition of Hakafot Shniyot, thesecond night of dancing in the streets with the Torah on motzei SimhatTorah, a custom now well established in Israeli life. In 1942, whenEuropean Jewry stood on the brink of disaster, Frenkel gathered thepeople of Florentin to dance for their brothers and sisters in Europe.One resident recalled:

"We went out onto the street, Salonikis, Bucharans, Bulgarians,Turks, Iraqis and Poles, Hungarians and Egyptians, Chasids and Litvaks.Each community stood out in its individuality, its multicoloredcostumes, and in the knowledge that 'something special' was beingcelebrated in Florentin in South Tel Aviv."

Ahavat Chesed still stands today, and the wide avenue -stretching out from the synagogue building to Rehov Herzl - has beenrenamed in Frenkel's honor.

EstericaFlorentine Montecchio also recalls the close-knit community in the late1940s and early 1950s, where neighbors looked out for each other andfor their children.

"Florentin was very crowded then, in that respect it hasn'tchanged," recalls Esterica. "But it was a good place. Everyone workedhard, families took turns to wash laundry - a big job back then - sothat there would always be someone to look after us children."

Even though life was often tough for the new immigrants -Esterica's grandfather, for example, was a prosperous wine and tobaccomerchant in Salonika, but was unable to continue that line of work inEretz Israel - the community was rich in other ways. Esterica smiles asshe remembers the weekend traditions of her family and the widercommunity.

"Every Friday morning we would go to GrandmaFlorentine's apartment on Rehov Emek Yizrael (now Rehov Frenkel). Sheused to bake burekas for us all," Esterica says.

Even today, 60 years later, Florentin is famous for its burekas- a traditional delicacy of Jews from Greece and Turkey, and nowconsidered an Israeli specialty. On Rehov Stern, just around the cornerfrom where Esterica's Grandma Florentine used to live, two Salonikaburekas bakeries, Burekas Mis and Konditoria Salonika, compete forsupremacy.

"Although back then, of course, we got burekas at home, nobody would buy them," recalls Esterica.

Later on Friday afternoons the Florentin community would getdressed up and walk the short distance from the neighborhood to thecelebrated Ginti Yam coffee shop at the end of Rehov Allenby.

"Everyone, even us kids, danced to music," she recalls. "The Yekkes - German Jews - went somewhere else, but all the Florentinis went to Ginti Yam. It was the place to go."

Today, Florentin is home to many coffee shops, but in the 1940s and '50s there were none.

"There were plenty of kiosks," Esterica remembers. "They sold gazoz (a type of soda drink originating in Turkey) and a special drink called, tzuf - nectar - which was soda with honey."

Florentine's oldest gazoz kiosk still exists today, on thecorner of Rehov Frenkel and Rehov Kishon; visitors may see the originalgazoz machine, although the kiosk now serves juices, Turkish coffee andof course the ubiquitous burekas.

By the 1960s, despite the waves of immigration after thecreation of the State of Israel in 1948, Florentin had declined into aslum. Esterica's family, like many of the original Florentin residents,moved out. More apartments were turned into workshops.

"Everything moved further north," Esterica explains. "Thecenter of Tel Aviv moved north - away from Neveh Tzedek and AhuzatBayit. The new place to go was Rehov Dizengoff."

Florentin became known as an area where cheap household items could be purchased.

"It was a merchandise center, that was the only reason people went there," Esterica recalls.

Slowly, the neglected buildings fell into ruin. Florentin becamea home for poor residents and a flophouse for illegal workers. Tel AvivMunicipality plans to clear and rejuvenate the area in the 1980s metwith only limited success. By the 1990s, many of the original buildingswere semi-derelict and "huge piles of garbage rotted in plain view onthe street," according to one Florentin homeowner.

JUST AT Florentin's nadir, the neighborhood experienced anunexpected sort of renaissance. The availability of cheap living spacein large loft-style buildings - unthinkable in any other part of TelAviv - attracted a community of artists and designers who createdtrendy live-work spaces out of dingy, derelict buildings. By 1997, whenIsraeli filmmaker Eytan Fox created his eponymous TV drama seriesfollowing the lives of a group of young people living in the area,Florentin had already achieved a reputation of edgy hyper-trendiness.

