Tel Aviv's renewed central park

Named after Meir Dizengoff, Gan Meir has been restored to its natural beauty.

lily pond 88 298 (photo credit: )
lily pond 88 298
(photo credit: )
It's barely 9:00 on a Friday morning, but from the number of people out and about in Tel Aviv's recently transformed Gan Meir, it could have been late afternoon. Four veteran Tel Avivians sit on a wooden bench in the shade of an enormous tree. Sandwiches appear as one of them whisks out a flask of coffee and pours four cups. Meanwhile, Filipino caregivers gently push elderly folk in wheelchairs, while toddlers are slowly propelled in their wheelie carriages along the wide paths by their grandmothers - mom and dad gone off to work, no doubt. Mostly young people and their four-legged friends are in abundance in the canine-friendly compound, another specialty of Gan Meir. Based on the idea of dog parks in New York, Gan Meir's attractively fenced-off canine caper corner contains wooden climbing frames and jumping hoops for the dogs of a myriad species, colors and sizes that congregate in the park for their morning workout. The central pond shows off an abundance of water lilies in shades of pink, white and blue. They waft gently in the breeze, their wide green leaves slowly bobbing on the face of the water. A family stands by the low metal fence surrounding the pond, the children craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the large brightly colored Koi fish swimming around the pond's magical underwater world. Flashes of orange and white are spotted here and there as the fish glide through the water in a lily-free area. A shriek of delight emanates from the youngsters as the head of a turtle suddenly breaks through the water near where they stand. Now that it has returned to its former glory, this park affords a wonderful way to start a day in the city. Yet visitors over the years witnessed the abysmal decline of a once attractive park created when the vision for Tel Aviv was of a garden city. The original design of the public garden named after Meir Dizengoff, the city's first mayor from 1911 until his death in l936, was based on the idea of a mini-model of Israel and even included a pond representing the Kinneret. Just down the road from the huge commercial Dizengoff Center named after the same gentleman, Gan Meir borders on Rehov King George, one of the busiest streets in the center of the city purported to never stop. Over the years, Gan Meir became a far sight from yesteryear's design board depicting an inner city peaceful sanctuary filled with trees, plants and small pond full of foliage and fauna for local residents to stroll through. After the horrific and still unsolved murder many years ago of a young man in the park, local residents became afraid to enter the area, which gradually became a meeting point for "working ladies" and their clients, drug dealers and other unsavory characters. When a clean-up plan was announced a decade ago that would have turned the area into a parking lot, concerned citizens made their voices heard in the right places. The renovation of Gan Meir carried out by the Tel Aviv municipality does justice to a man born in 1861 in a small village in Bessarabia who became Mr. Tel Aviv almost 100 ago - but whose name to most of the city's youth represents more commercialism than Zionism nowadays. In his youth Dizengoff, whose family moved to Kishinev when he was a child, became involved in an illegal people's revolutionary movement while serving in the Russian army. Arrested and imprisoned for that involvement, he eventually moved to Odessa, where he joined the Zionist movement. While in Paris studying chemical engineering and specializing in glass production at the Sorbonne, Dizengoff met Edmund de Rothschild, who convinced him to travel to Palestine and set up a glass industry on the coastline at Tantura (Dor beach) to manufacture bottles for the country's wine-producing Jewish settlements. Dizengoff established the factory but, due to impurities in local sand, the venture collapsed and he returned to Russia. After meeting Theodor Herzl, however, Dizengoff ended up in Jaffa heading a property company that purchased land from local Arabs and the British. He also had business interests that included importing machinery and automobiles, and he was a partner in a shipping company. When a group of Jaffa Jews decided that the teeming mixed Arab-Jewish port town was too overcrowded and set up the Ahuzat Bayit organization, Dizengoff became the head of that organization and bought the land - mostly sand dunes - on which Tel Aviv was founded. The rest is history. Six years into the new millennium, Dizengoff would probably be delighted to share in the goings-on in Gan Meir, nowadays a place of local pride and leisurely strides in the heart of the city.