One step at a time

Far-fetched? That is what happened 23 years ago in the Tel Aviv local elections with the Walking Man initiative.

The Walking Man figure gets pride of place in front of the municipality building (photo credit: HEN MIKA)
The Walking Man figure gets pride of place in front of the municipality building
(photo credit: HEN MIKA)
Cycling is like life – if you stop moving you fall over.
That comes across loud and clear at the “Soon I’ll Get Far” exhibition at Beit Ha’ir at 27 Bialik Street in Tel Aviv. Although the central character uses his legs for walking rather than pedaling, he is evidently one determined dude.
If you were in Tel Aviv in the early to mid-1990s, you may recall the figure of the Walking Man, an almost ubiquitous presence across the city back then dreamed up by Eitan Bartel and Ilan Goldstein.
Imagine running an election campaign with a virtual candidate, and that your virtual party does so well that the polls project that you will get three seats on the municipality executive.
Far-fetched? That is what happened 23 years ago in the Tel Aviv local elections with the Walking Man initiative.
Goldstein embraces the “perpetuum mobile” ethos.
“When you walk, you walk,” he says. “You are only worth the last step you took. This exhibition is not about taking a nostalgic look at those days. This is about setting yourself an objective and homing in on it, regardless of anything that might stand in your way.”
That sounds like an excellent philosophy for any politician, and the Walking Man suited that determined approach to a T.
Nature does not accommodate vacuums; the idea for the walking man was conceived while Bartel and Goldstein were enjoying a hiatus in their lives.
“Basically, we sat around cafés all day not doing much at all,” Goldstein recalls. “People asked us what we did and we told that soon we would get far.”
Hence, the name of the Beit Ha’ir show.
The two young men were – and still are – proud Tel Avivians.
While they may not exactly have been workaholics at the time, one thing they really cared about was their hometown.
That love was enough to get them off their rear ends and dive into the deep end of the urban activism pool.
They may not have initially had much going for them in terms of political or financial clout, but they quickly learned that they could lock into a groundswell. Once the basement-level motion was up and running, the dynamics would eventually bear fruit.
“When we did the Walking Man thing, there was a group of 12-year-old kids promoting cycle paths in Tel Aviv,” Goldstein notes. “You see how long it took for the idea to mature.”
While that may seem like criticism of the municipal authorities, Goldstein’s love for the city remains undiminished.
“The idea for that came from below. The municipality said they were against it, until there were so many people who supported it that they municipality said they were in favor.
Only a city like Tel Aviv could accommodate criticism and then act.
The human-powered form of two-wheeled transport also had a lead role in the relentless Bartel-Goldstein campaign.
“We made five bicycles, with the model of the Walking Man at the back instead of the rear wheel,” Goldstein explains.
One of the said steel steeds is now on display at Beit Ha’ir – and a fetching item it is, too.
“We put one of the bicycles in front of the Tel Aviv Museum – if they weren’t going to exhibit inside the museum we felt at least we could show it to the public outside. We kept moving the bikes around, to different spots around town, so people thought there were a lot more of them than there actually were.”
There were stencil-based Walking Man graffiti all over the city. You could hardly go anywhere in downtown Tel Aviv without seeing the purposefully striding figure.
The municipality may not have had its collective ear to the ground back then, but Bartel and Goldstein certainly did. They soon found a willing partner with the requisite shekels and public profile to push the urban activism campaign up several notches, and start spreading the word.
That comrade in arms was the now-defunct Ha’ir newspaper, the seminal Tel Aviv publication, which gladly ran full-page notices based on the by-now unmistakable figure of the Walking Man. The messages were not always overly subtle, and addressed such topics as racism – both in Israel and abroad – the political divide here, the Middle East peace process and materialism.
This was in the pre-Internet era, when people generally met to discuss the burning issues of the day, as well as for socializing.
The Walking Man twosome instigated events and activities aimed at allowing the ordinary Yossi or Anat on the Tel Aviv street to air their views and gripes about what really bothered them. Top complaints included dog droppings on city sidewalks and apartment balconies that had been closed off unattractively to create extra rooms. Another grievance was the lack of drinking water dispensers around the city.
“It was clear to us that the municipality was in cahoots with the mineral water companies,” Goldstein observes.
“The less free drinking water was available, the more money people would spend on mineral water.”
Bartel and Goldstein wanted to change things in their beloved city, and they were willing to go for broke. The exhibition was preceded and, indeed, spawned by the publication of a 250-page monochrome tome called The Walking Man – A Test Case of Subversive Activism in the Domain of the City of Tel Aviv.
Chronicling the campaign events in the early 1990s, the book opens with a ethereal manifest that leaves little to the imagination.
“The Walking Man is a captive of the journey,” it reads.
“His sole aim is to go far. He bears the flag ahead of a war that he has yet to invent…. His appearance is transient and does not allow him to remain within a specific medium. He has nothing to say, other than the fact that he has passed. His image is the statement, all else is speculation.”
The fictional Bartel-Goldstein local authority election campaign may have lacked the necessary corporeal candidate entity, but the Walking Man certainly achieved a significant public presence. A 5.5-meter cast-iron statue of the titular pedestrian enjoyed a scenic perch near Glilot Junction, between Tel Aviv and Herzliya. Bartel and Goldstein obtained a permit to display the gargantuan sculpture there for three weeks, but a day before the legal tenure ended, municipal bulldozers dropped by and reduced the giant to iron rubble.
Bartel and Goldstein evidently ruffled plenty of feathers, and regularly cocked a snook at the powers that were, such as their Taramti Dag (I Donated a Fish) activity at the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. A video record of the event is included in the current exhibition.
“Thousands of fish died in the river due to pollution, so we decided to replenish some of the river’s fish population,” recounts Goldstein.
“We didn’t ask the municipality for permission, so they came along and said it was illegal and that we were causing an imbalance in the ecosystem. What bullsh-t! As if the municipality’s negligence, which caused the deaths of thousands of fish, hadn’t disturbed the ecosystem.”
Bartel and Goldstein, who ironically subsequently became election campaign media advisers for both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, haven’t hung up their urban activism boots. The opening event of the exhibition featured awards presented to people and bodies who are still doing their utmost to improve life in Tel Aviv. The 2016 Walking Man Award for Urban Activism laureate roster includes veteran musician Zeev Tene, whose lyrics often raise pressing social issues, leading public housing protest figure Daphni Leef and Tel Aviv-based Sudanese activist Mutasim Ali, who is campaigning for the release of hundreds of his compatriot refugees from the Holot detention center in the Negev. 
The Soon I’ll Get Far exhibition closes on May 30. For more information: