Urban renewal exposed

The area around Tel Aviv’s Hahashmal Street is an intriguing amalgam of young and old, dilapidated and meticulously restored, timeworn and trendy.

Mikve Yisrael Street now sports some swanky ventures, including international franchise outlets (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Mikve Yisrael Street now sports some swanky ventures, including international franchise outlets
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
 The Hahashmal Street section of Tel Aviv is one of the city’s best-kept secrets… or it was until not too long ago. Slotted between the none-too-fashionable southern end of Allenby Street, the equally down-market busy thoroughfare of Begin Road and dusty Mikve Yisrael Street, there does not, initially, seem to be too much appealing about the district – that is, until you hear some of the local folklore.
I first got a handle on some of the urban legend courtesy of Dudi Peri and Hagit Ben Ami. And there was subsequently plenty more where that came from, and then some, from Shula Widrich. The latter is an expert on the annals of Tel Aviv, while the former twosome are founders and managers of the Ben Ami Gallery located at 12 Hahashmal Street.
By the way, just in case your Hebrew is not up to rudimentary level, “hashmal” means “electricity” and the top end of the street is, indeed, occupied by a sizable facility operated by the Israel Electric Corporation.
The company’s large compound contains some of the district’s earliest structures, dating to the 1920s, including the original company board of directors unit and a water tower.
The whole area is an intriguing oxymoronic amalgam of young and old, dilapidated and meticulously restored and augmented, and the timeworn and hipster-oriented. There are some simply gorgeous revamped buildings there, such as the one at 10 Barzilai Street, on the corner of Hahashmal, which is a wonder to behold.
Its perfect, softly tinted blue-gray exterior – complete with delicately crafted iron-railed balconies – as well as the delectable- looking floor tiles may be espied from the main entrance.
I wouldn’t mind picking up my mail from the yesteryear-styled letter boxes. And there’s Jacobson’s Building at the top end of Levontin Street which, in its revived condition, is a definitive exemplar of Bauhaus – a.k.a. International Style – beauty. But we really should get into a bit of the chronological backdrop of the district before addressing the here and now. The local story begins in the mid-nineteenth century, 1856 to be precise – long before Tel Aviv rose out of the sands – when a certain English gent by the name of Alfred Isaacs purchased an area of 36 dunams (nine acres) with the intent of establishing a “model farm.”
The idea was to run a successful agricultural venture along with missionary activities in the Holy Land. Isaacs’s Middle Eastern foray was soon followed by the arrival of Paul Isaac Herschon, an apostate who set about developing the place, putting up residential buildings and digging wells.
Things went reasonably well for 20 or 30 years, until a series of spats developed between the English group and the Jerusalem company appointed to administer the enterprise. In 1900 the farm-based firm was sold to the Christian Arab Rok family of Jaffa, and 22 years later Yosef Rokach assembled a conglomerate, by the self-explanatory name of The Committee of Model Farm Orchard Buyers, and purchased the plot with some adjoining land. Thus the new Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon came to be.
The latter is, of course, now identified with the town located north of Tel Aviv, which was founded in 1922. But, back then, the present day Ramat Hasharon was called Ir Shalom and took on its current name only in 1932.
The northern end of Hahashmal Street is a vintage architecture fan’s delight. The buildings at numbers 25 and 27, opposite the Israel Electric skyscraper, have been lovingly restored, although No. 27 is mostly obscured from the street by rich foliage.
Widrich, the author of several important research papers on Tel Aviv, including “Tel Aviv Exposed,” which she co-wrote with Yossi Goldberg and Irit Amit-Cohen in 2009, says No. 27 was the first residential building constructed in then Ramat Hasharon in 1922. Its neighbor was put up a couple of years later and sports some fetching art deco architectonic elements.
Much of the credit for the delightful preservation work goes to architect Nitza Metzger-Szmuk, who has landed several awards for her efforts to revive the aesthetic beauty of Bauhaus edifices across Tel Aviv. Yoav Messer also put in his restoration pennyworth, for example through his sterling efforts on an Eclectic style building, originally built in 1925, lower down on Hahashmal Street. As the plaque outside notes, it was developed as “a two-story townhouse and a partial basement for the residential purposes of Ms. Sarah Ginsburg.” The current building has four floors, incorporating 14 apartments.
The former Ramat Hasharon district is not just about the gloriously revived past, betwixt crumbling edifices which have yet to benefit from a restorative hand or two. The transformation of this seemingly unfashionable southern Tel Aviv neighborhood has quietly taken on a certain hipness.
