Life in the central bus station

Store owners and employees in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station share what it’s like to work in one of the country’s most infamous locations.

The central bus station (photo credit: NAAMA BARAK)
The central bus station
(photo credit: NAAMA BARAK)
While for most people the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station is a place to avoid, for some it is an inevitable part of their lives – as they come to the notorious building day in, day out to earn their living.
Since opening in August 1993 following three decades of planning, construction and financial difficulties, the central bus station in Tel Aviv’s southern Naveh Sha’anan neighborhood has become one of Israel’s most infamous spots. The huge building, which was meant to emulate a pedestrian city, is comprised of seven floors, some of which are derelict, and is a maze of unpleasant dark corners and filthy passages and stairwells.
The station has come to symbolize the hardship of the city’s southern neighborhoods, which suffer from crime, poverty, poor infrastructure and a large number of illegal migrants.
Many locals now avoid the area, particularly at night, feeling it unsafe to walk around the monstrous edifice.
But the people working at the station have no such luxury, and while some share the general public’s negative opinion of the place, others don’t see what the fuss is about.
Yossi Makonen
Yossi Makonen, the owner of Afro Shop on the station’s fourth floor, is disappointed with the location of his store, which he opened 17 years ago to cater to the Ethiopian community.
“This place is a wasted opportunity,” he laments. “It’s not what we expected it to be.”
When he first opened his shop, which supplies merchandise such as spices, honey, CDs and hair extensions, business was much better. Nowadays, very few locals venture into the shops at the station, apprehensive of the state of security in the building and the dirty surroundings. “We used to be seven or eight workers at the store; now we’re two,” he says.
In Makonen’s opinion, the station has been run down in order to persuade store owners to leave, so the site may be razed to the ground and new, lucrative buildings may be built. “Financiers ruined it [the station]; they’re pressuring us, they just want us to leave,” he says, adding that there is no umbrella organization representing the interests of store owners.
He would like “a strong population to come here. There are good prices here, but [people] don’t come here, they’re scared.” As an afterthought, he notes, “It’s pleasant to come here; it’s not that bad.”
Dani Ginzburg
Tattoo artist Dani Ginzburg has only been working at the station for a little over a year, but he has very strong opinions about his surroundings. He works at Planet Tattoo on the station’s fifth floor, and isn’t a big fan of the location.
“This studio is at a very high standard compared to the place itself. The central station isn’t stigmatized for no reason,” he notes. “There’s loads of weirdos here.
“If you go to the remote places here – and there are a lot – weird things happen.”
However, he has discovered some plus sides to the station. “Before I worked here, I felt uncomfortable,” he says, but has since gotten to know the neighbors. “It’s fun; the neighborliness is a killer. The people are really nice, everyone has known each other for a long time.”
Can the station be improved? “I don’t think that you can improve it.
It’s too big a place.”
Moshe Yael
Moshe Yael is a surprisingly avid fan of the station. The owner of the Super Toast snack stand on the sixth floor, he’s been here for 18 years. “I love the place. It’s lively; a place where you can see all sorts of people,” he enthuses.
“There’s a mix of all the communities, all types, all colors. It’s something that characterizes society; you can see the pulse of society here… There’s nothing like it in any [other] place in the country.”
So why are people so reluctant to come? “Bad press, unsympathetic press. There are a lot of stigmas, a lot of unjustified fear, a lot of prejudice.”
And any material reasons? “If it were cleaner here, if it looked more renovated… if there were more Civil Guard volunteers, there’s no doubt there’d be more people here.”
Yael thinks the station is caught up in a vicious cycle that has yet to be broken.
If people were to come to the station and have a pleasant time, they’d come back, he says. What would he recommend they do? “To come here.
There’s everything, it’s cheap here. It’s not something you can see in Azrieli, in Ramat Aviv Gimmel [upscale shopping centers], it’s the central station.
There’s something special here.”
Mary Nagash
A sales assistant in a seemingly unnamed clothes stand on the sixth floor, Mary Nagash is indifferent toward her location. “It’s okay,” she says. “For me, it’s just work.”
She thinks that the station’s population can be split in half. While the first half is fine, there are also “a lot of thieves here, bad people... people who like to walk around” and drink.
Does she think it’s unsafe for women to work at the station? “It’s all right for them, there’s nothing that bothers us here. It’s daytime, there’s a lot of people hanging around.”
She also doesn’t think there’s tension between the migrants and locals, for the simple reason that the former don’t have time to wander around the station. Citing herself as an example, as an Eritrean migrant, she points out that foreign workers work long, 12-hour days, leaving them no time to come lounge around or make trouble.
Overall, she thinks the station is quite a good shopping destination.
“There’s everything, it’s cheap. You can find whatever you like here: Here there’s clothes, over there phones, over there earrings, food.”
Ofer and Albert
The long line of taxis outside the station is the destination for many people once they arrive. The taxi drivers calling out for passengers are very aware of this, and some completely agree with the negative image of their workplace.
Ofer, who declined to give his last name, is quite blunt about it. “Don’t come here,” he says, describing the place as “a cuckoo’s nest” and citing the drunks, drug addicts and prostitutes that frequent it. “Everybody would have liked to see a normal, clean and orderly place. [But] it’s not clean, not orderly and not normal.”
Fellow taxi driver Albert, who also declined to give his last name, agrees.
“It’s a white elephant. People get lost inside, it’s nothing but trouble, it’s not clean. It’s a feeling of insecurity – [people] go in and don’t know how to get out,” he says. “From the beginning, they built it unsuccessfully.”
What would he recommend to passengers? “I would suggest they go to Arlosoroff [bus terminal].”
Maya Zaro
Hairdresser Maya Zaro has quite a few chilling stories to tell of the station.
Her hair salon is located on the outside of it, in a row of stores that are now closed; those stores used to be illegal bars that catered to migrants, and were the scene of terrible violence.
“Stabbing, beatings, there was a lot of chaos here,” she says, adding that she saw two murders take place right outside her door.
Her storefront was broken into three times, and the violence outside deeply affected her livelihood, as customers were scared to come to her. Not only did her business suffer, but also her personal life – her daughter was sexually assaulted outside the store. “She still hasn’t got over it,” she says.
Zaro too has been molested, but “I’m strong, I’m not small – I’m not scared of them and I know how to deal with them,” she says, although she later adds that “inside, I’m shaking.”
Since the police shut down the bars around here in recent months, the situation has greatly improved. “There’s no chaos, it’s quiet, [people] don’t come to get high, to drink,” she says.
“I explain to clients that there’s nothing to be scared of, it’s a much better situation than before.” However, she says, it’s not uncommon for customers to turn up with their fathers for protection.
Despite this, “livelihood is okay.
Ninety percent of the customers are Israelis… People [now] have the confidence to come, before they didn’t,” she concludes.