Florentin - from Salonika to Soho

Almost 90 years after it was founded, a Tel Aviv neighborhood is searching for its identity.

Florentin Salonika greek pastry 248  (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
Florentin Salonika greek pastry 248
(photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
With a mixed, predominantly poor and transient population, yet with a growing yuppie presence, and its location out on the edge of the first Hebrew City, Florentin in south Tel Aviv is a neighborhood literally and symbolically on the margins, an area of contradictions and convergences.
It is an industrial zone and a garment district, where Jewish and Arab wholesalers buy and sell clothing and artisans build bespoke furniture; in the Levinsky market, tiny shops sell Turkish, Greek and Romanian specialties, kosher meat, non-kosher cheeses, spices and dried fruits; foreign workers from Asia and Africa congregate every morning on Rehov Chelnov, hoping to be picked up for a day's construction work; at lunchtime, locals mix with Hasidic workmen and Arab shop girls in Rehov Frenkel's Glatt kosher Shawarma restaurant; on Rehov Salome, Tel Aviv ends and Jaffa begins - although nobody is sure exactly where; a physical theater group, a soup kitchen and all-night kiosks share a sidewalk with seedy lap-dancing clubs; every evening, after the storeowners and factories close, Florentin is transformed into an entertainment district, where tiny bars sell cheap alcohol and crowds overflow onto the sidewalks for pizza and falafel.
For a large portion of Florentin's residents - the students, the new immigrants, and the foreign workers - the neighborhood is only a temporary home. When their economic status improves, when they graduate from college, start a family or get a better job, they move on to more affluent parts of Tel Aviv or to family-friendly suburbs. Only Florentin's community of vatikim, long-time residents who, in this case, are older and poorer and living in fixed rent "key apartments," continue to stay put.
Over the years, many marginal groups have found a home here. Since the neighborhood was built in 1933, Florentin has been a first home in Israel for successive waves of Jewish immigrants. The neighborhood has provided hiding places for Jewish underground fighters, flophouses for illegal workers from Gaza, a place of inspiration for anti-establishment street artists and Orthodox religious leaders, an industrial area for hundreds of artisans and craftspeople, and a twilight zone where Tel Aviv and Jaffa merge. In more recent years, Florentin has housed large numbers of students and foreign workers. All who have passed through have left their mark on the neighborhood.
FLORENTIN'S COLORFUL character - a mixture of poverty and wealth, hard work and fun, transience and permanence - are all inextricably bound up with its creation and its history. The neighborhood's roots can be found in Salonika, Greece, almost thirty years before the State of Israel was established.
In 1921, a group of 300 Zionists founded the Salonika-Palestine Investment Company, aiming to develop commercial relations between Salonika's Jews and Jewish settlements in Eretz Yisrael. The Jews of Salonika had a long and prosperous history, but by the 1920s the community faced a terrible crisis. After World War I, an influx of Greek refugees from Turkey stirred a wave of anti-Semitism that resulted in vicious attacks. Huge fires decimated the city's Jewish quarter, and over 53,000 Jews lost their homes. Another 25,000 fled the city.
In 1924, the Salonika-Palestine Company sent a special envoy to Eretz Yisrael to purchase land in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv's Rehov Herzl. The area seemed promising - it bordered the Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Neveh Tzedek and Ahuzat Bayit, and was close to the Jaffa-Jerusalem railroad. The purchases were successful but complex - Ottoman land-use laws meant the new Jewish owners were unable to commence building in earnest until 1933.
As soon as they were able, the Jewish immigrants from Salonika began to construct their new neighborhood. The community had grand plans to transform the land from orchards into a new Jewish urban settlement - a bridge between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Most importantly, the new area would be an Israeli neighborhood, in which a new type of Jewish community could be established.
Esterica Florentine Montecchio's grandparents were the first to build on the new land, and the neighborhood, at least in her version of events, takes its name from them. Others say that the neighborhood was in fact named after David Florentin, a journalist and Zionist activist from Salonika, who was the brother of Esterica's grandfather Meir Florentin.
Esterica, who grew up in Florentin in the 1940s and early 1950s, explains the zeitgeist of the new neighborhood.
"My family and all the new immigrants were ardent Zionists and a very strong community," she says. "They wanted to establish a new Israeli society, to obliterate the old stereotypes of Jews that had existed in Salonika. They wanted their children to be Sabras."
The new neighborhood of Florentin grew rapidly. Houses sprang up in place of orchards and an urban infrastructure began to take shape.
"The first houses were just one-storey huts," she says.
