Cinderella of the sand dunes

With 300 acres of parks and green spaces, Holon has gone from a stagnating suburb with a reputation for crime and neglect to a sophisticated city that has earned international attention.

Holon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Holon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mayor Moti Sasson has transformed the city of Holon into a world-class cultural center popular with young families “in spite of, and despite everything.”
Holon’s city motto expresses the drive and determination of its first settlers, who braved relentless heat, isolation, a lack of water, financial hardship and bloody attacks to build a flourishing Jewish city on the barren sand dunes a few kilometers south of Tel Aviv.
This year, as Holon celebrates 70 years since its official founding, the city is also rejoicing in the fruits of the unprecedented cultural and social renaissance that has taken place over the last 15 years.
Holon is home to a plethora of new cultural centers, many of them aimed at children and young people – including a Cartoon Museum, a Digital Art Center, a Cinematheque, a children’s theater, and the internationally acclaimed Design Museum.
One of the greenest cities in Israel with 300 acres of parks and green spaces, Holon has been awarded the highest rating in the Council for a Beautiful Israel’s ‘Beautiful City’ award for 15 consecutive years.
The city’s reputation as a cultural center is now starting to spread overseas. This month, British magazine Monocle ranked the city’s mayor, Moti Sasson, number two in its list of top ten world mayors. Sasson was singled out for ‘miraculously putting a mid-size bedroom community on the world’s cultural map.’ Sasson is modest, although clearly proud, about this latest accolade. “I don’t know why they chose me,” he says, insisting that the credit should really go to “all of us at City Hall, everyone together.”
Despite his self-effacing response, Sasson has effected a cultural and social renaissance in Holon since being elected mayor in 1993, spearheading a multitude of improvements that have transformed the stagnating city beyond all recognition.
At the heart of Sasson’s innovations has been the use of culture as a tool to rebrand and revitalize the city.
Holon’s new cultural institutions have attracted a steady stream of visitors from Israel and overseas – a phenomenon surely unprecedented in this country, where peripheral cities are often ignored or overshadowed by cultural giants Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
How have Sasson and his team at the Holon municipality managed to do the unthinkable, and transform an unglamorous Tel Aviv satellite town into a world-class cultural center and a desirable address? In fact, they have done it “in spite of and despite everything,” with the willpower and “can-do” attitude that seem ingrained in the city’s character.
HOLON WAS built, quite literally, from nothing. At the beginning of the 20th century, the area southeast of Jaffa consisted of rolling sand dunes stretching as far as the eye could see, the sea of yellow broken only by the occasional sycamore tree.
According to Elisheva Edelman, an archivist at Holon’s Historical Museum, the first forays into the dunes began in 1924. A pioneering Jaffa merchant, Shlomo Green, purchased a plot of land – or rather, plot of sand – on what was then considered “the outskirts of Tel Aviv.” By 1931, Green had brought a handful of families to the new settlement, and together they built the basics of a Jewish neighborhood: a synagogue, a water well and a cluster of single-story dwellings.
“These were not wealthy people,” points out Edelman.
“But Green cared about them, and protected them.”
At first, access to the budding settlement – known as the “Green neighborhood” – was by horse-drawn carriage only. Since residents needed to schlep regularly to and from the big city, Green purchased a bus, the Blue Bird. By 1945, Green’s eponymous neighborhood on the sands boasted 140 residents.
Driven by severe housing shortages in Tel Aviv, particularly for workers, four more neighborhoods grew up on the dunes: Moledet, Am, Kiryat Avoda and Agrobank.
Eight Yemenite families settled Moledet, the southernmost neighborhood, in 1930. The enterprising new residents quickly built a synagogue, a mikve and a tanning factory, Concordia.
The Agrobank neighborhood, established in 1934 by Russian entrepreneurs Ya’acov Mirenburg and Shimon Yavetz, was rather more well to do than Moledet and Green. It had better infrastructure, too.
“Mirenburg and Yavetz built roads, sidewalks and an electricity network,” says Edelman. “They wanted to create jobs, so they invited Arieh Shenkar, an immigrant from Poland, to move his Lodzia textile factory from Tel Aviv to Agrobank.”
Kiryat Avoda, established in 1934 a short distance from the Green neighborhood, was a model socialist settlement based on the principles of the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union and labor movement.
In the face of increasingly bloody Arab attacks on the developing Jewish neighborhoods in the dunes and on the Jaffa-Jerusalem road, the Am neighborhood was founded a year later between Green and Kiryat Avoda.
Working-class families of Yemenite, Polish, Iraqi, Russian and German extraction were the first residents of this new neighborhood.
So frequently and so viciously did neighboring Arab villages attack these new neighborhoods that the Hagana sent soldiers to defend the Jewish populations. In preparation for battle, the Hagana stored weapons and trained soldiers at the Hosmasa fort in Agrobank. The weapons cache and training proved invaluable during the War of Independence.