Take, for example, the stretch of businesses along Mikve Yisrael Street, near the corner of Barzilai, which takes in the recently opened Israeli branch of the Lumas global, limited-edition photo gallery chain, which boasts more than 40 outlets across Europe, North America, Asia and Australia.
Then there’s a trendy Loveat eatery, with includes a vintage clothing store. Meanwhile, on the other side of Mikve Yisrael Street, work proceeds on the light railway, overlooked by a clutch of skyscrapers.
Round the corner, on Barzilai Street, another vintage clothes store is sandwiched by a hardware store and a cute plant nursery called – surprise, surprise – Hamishtala Haktana (The Little Nursery). The sign of the modestly proportioned flower and plant emporium adds a throwback touch with eye-catching, albeit erroneous, punctuation.
“There is a friendly ambience to this place,” notes Peri of the aforesaid Ben Ami Gallery, which is currently running an exhibition of typically striking works by octogenarian South African-born painter and venerated jazz musician Harold Rubin. There are also some contributions by Ben Ami herself in there, too.
The gallery has been around for about a year, after relocating from near Jaffa. It took over from a fashion designer’s work and display space. The designer, a genial chap by the name of Itzik, now runs a café in one half of the gallery, which is dotted with all kinds of vintage items, including old cameras and radios. By the way, I can vouch for his eggplant and tehina sandwiches. They are both delicious and vegan.
The district’s eatery range is also conspicuous for its general lack of chain names. There is nary an Aroma or a Café Café in sight, although it must be said that the Hummus Eliyahu place, in the nether regions of Levontin Street, has quite a few siblings up and down the country.
And if, after you’ve worked your way through a calorie-laden portion of the said chickpea dish, you fancy some sedentary intellectual activity, you might want to pop across the road to Migdalor, an invitingly designed independent bookstore. The cozy milieu of the neighborhood comes across here, too, with a colorful kiddies’ corner available for junior readers and their parents.
There are also periodic musical and literary events in the evenings there.
On the subject of entertainment, just a hop, skip and jump up the road the Levontin 7 music venue has displayed financial resilience that is nothing short of miraculous in this day and age. The originally jazz-oriented basement joint has been doing good eclectic musical business for 11 years now, offering a wide range of local pop, rock, jazz, indie, ethnic, reggae, you-name-it acts on stage, and also bringing in foreign artists from time to time.
There are more vegan delights available at the Green Cat pizza place next door, while fans of Japanese food should be drawn to the nifty- looking Okinawa Sushi & Sake, which sits cheek by jowl with E. Freudenthal – Food Machines Ltd., established in 1943 by the current proprietor’s grandfather.
A propos, the district’s original moniker now only lives on in the name of the public park which straddles the meeting point of Barzilai, Hahashmal and Levontin streets, and is known as Hasharon Park. Not too long ago, you would have been best advised to give the public space a wide berth, when it was predominantly populated by junkies and ladies and gents of the night. All that, thankfully, is done and dusted. The park is now a delight for the eyes and ears, with a shaded children’s play area, and the odd cultural event.
Sarit Redman, who has been working at the Sefer Lakol bookstore on Barzilai Street since 1976, told me that the business was founded back in the early Sixties. Naturally, she has witnessed many of the local transitions of the last four decades, and she is well pleased with the evolution.
“The population here has changed a lot, and that’s fine, that’s the way it should be,” says Redman.
The restorative work has, of course, pushed real estate prices through the roof. One woman in the know told me that an apartment in a building on Levontin Street – three or four years ago, prior to the current makeover process – was going for NIS 900,000. Today the same abode will set you back three times that.
And just one more smidgen of local legend. Beit Hadar, near the corner of Begin Road and Harakevet Street, on the outskirts of the neighborhood, a rare example of a steel-based Bauhaus-style structure, has some hefty historical baggage. In the 1930s, when it housed the headquarters of the British Mandatory police, the Irgun Zva’i Leumi underground paramilitary organization was intent on blowing the place up.
According to Widrich, the Hagana – which later evolved into the IDF – got wind of the plan and decided to scupper it. It seems the Hagana had stockpiled grenades in the vicinity and was concerned that, should the IZL attack go ahead, the Brits would search the local area for arms. The Hagana managed to stop the attack, which the IZL had planned on carrying out through a tunnel it dug under what is now Begin Way.
On a personal note, Widrich regaled me with a delightful anecdote about her Aunt Aliza who, after divorcing her first husband, ran a matchmaking salon from a building on the corner of Begin Road and Hashfela Street, right across the road from Beit Hadar. It seems that the first eligible bachelor who crossed Aliza’s threshold made such an attractive proposition, she married him herself.