Bars and restaurants opened in the neighborhood, theavailability of large, semi-abandoned spaces brought nightclubs andlive music venues. Florentin became the place to see and be seen forTel Aviv's artsy crowd, attracted by the possibility of experimentingwith identity while escaping from mainstream society out on thephysical and social margins of the city.

However, despite regular predictions that Florentin - nowfrequently nicknamed "the Soho of Tel Aviv" - would become"gentrified," the area failed to become more affluent, and itspopulation remained largely transient.

In the second half of the 2000s, a demand for cheap housingcaused a property boom of sorts in Florentin. Many of the originalthree-room apartments were divided and rented as single room spacesthat incorporated a toilet, shower, kitchenette and bed. Workshopsclosed and became apartments once again. As Florentin became morecrowded, and as it edged closer to the mainstream, it lost some of itsbohemian chic to nearby areas like Gan Hahashmal. Community restaurantslike Shirale on Rehov Frenkel and the Pasta Bar on Rehov Vital closed,as did a number of fledgling boutiques and galleries.

In place of the restaurants, bars and fast foodjoints - including chains like the Mate Pub - are opening up inFlorentin. Significantly, these new places attract crowds of peoplefrom outside the area. A recently printed tourist map of Florentinexplains that Rehov Vital is an "Entertainment Area." And as thelocation changes, property prices - including rental prices - are onthe rise. A micro-apartment of 20 square meters on Rehov Cordoverofetches a monthly rent of 2,000 NIS.

Thewealth of its nightlife fails to mask underlying problems of povertyfaced by the neighborhood's older residents. Empty bottles consumed atnight in Florentin's trendy bars are picked up in the morning - fromoverflowing dumpsters and the sidewalk - by Florentin's poorest, manyof them elderly, who exchange the bottles for a few shekels at therecycling yards on Rehov Salome. The bottle collecting has createdconflicts among the newer residents, with complaints that thecollectors make a mess, strew garbage on the ground, and store unwashedbottles in communal areas of apartment blocks.

There is another side to Florentin's popular street partiestoo. The thousands of revelers who flood the area to party leave thesidewalks carpeted with broken glass, vomit and garbage.

TODAY, ALMOST 90 years after the first immigrants from Salonikapurchased the area and transformed it from orchards to a Jewishneighborhood, Florentin is undergoing another metamorphosis. Drasticplans to redevelop the neighborhood have been set in motion.Construction of new residential buildings is underway on many of theneighborhood's streets, and older apartment blocks have been given afacelift.

Many more new buildings are planned. Around the city, largeadvertisements invite investors to purchase luxury apartments in alarge complex of four new blocks on Rehov Abarbanel, designed by IlanPivko - a successful architect who has previously designed homes inSavyon. The development will transform a currently semi-vacant lot intoan upscale residential complex. The historic Volovelsky industrial zonesouth of Rehov Eilat is to be razed to make way for a residential areaaimed at families.

Reactions to these dramatic developments have been mixed. Someresidents of Florentin and of neighboring Neveh Tzedek have expressedstrong opposition to the plans. The "Fight 4 Florentin" protest group,formed mostly from local people, argues on its website that the newdevelopments will destroy the character of the neighborhood, andsuggests alternative ideas, including the provision of cheap apartmentsand more green spaces.

Onthe other side of the coin, the "Center for Artisans and Craftsmen," anorganization representing more than 100 factory and workshop owners inthe historic Volovelsky industrial zone, have said that they want "tobe a part of the new urban planning for a new neighborhood." Thesebusiness owners will receive shares in new apartments in return fortheir factories.

Esterica Florentine Montecchio is optimistic about the developments.

"The rebuilding is progress," she says. And if the new Florentindoes become an area for families, perhaps it will even be a return ofsorts to the neighborhood's original character. Although it's unlikelythat many of the new families will know how to make home-baked burekas.