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PROPERTY OWNERS prefer to rent to bars, who can pay significantly higher prices than vegetable sellers.’.(Photo by: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The shuk, the chic and the shock
‘Prostitution in shuttered houses or even in backyards, drugs, needles and more, are a regular sight [in certain areas]...’
For decades, the Mahaneh Yehuda market was the pulse of the city, with clear and well-known rules: vegetable, fruits, meat and fish from the morning to the late afternoon, then calm in the empty alleys, which enabled the surrounding residents to enjoy quiet evenings and nights.

Sometime in the early 2000s, after a series of blows during the second Intifada, the shuk began to evolve. The pace of change quickened after a bloody terrorist attack in the market, when in a bold movement, the local neighborhood council led by Uri Amedi convinced the municipality to use the terrible event to transform and breathe new life into the location.

A new concept was born: the shuk was cleaned and renovated, destroyed shops were reconstructed, façades of inhabited houses on the central alley were renovated, and it became one of Jerusalem’s most attractive spots, blending an exotic fruit and vegetable daytime market with a hot nightlife center. It soon became a must for locals and visitors, who tasted fresh produce and local foodstuffs by day and enjoyed chic music, cuisine and beverages at night.

Business was good – but only for some. As more restaurants opened, more bars stayed open late into the wee hours with boisterous music, noise, smoke – and not far behind, drugs, prostitution, alcohol, pickpockets and the like. The life of residents around the shuk area became a shocking ongoing nightmare.

An integral part of the mixture is local politics. The strong link between shuk merchants and the Likud Party led to involvement in the mayoral race in 2013 and 2018. Official elections to the powerful merchants' committee took place only once, in 2012, with Shimon Darwich elected its head. Darwich, a quiet man who wanted to take care of the merchants’ interests and needs, was somehow forced to step aside, as political issues intensified.

In 2008, legendary shuk figure Yaron Tzidkyahu supported Arcadi Gaydamak, whose mayoral candidacy was a colossal failure. In 2013, Tzidkyahu backed Moshe Lion, who lost to Nir Barkat. In 2013, Tzidkyahu was evicted from the committee and replaced by Nino Peretz, a Nir Barkat supporter. In 2018, Peretz, still a strong Barkat backer and a major figure in the Jerusalem Likud branch, shifted his allegiance to Barkat’s preferred candidate – Minister Ze’ev Elkin. After Elkin’s failure, Peretz resigned from the merchants’ committee. Tzidkyahu, still close to Lion, reentered the arena, although not all the merchants were happy about this comeback. 

Ideally, new elections should be held now for the merchants’ committee, but conflicting interests, political issues and pride have prevented this. This week, in a bold move, Mayor Lion named as temporary president of the merchants’ association Tehila (Tali) Friedman. From Tali Atelier, a culinary enterprise in the shuk that combines market (fresh vegetable bought in the shuk) with guided tours for tourists, she is a true representative of both trends in Mahaneh Yehuda. Lion tasked her with organizing new elections. Sources say that he hopes that Friedman will be elected, inaugurating a change in the shuk atmosphere.

‘FOR YEARS, Mahaneh Yehuda was the beating heart of the city, with clear-cut rules.’ (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, with a leaderless committee rife with internal battles, the situation in the shuk and in the neighborhood is worsening.
The residents’ nightmare starts with lack of parking places; the spots are usually all taken by patrons of the bars and restaurants.
“As a rule, I never take my car out in the evening,” says Avinoam Kutcher, a denizen of Bezalel Street. “I am sure that upon coming back I won’t find a place anywhere near home, even after 40 minutes of driving around.”

“Parking is a sensitive issue, but there are worse,” adds Dr. Ofir Lang, head of the Lev Ha’ir Local Council. “Prostitution in shuttered houses or even in backyards, drugs, needles and more, are a regular sight scattered around every morning in the neighborhood [in certain places]. Add to that the lack of public toilets, the excrement and the smell of human waste all around – that is but a part of the price paid by the residents for the flourishing nightlife in the shuk.”

Lang adds that the majority of the bars and restaurants do not have – and will never obtain – business permits, since they don’t conform with legal regulations. Clearly, he asserts, the whole situation is a lawless jungle.

Aware of the scope and sensitivity of the issue, Lion has been trying to find a solution to these problems – the noise and nuisance to the residents, the need to reach some kind of balance between the nightlife and the original market, and perhaps even to reduce the fervor of the political emotions involved.

Lion has met with some of the committee merchants and has assigned others with relevant tasks, but the situation is the result of the free market. Property owners prefer to sign agreements with bars, which can pay significantly higher rental prices than vegetable stalls. As a result, the ratio of bars to vendors continues to grow in favor of the former.

All hope for the mayor to reach an equitable solution.

Concludes Lang: “More regulation, better law enforcement, more public toilets, a functional balance between the market and the nightlife – these are key parts of a solution that we all hope for.”
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