The new neighborhood, initially administered by Jaffa City Hall, extended south of several important Tel Aviv streets, including Herzl and Nahalat Binyamin. Florentin was very different in character from its northern neighbors Neveh Zedek and Ahuzat Bayit. In 1933, the Jaffa Municipality approved a plan to allow trade and light industry to be carried out in the lowest floors of new buildings in the area. As a result, a new kind of building was created in Florentin, and small factories and workshops were incorporated into the ground floors of closely packed residential houses. A combination of cheap housing and the availability of work close to home meant Florentin was very attractive to new immigrants from the Fifth Aliya.
Igal Betzelel, a Florentin real estate agent born and raised in the neighborhood, describes how his grandfather, who immigrated from Afghanistan in the 1930s, decided to move from Jerusalem to Florentin.
"There was no work in Jerusalem, but there was here," he relates. "My grandfather and grandmother lived in a single room in a three-room apartment. They shared a kitchen and toilet with two other families. That's the way many families lived back then."
Encompassing the north of Florentin up to Rehov Eilat, a new industrial area was created, named the Volovelsky Center after its founder, Russian businessman Shalom Volovelsky. It was home to over 200 small factories and workshops.
Despite Florentin's growing mix of residents, the burgeoning community was cohesive. Neighborhood synagogues, like the Ahavat Chesed synagogue on Rehov Abarbanel, played an important role in Florentin's public life. The Rabbi of Ahavat Chesed - Yitzhak Yedidia Frenkel - was a popular local figure and "spiritual father."
"There was nobody who didn't know the neighborhood rabbi," reminisced one resident in a memoir.
Rabbi Frenkel started the tradition of Hakafot Shniyot, the second night of dancing in the streets with the Torah on motzei Simhat Torah, a custom now well established in Israeli life. In 1942, when European Jewry stood on the brink of disaster, Frenkel gathered the people of Florentin to dance for their brothers and sisters in Europe. One resident recalled:
"We went out onto the street, Salonikis, Bucharans, Bulgarians, Turks, Iraqis and Poles, Hungarians and Egyptians, Chasids and Litvaks. Each community stood out in its individuality, its multicolored costumes, and in the knowledge that 'something special' was being celebrated in Florentin in South Tel Aviv."
Ahavat Chesed still stands today, and the wide avenue - stretching out from the synagogue building to Rehov Herzl - has been renamed in Frenkel's honor.
Esterica Florentine Montecchio also recalls the close-knit community in the late 1940s and early 1950s, where neighbors looked out for each other and for their children.
"Florentin was very crowded then, in that respect it hasn't changed," recalls Esterica. "But it was a good place. Everyone worked hard, families took turns to wash laundry - a big job back then - so that there would always be someone to look after us children."
Even though life was often tough for the new immigrants - Esterica's grandfather, for example, was a prosperous wine and tobacco merchant in Salonika, but was unable to continue that line of work in Eretz Israel - the community was rich in other ways. Esterica smiles as she remembers the weekend traditions of her family and the wider community.
"Every Friday morning we would go to Grandma Florentine's apartment on Rehov Emek Yizrael (now Rehov Frenkel). She used to bake burekas for us all," Esterica says.
Even today, 60 years later, Florentin is famous for its burekas - a traditional delicacy of Jews from Greece and Turkey, and now considered an Israeli specialty. On Rehov Stern, just around the corner from where Esterica's Grandma Florentine used to live, two Salonika burekas bakeries, Burekas Mis and Konditoria Salonika, compete for supremacy.
"Although back then, of course, we got burekas at home, nobody would buy them," recalls Esterica.
Later on Friday afternoons the Florentin community would get dressed up and walk the short distance from the neighborhood to the celebrated Ginti Yam coffee shop at the end of Rehov Allenby.
"Everyone, even us kids, danced to music," she recalls. "The Yekkes - German Jews - went somewhere else, but all the Florentinis went to Ginti Yam. It was the place to go."
Today, Florentin is home to many coffee shops, but in the 1940s and '50s there were none.
"There were plenty of kiosks," Esterica remembers. "They sold gazoz (a type of soda drink originating in Turkey) and a special drink called, tzuf  - nectar - which was soda with honey."
Florentine's oldest gazoz kiosk still exists today, on the corner of Rehov Frenkel and Rehov Kishon; visitors may see the original gazoz machine, although the kiosk now serves juices, Turkish coffee and of course the ubiquitous burekas.
By the 1960s, despite the waves of immigration after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Florentin had declined into a slum. Esterica's family, like many of the original Florentin residents, moved out. More apartments were turned into workshops.
"Everything moved further north," Esterica explains. "The center of Tel Aviv moved north - away from Neveh Tzedek and Ahuzat Bayit. The new place to go was Rehov Dizengoff."
