All shuk up

Will the modernization of the Carmel Market lessen its charms?

Woman buys melon at the shuk (photo credit: DANA FRIEDLANDER/
Woman buys melon at the shuk
(photo credit: DANA FRIEDLANDER/
AMiddle Eastern kaleidoscope of treasure, a cacophony of hustling merchants and consumers haggling over spices, fruits and vegetables, the Carmel Market pumps economic blood through the heart of Tel Aviv.
The shuk exudes a sense of abundance, as the smells of cooking kebabs merge with the Mizrahi music blasted by bootleg dealers, and the seemingly endless mountains of produce, halva, meat and fish threaten to overwhelm the senses of the uninitiated.
As the market has been a staple of Tel Avivian life since its founding by Russian immigrants in 1920, it is no surprise that plans to renovate it for the first time have caused some controversy. In much the same way that the renovations at Ben-Gurion Airport over a decade ago chafed the nostalgic leanings of those who relished stepping out into the humid air onto the fumy tarmac, the idea of upgrading the dirty streets and cramped chaos of the market seems anathema to its charm. Sharp disagreements among city planners, stall merchants and store owners put the renovation plans, expected to begin in 2014, on hold for four years.
But in late January, when the Carmel Market traders signed an agreement on the renovation plan first approved in 2009, they cleared one of the final obstacles to the upgrade moving forward.
THE MARKET’S history reflects Israel’s own, but its roots are buried in the Russian Revolution. In 1913, Zionist leader Arthur Ruppin, one of Tel Aviv’s founding fathers, visited Russia to seek investment in the Holy Land. During his trip, he convinced wealthy Jews there to purchase plots of land in Israel as an investment for their children. When the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 forced many of those Jews to flee, those who ended up in Palestine found themselves with nothing to live off but the 1,000-ruble plots they had purchased.
Despite some opposition by local residents, Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, helped them turn the makeshift stalls they set up there for trading into an official marketplace, renaming the street “Shuk Hacarmel.” The 20 stalls founded by the so-called “Ruppin refugees” soon began expanding.
In the run-up to the state’s founding, however, tension grew with the Arab merchants at the market’s southern end, which technically was part of Jaffa.
Violent incidents, including several shootings, marred the area until the War of Independence.
“The tensions between the sellers and the Arab merchants was very intense,” says Doron Ozer, a tour guide with the Tel Aviv Tourist Information Office.
Following failed efforts to relocate the market in the 1960s and ’70s, mayor Yehoshua Rabinowitz left his mark on the market by creating an official licensing system for the stalls, part of which went toward a criminal rehabilitation program. Former prisoners were given the chance to start over with a stall in the shuk.
On November 1, 2004, a suicide attack in the market killed three people and wounded six, but since the end of the second intifada, the site has returned to its glory days as a flourishing tourist attraction.
DESPITE ITS charms, there is clear room for improvement.
Merchants blithely encourage passersby to throw their trash on the ground, where waste piles up and overflows in the alleyways, creating a palpable stench.
The old, crooked street is a hazard for people with strollers, wheelchairs, or even rolling carts for shopping.
Pushing through the narrow, crowded walkways offers a lesson to those who have not yet sharpened their elbows to the necessary extent.
The renovations aim to change the market literally from the top all the way to the bottom: A roof will shield it from the elements and the open air, and to make the market more accessible, the city will build a four-floor underground parking lot with a nearly 1,000-car capacity and access to a public transportation terminal. That would connect with loading and unloading stations in a centralized space, to be run by a new logistics center. The logistics center would, among other things, organize waste disposal, ensuring that garbage does not end up piled up in the streets and nearby alleys.
The plan extends beyond the market itself, however.
It also involves creating a commercial link to nearby neighborhoods, opening up new opportunities for the construction of residential buildings, shops and community centers.
“The idea is first of all to take a neighborhood, not a building, and give it a plan to change the face of the neighborhood,” explains Shraga Biran, who chairs the country’s urban renewal task force.
“The Carmel Market is an area that is lower, from a socioeconomic perspective, with very slummy surroundings.
If you invest there, allowing the poor to enjoy building rights, it creates the economic incentive to push it up and create a new middle class,” he says, noting that the same strategy has featured in successful urban renewal plans around the world.
“All the big urban renewal plans in New York were built on the same principle,” he says.
“Remember how Harlem once looked and how it looks now.”
In fact, just a few minutes’ drive from the market, on Hahashmonaim Street, a similar plan has already changed the face of the neighborhood.
“That whole area that was neglected, with filth and dirt... has become one of the most prosperous neighborhoods in Tel Aviv,” Biran says.
But not everyone is so happy about the changes. Among the sellers, there is a clear divide between store owners and stall owners as to whether the plan will serve them.
“This is not good for the sellers,” says one vendor who runs a stall selling glasses, belts and other accessories. “The location of the stalls will change, the size will change, the way of selling, it will all change. And it doesn’t fit.”
The vendor, who asked that his name not be printed, worried that expanding the space for customers would push out stall owners like himself.
“I’ve been running this business for over 20 years, and I may find myself without work,” he says.
He acknowledges that “from the municipality’s perspective, it makes sense, to have a renovated and beautiful market,” but adds that the group that signed on to the plans does not represent the vast majority.
Baruch Tzayad, a vegetable seller who works not 200 meters away, disagrees.
“All the stalls that are here can stay, except for the pirates,” he declares.
The messy, haphazard system, he explains, has allowed people who do not own or rent spaces to sneak in over the years, unbeholden to anyone.
“It’s impossible to get them out, you understand? It’s a problem,” he says.
“The municipality is demanding money it doesn’t deserve,” says another stall owner named Avner, concerned over the plan to increase space by clearing out some stalls. Under the current agreement, sellers will receive 49-year leases with an option to extend for another 49 years, and a rent cap of NIS 200,000 for a stall up to seven square meters. According to Globes, owners of vacated stalls will be offered financial compensation or alternative locations.
Shlomo Maoz, a toy store owner, believes the renovations will bring more business.
“Right now it’s like a bathroom. It rains, and there’s water, there is no sewage [system], the market closes at 6. When the market is covered, people will come at night, stroll through the day, not step in the mud when it rains. It will all be clean, beautiful, painted.”
The potential to keep the market open at night is a big draw, he says, surrounded by Purim masks, plastic swords and feather boas.
“Now in the evening there will be work, there will be places, there will be people that come to eat.
They’ll come with money,” he says.
“We still have no idea how they’re going to do it,” he adds, “but from my perspective, it’s great.”
Ozer, the tour guide, notes that many of the crucial logistics have yet to be worked out.
“It’s all in the dark. The moment it all comes out, it will be more orderly,” he says.
Still, he continues, “this renovation will take two years. And in the meantime, the people there, who don’t earn a lot of money, how will they live? Will they work at night? These are things that should be taken into account.”
He adds, “Everyone knows that change has to happen. How it happens, that’s what they argue about. Especially among themselves.”