When I told my friends that I was going to spend some time in the neighborhoods of Shapira and Neve Sha’anan in south Tel Aviv, their spontaneous reactions were: “Don’t go there at night.” – “Look after your bike.” – “You’re gonna get robbed.”
I knew that they were only reproducing stereotypes. Most of them never go to these parts of the city. Nevertheless, as I arrive there one sunny Friday morning on my bicycle, I can not help but get suspicious.
Moving around Neve Sha’anan Street does not feel like moving around in Israel. Almost all people seem to be of African or East Asian origin. Shops look different, signs are in different languages, even the smell is slightly different. It is not that I feel unsafe. But I feel like a stranger.
The policeman on Levinsky Street must be thinking the same. As I attempt to lock my bike to a fence opposite Levinsky Park, he waves at me, shouting something I can not understand. I secure my bike, take my backpack and approach him.
This gives me a twitch. If even the local police warns me, will I ever see my bike again at the end of the day?
“Social Injustices always have a spatial aspect, and social injustices can not be addressed without also addressing their spatial aspect.”
South Tel Aviv was brought to my attention when we discussed the book “Arrival City” by Doug Saunders. The author deals with the “new urban spaces that are this century’s focal points of conflict and change — unseen districts of rapid transformation and febrile activity that will reshape our cities and reconfigure our economies.” He calls those places arrival cities. They are places that migrants from rural areas move to in order to make a better living for themselves, but above all for their children and grandchildren and the generations to come.
Compared to other urban neighborhoods, arrival cities stand out through their rural-immigrant population, their improvised appearance, ever-changing nature and two particular kinds of linkages: there are links to the originating villages of their residents (through sending money and knowledge back and forth) and to the established city (through political institutions, business relationships, social networks and so on).
In his book Saunders describes a whole slew of examples, from Liu Gon Li in China to Istanbul in Turkey to Slotervaart in the Netherlands. Most of them cope with similar problems, one of these being the bad reputation of the neighborhood.
Maybe that is why south Tel Aviv came up immediately when we discussed the arrival city phenomenon in class. However, we never managed to determine whether it actually was an example of an arrival city. That is what I want to find out.
In Levinsky Park I encounter two brothers from Sudan. Atif and Mubarak are refugees who got here three years ago. The rest of their family still lives in Africa. They call them regularly. Sometimes they send money.
What kind of work do they do? “Everything! Whatever comes up – except for killing people.” Mubarak says he learned to speak Hebrew in only three months, picked it up in the streets. That is despite the fact that he could probably live here for years and only speak in his mother tongue.
There are four or five Sudanese TV channels receivable, the brothers say, and a bunch of restaurants serve food that almost tastes like home. “It’s the best food in the world. Of course it tastes a little different here, but only a little. At home, you could always taste your mother’s fingers it…”
Nevertheless “life is hard”, says Atif. “When I first got here, it looked just like home.” He points at the other people in the park, most of them persons of the same dark color that he is. “But it is not. It feels like living in a different people.” Why? “It’s probably not like that in Germany, but in Sudan families normally have about ten kids. When three of them turn out bad – well, that’s normal”, explains Mubarak. “But here, everybody seems to be bad.”
Atif, who is the younger one, is fed up with it. He will turn 26 in four weeks, but he has no intentions to celebrate his birthday in Israel. “I want to go home.”
“The crucial paradox of the arrival city is that its occupants all want to stop living in an arrival city”, writes Saunders. That is not the only factor that makes Atif and Mubarak typical examples of the neighborhood’s residents.
Neve Sha’anan, which translates to “tranquil abode”, of all things, was founded in the 1920s, just as the nearby Shapira. Located around both the Old and the New Central Bus Station, they are major transportation hubs. Maybe that is why “since the 1920s, [these neighborhoods] have had waves of immigration”, as local architect Sharon Rotbard says.
“The first was Eastern European; the next brought Jews from Salonika [Greece], Bulgaria, and Turkey. The 1930s saw an influx of Bukhari from Central Asia.” In the 1990s, Bukhari and Russians dominated the scape of south Tel Aviv. The latest wave, which started around 2005, consists mainly of Eritreans and Sudanese.
“While the state issues the asylum seekers visas, it calls them “illegal infiltrators” and does not allow them to work. So they scrape by on odd jobs and crowd into inexpensive apartments, sleeping as many as 20 to one room. Some refugees live in south Tel Aviv’s parks.”
These waves are typical of arrival cities, and they constitute a paradox: “the more successful they are, the higher the apparent poverty rate. If people are able to leave within a generation for more prosperous middle-class homeowner districts, the neighborhood will be constantly refilled with new migrants from poor rural regions. It appears unchangingly poor and segregated only if you fail to observe the trajectory of each resident.”
But what are the trajectories of south Tel Aviv's residents?
“Most of them move farer away from the city, to Ramla, Petah Tikva and the like”, says Yonatan Mishal. Until very recently, he was one of the roughly ten per cent of Neve Sha’anans residents who are born Israeli. For 15 years, he observed the development of the neighborhood, guided tourists through it and got involved in community and art projects.
We take a walk together as the sun begins to set.
There are some people in the streets, shopping, talking on the phone or just hanging around in small groups. Jammed between barbershops, cellphone stores and exchange offices (“The best rates in the city!”, as Yonatan says) are quite a few cafés and bars, but most of them are empty. In a neighborhood where the average flat is shared by no less than eight people, I would have expected to see many more. Where is everybody?