Florentin became known as an area where cheap household items could be purchased.
"It was a merchandise center, that was the only reason people went there," Esterica recalls.
Slowly, the neglected buildings fell into ruin. Florentin became a home for poor residents and a flophouse for illegal workers. Tel Aviv Municipality plans to clear and rejuvenate the area in the 1980s met with only limited success. By the 1990s, many of the original buildings were semi-derelict and "huge piles of garbage rotted in plain view on the street," according to one Florentin homeowner.
JUST AT Florentin's nadir, the neighborhood experienced an unexpected sort of renaissance. The availability of cheap living space in large loft-style buildings - unthinkable in any other part of Tel Aviv - attracted a community of artists and designers who created trendy live-work spaces out of dingy, derelict buildings. By 1997, when Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox created his eponymous TV drama series following the lives of a group of young people living in the area, Florentin had already achieved a reputation of edgy hyper-trendiness.
Bars and restaurants opened in the neighborhood, the availability of large, semi-abandoned spaces brought nightclubs and live music venues. Florentin became the place to see and be seen for Tel Aviv's artsy crowd, attracted by the possibility of experimenting with identity while escaping from mainstream society out on the physical and social margins of the city.
However, despite regular predictions that Florentin - now frequently nicknamed "the Soho of Tel Aviv" - would become "gentrified," the area failed to become more affluent, and its population remained largely transient.
In the second half of the 2000s, a demand for cheap housing caused a property boom of sorts in Florentin. Many of the original three-room apartments were divided and rented as single room spaces that incorporated a toilet, shower, kitchenette and bed. Workshops closed and became apartments once again. As Florentin became more crowded, and as it edged closer to the mainstream, it lost some of its bohemian chic to nearby areas like Gan Hahashmal. Community restaurants like Shirale on Rehov Frenkel and the Pasta Bar on Rehov Vital closed, as did a number of fledgling boutiques and galleries.
In place of the restaurants, bars and fast food joints - including chains like the Mate Pub - are opening up in Florentin. Significantly, these new places attract crowds of people from outside the area. A recently printed tourist map of Florentin explains that Rehov Vital is an "Entertainment Area." And as the location changes, property prices - including rental prices - are on the rise. A micro-apartment of 20 square meters on Rehov Cordovero fetches a monthly rent of 2,000 NIS.
The wealth of its nightlife fails to mask underlying problems of poverty faced by the neighborhood's older residents. Empty bottles consumed at night in Florentin's trendy bars are picked up in the morning - from overflowing dumpsters and the sidewalk - by Florentin's poorest, many of them elderly, who exchange the bottles for a few shekels at the recycling yards on Rehov Salome. The bottle collecting has created conflicts among the newer residents, with complaints that the collectors make a mess, strew garbage on the ground, and store unwashed bottles in communal areas of apartment blocks.
There is another side to Florentin's popular street parties too. The thousands of revelers who flood the area to party leave the sidewalks carpeted with broken glass, vomit and garbage.
TODAY, ALMOST 90 years after the first immigrants from Salonika purchased the area and transformed it from orchards to a Jewish neighborhood, Florentin is undergoing another metamorphosis. Drastic plans to redevelop the neighborhood have been set in motion. Construction of new residential buildings is underway on many of the neighborhood's streets, and older apartment blocks have been given a facelift.
Many more new buildings are planned. Around the city, large advertisements invite investors to purchase luxury apartments in a large complex of four new blocks on Rehov Abarbanel, designed by Ilan Pivko - a successful architect who has previously designed homes in Savyon. The development will transform a currently semi-vacant lot into an upscale residential complex. The historic Volovelsky industrial zone south of Rehov Eilat is to be razed to make way for a residential area aimed at families.
Reactions to these dramatic developments have been mixed. Some residents of Florentin and of neighboring Neveh Tzedek have expressed strong opposition to the plans. The "Fight 4 Florentin" protest group, formed mostly from local people, argues on its website that the new developments will destroy the character of the neighborhood, and suggests alternative ideas, including the provision of cheap apartments and more green spaces.
On the other side of the coin, the "Center for Artisans and Craftsmen," an organization representing more than 100 factory and workshop owners in the historic Volovelsky industrial zone, have said that they want "to be a part of the new urban planning for a new neighborhood." These business owners will receive shares in new apartments in return for their factories.
Esterica Florentine Montecchio is optimistic about the developments.
"The rebuilding is progress," she says. And if the new Florentin does become an area for families, perhaps it will even be a return of sorts to the neighborhood's original character. Although it's unlikely that many of the new families will know how to make home-baked burekas.