The Jewish soldiers had an innovative procedure to keep their training maneuvers secret from the British, says Edelman. “The watchman’s wife would hang out colored laundry on the tower to warn the Hagana that the British were coming across the dunes.”
On June 19, 1940, Green, Am, Moledet, Kiryat Avoda and Agrobank were united as a single town. A new name – Holon – was chosen for the new city, after a Jewish city described in the book of Joshua, but also because of its closeness to the Hebrew word holot (dunes).
Over the decades, Holon absorbed thousands of new immigrants, many of them working-class families.
In 1965, the city also provided sanctuary for a group of Samaritans, one of only two such communities in the world.
By the time Moti Sasson was elected mayor in 1993, however, Holon was in rapid decline. With rising crime and unemployment, few public spaces and neglected facilities, people were abandoning their hometown in droves for the brighter lights of Tel Aviv or the cleaner streets of neighboring Rishon Lezion.
Together with municipal CEO Hanah Hertsman, Sasson established a committee to revitalize the city, revamp its poor image and drastically improve the services that City Hall provided to residents.
AMONG SASSON’S advisers was Edna Pasher, a specialist in strategic renewal processes and CEO of the Tel Aviv-based EPA consultancy.
“Sasson was faced with an enormous challenge.
Young families were fleeing Holon because the city had little to offer them,” recalls Pasher. “What could the municipality do to reverse this trend?” In a bold move – the first of its kind in Israel – Sasson, Hertsman and their colleagues developed a far-reaching vision to completely rebrand their city.
Holon, the town that youth wanted to escape, would be transformed into “The Children’s City.”
“We decided to focus on children,” explains Sasson, “because they are the future leaders of our city, our country. We want to give them as many possibilities and opportunities as possible so they will grow up not just to be well-educated people but also patient, caring, good citizens.
“Our aim was to enrich our children culturally, because without culture and art there is no soul.”
The Children’s City project has injected culture – much of it aimed specifically at young people – into the very heart of Holon’s public life, making art, design, theater, cinema and history easily accessible for families instead of something that requires an expensive trip into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
“The Children’s City concept translated into many different things for Holon,” says Pasher, “including the Israeli Children’s Museum, story gardens, festivals, theater, the Mediatheque.”
Many of these projects are innovations not just for Holon but for Israel, too. The Children’s Museum is the first of its kind in the Middle East. Its two unique experiential exhibitions, “Invitation to Silence” and “Dialog in the Dark,” help children learn about disability through direct experience of what it must be like to be deaf or blind.
The Story Gardens – public parks each containing fantastical and colorful sculptures of characters from beloved Israeli and foreign children’s books – are another innovation of the Children’s City project. Today, there are 31 such gardens scattered throughout Holon’s residential areas, devoted to children’s favorites like the delightfully absurd “Nehama the Louse” by Meir Shalev, and Dorit Levenstein’s “Where is Pluto?” Holon’s Story Gardens – of which a further six are planned – have become such a quintessential feature of the city that they are featured on a current set of Israeli stamps.
Holon’s grandest project is the Mediatheque, a cultural hub under whose auspices several world-class museums and cultural institutions have been established, among them a children’s theater, a huge public library, the Cartoon Museum (the first of its kind in Israel), the Holon Cinematheque – and, of course, the celebrated Design Museum.
Through these institutions, Holon has worked hard to put itself on the map as an international city of culture, and to bring art and artists from around the world to the city with international festivals, exhibitions and cultural exchanges.
As well as bringing international culture to Israel, the Mediatheque is a driving force for local culture, too.
The Cinematheque has actively promoted the Israeli animation industry through its yearly short animation competition, MaraToon. The Design Museum, Holon’s latest cultural offering, opened earlier this year to a storm of international praise, both for its spectacular building designed by Ron Arad and its debut exhibition of contemporary Israeli and international design. The museum has drawn global attention to Israel’s growing design industry and established the country as a center for world-class design.
THE CARTOON Museum, opened just three years ago, has brought the work of Israel’s historic and contemporary caricaturists to a wider Israeli public. This museum, too, has attracted international attention – particularly for its exhibitions of political caricatures.
Its latest project, part of Holon’s 70th anniversary celebrations, is City of Sands, a comic book that documents the history of the city. Holon native Dorit Maya-Gur – a comic book artist and creator of Israel’s comic book hero Falafelman – was commissioned to undertake the project.
“City of Sands will be used to educate kids about the history of their city, so we wanted to find an engaging way to tell stories about Holon’s first years,” Maya-Gur told Metro. “Instead of concentrating on historical dates, we decided to retell history via personal stories about each of the five neighborhoods from which the city was formed.”
Maya-Gur, who still resides in Holon, says the city has changed completely over the past decade-and-ahalf, and has a lot to offer its residents – including artists like herself.
“Everything related to art and culture is right here in Holon now,” she says. “The Design Museum is one of the best in the world, for example, and the new iMatter library has an amazing collection of materials for design professionals and artists.”