“They are in the backyards”, says Yonatan with a mysterious smile. Only then I realize the design of most of the buildings: they are small, narrow two-story houses that were originally planned as units with housing or business space in the front and space for individual farming in the back. Today's residents have turned the farming into meeting spaces.
Sneaking through the backdoors and peeking through some of the open windows reveals a whole new dimension of the neighborhood. In one room a group of young men is playing pool. In another one, there is an Eritrean bar where people are watching a football match.
“These places are private, but they operate like public spaces”, says Yonatan. “Every backyard belongs to another community. Isn’t that amazing?” It is. Especially since it is another crucial attribute of the arrival city.
A study of Shapira found “that residents tend to prefer intra-ethnic social networks […] All these groups live in the neighborhood side by side, brush against each other, ignore one another, act by the social code of the neighborhood ‘live and let live’- and carry out, each separately, its unique lifestyle.”
This leads to what Saunders describes as “a new hybrid, a culture of arrival created by trapped people. […] People here live in the contradictions between the two cultures, without being a member of either one.”
“Did you notice?”, asks Yonatan. “There are garbage cans instead of benches, there is a sewage drain in the middle of the street.” He shakes his head at two police men who unconcernedly pass by an obvious trading spot for stolen bicycles. (I find myself quickly scanning the display, checking if mine is already among them.)
These might be some small examples in favor of the accusations that Aharon Maduel from the municipal political party Ir LeKulanu has been making for years. ““How do you turn [south Tel Aviv] into an area for the rich?” Maduel says. “First of all, you weaken the area... forcing the people who have enough money to run... Only the weakest stay; the value of their houses goes down drastically; and the [investors] come and purchase, purchase, purchase... ””
Heralds of gentrification already emerge on the outer borders of the neighborhood. Apartment houses are being built or renovated. Artists from a local art school have established their studios on the site of the Old Bus Station. There are plans for new apartment buildings and a park right next to it. A while ago, a fund was established that pays every student from Tel Aviv University 10.000 NIS per year if he or she moves here.
“Of course the residents are offended by this”, Yonatan says. “Why give all this money to people who need to be convinced to move here, while they have been living here for years?” But most of these people are not citizens.
“They don’t vote, so no one cares.”
“Spatial remedies are necessary but not sufficient to remedy spatial injustices – let alone social injustice.”
The residents seem to be resigned about political participation or taking action on a larger scale. As Atif and Mubarak told me earlier, they feel that all Israelis hate them. That is no surprise, given that they were here already when “south Tel Aviv [was] on fire” due to protests and clashes in 2011 and 2012.
The two are not there anymore when I get back to Levinsky Park in the evening. The sun has gone down now, but the Park is still bright – illuminated by huge floodlights that give the impression of surveillance rather than safety.
The women who had been picnicking with their children on the playground earlier have vanished. Instead, there are mostly men in the park now. However, it is not a dangerous atmosphere – maybe because the space is very open, its interior is visible from the outside. And then there is the police station right next to it, of course.
Against the noise of the street, young men are playing volleyball on the fenced field, some are sitting on the benches or in the grass, and in one corner the volunteers of Levinsky Soup are setting up a long table. They give out 400 portions of soup every evening.
It is just one of several projects that take small steps rather than big action – and nevertheless have a great impact on the neighborhood. The Garden Library, for instance, opens three times a week in the early evening. It holds books in 16 different languages. Volunteers look after the kids who love to come and play here. They offer language lessons and movie nights. Over the course of five years, the library gained 450 subscribers – and the trust of the neighborhood, which I can tell as one of the kids whom I attempt to photograph asks me, “are you one of them? No? Then don’t take my picture, please.”
These kinds of remedies help out if city officials do not recognize the necessity of spatial measures. Acknowleding south Tel Aviv as an arrival city, rather than desperately trying to turn it into something else, is the one big step they need to take. Because "arrival cities are the places where the next great economic and cultural boom will be born, or where the next great explosion of violence will occur. The difference depends on our ability to notice, and our willingness to engage.”
- Efraim, Omri (2012): "Israel mulling long-term detenion of illegal migrants" http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4237612,00.html (retrieved Feb 9th, 2015)
- Guarnieri, Mya (2012): "South Tel Aviv land grab". http://mondediplo.com/blogs/south-tel-aviv-land-grab (retrieved Feb 9th, 2015)
- Marcuse, Peter (2009): "Spatial Justice: Derivative but Causal of Social Injustice". In Spatial Justice 1/2009.
- Project for Public Spaces: "What Makes a Successful Place?" http://www.pps.org/reference/grplacefeat/ (retrieved Feb 9th, 2015)
- Saunders, Doug (2011): "Arrival City". Windmill Books.
- Schnell, Izhak and Moshe Harpaz (2005): "A model of a heterogeneous neighborhood". In GeoJournal 64/2005: 105–115.
- Sela, Maya (2009): "Tel Aviv's forgotten neighborhood". http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/features/tel-aviv-s-forgotten-neighborhood-1.276445 (retrieved Feb 9th, 2015)
- Smith, Shoham (2012): "In south Tel Aviv, Israelis anguished and bitter due to influx of African refugees". http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/in-south-tel-aviv-israelis-anguished-and-bitter-due-to-influx-of-african-refugees-1.431162 (retrieved Feb 9th, 2015)
- Wikipedia (2014): "Geddes Plan for Tel Aviv" http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geddes_Plan_for_Tel_Aviv (retrieved Feb 9th, 2015)