As a direct result of all this activity and innovation, Holon is starting to be recognized internationally as a cultural center – and also for its amazing story of transformation from a stagnating suburb to a sophisticated city.
Consultant Pasher, who helped advise on the original Children’s City project, says the recent commendation of Holon and Mayor Sasson in Monocle is a prestigious achievement.
“It’s really phenomenal,” says Pasher, who adds that Holon is transforming the cultural scene in Israel, too.
Whereas in the past, Tel Aviv turned up its nose at its suburban neighbor, today the White City’s cultural cognoscenti are doing the unthinkable and traveling to Holon for culture.
“Yes, even born-and-bred Tel Avivians like me are coming to Holon for festivals, theater and museums,” admits Pasher, with a smile. “I took my grandchildren to the Children’s Museum, and I’d take them again to the Cartoon Museum.”
By redesigning itself from the ground up and accumulating such a wealth of cultural capital, Holon has become a “knowledge city,” says Pasher. Knowledge cities give their residents a personal stake in their hometown by strengthening their satisfaction, interest and involvement in the city’s everyday life. The concept has been successfully adopted by several cities around the world – Bilbao, Manchester and Barcelona are famous examples – in attempts to reverse decline.
“What happened in Holon is a real story of renaissance,” emphasizes Pasher, who has presented the story of Holon at conferences around the world and co-written a chapter about the whole process in an academic book titled Knowledge Cities. “It is possible through cultural icons to make a city famous – just like Bilbao did with the Guggenheim museum. That is what has happened in Holon,” she says.
In a complete reversal of the situation in 1993, when people were moving away from Holon, today the city’s population – currently 190,000 – is growing. Demand for apartments is high, particularly in the many luxury new towers being built around the city.
THE CITY’S population is happy: According to a recent survey carried out by the municipality, 82 percent of residents expressed satisfaction with their lives in the city, and 76% said they were proud to live in Holon, and would recommend the city to their friends.
A source of particular pride to Moti Sasson is the fact that the Holon municipality has achieved all this with a balanced and responsible budget. Sasson’s municipality has been awarded the Minister of Interior’s prize for good financial management over 10 times.
“We did everything ourselves, without sponsors,” comments Sasson. “I have a background in economics, so I know how to manage a budget properly.”
Holon has come a long way, but the municipality wants to take the city even further, says municipal CEO Hertsman.
One of the many projects planned for the upcoming year is City Square, a new public space intended as a hub for culture and community activity.
“Around the square will be a concert hall, a music center, galleries and a new Civic Center,” says Hertsman, who explains that the new square looks west to Europe for its inspiration.
“In Europe there are public squares in which people can congregate, hold debates, go to galleries,” she says.
“We want to create this in Holon, too.” International architects are currently submitting designs for Holon’s City Square as part of a competition; the winning design will be selected in December.
HOLON, WHICH is already one of Israel’s greenest cities, has the environment at the heart of many of its projects.
According to Hertsman, the city is planning a new ecological park in the center of the city. Park Holot will preserve Holon’s famous sand dunes and their unique ecosystems so that future generations can enjoy this aspect of their city’s heritage.
Other plans include a new ecological neighborhood, with green towers designed to recycle water and reduce energy consumption.
“The new green neighborhood will be designed especially for families,” explains Hertsman.
Holon’s diverse population will be nurtured and celebrated via social projects, including a new program in the Jesse Cohen neighborhood aimed at Ethiopian residents.
“We have a large Ethiopian community in Holon, and we want to give them a space to strengthen their unique identity,” Hertsman explains. “We are planning music, art and video programs, and special workshops for women and youth.”
The Children’s City is also leading a project to remember the 1.5 million children who perished in the Shoah.
A new monument at the city’s Beit Lihyot, a unique center that promotes awareness of the Shoah to children and young people, will be constructed this year, according to Hertsman. The memorial is the culmination of a two-year project initiated by the Ministry of Education and is particularly poignant, says Hertsman, because children from Holon and other Israeli cities actively participated in it.
“Children collected one-and-a half-million marbles, one for each child victim of the Shoah, and these will be incorporated directly into the monument,” she explains.
Hertsman believes that Mayor Sasson deserves the accolade given by Monocle. “Holon is a city with a vision, a strategic plan,” she says with some pride.
“Today we are seeing the results of our efforts. There are not many cities in the world that have transformed themselves completely like Holon has.”
As Holon celebrates its past, and the 70 years since its founding on the sands, Mayor Sasson is looking forward to the future.
“I was born here in Holon, I love my city and I will do everything I possibly can for it,” he concludes. “Holon will not just be another Israeli city, but an international center of culture, with an amazing quality of life for its residents.”
For more about Holon’s cultural offerings, including information in English: Design Museum: Mediatheque and Theater: Israeli Cartoon Museum: Holon Cinematheque: Holon Children’s Museum: Holon History Museum: