Neve Shaanan: Tel Aviv's Neighbourhood of Lofty Dreams Shattered by Reality
Here is the story arc of south Tel Aviv's Neve Shaanan neighbourhood: the green orange orchards of Jaffa which became the urban-rural ideological and sociological experiment that was abandoned, polluted, and noisy and which became the home to thousands of neglected people - that now is the centre of much national discourse and discord. How did it go through all of these phases in just under a century?!?
An original map of Tel Aviv from 1919 showing its early development with ten years growth towards the north. Neve Shaanan is located as the fields on the east.
The myth of Tel Aviv is that of a city born from the sand in 1909. Growing north from Herzl Street along Rothschild Blvd, it became the great cultural capital of the Middle East, if not, the world! In 1984 the Tel Aviv Art Museum highlighted Tel Aviv's famed German based International (Bauhaus) style architecture. The exhibit was called "The White City" - an iconic collection of buildings built by German Jewish immigrants in the 1930's, identifiable by the white-ish washed plaster on their buildings. This eventually led to the UNESCO designation of Tel Aviv as a World Heritage Site, a historic moment that Tel Aviv celebrates every year with the "White Night" all night party all over the city.
In his book "White City, Black City," Tel Aviv architect and author Sharon Rotbard discusses how this narrative not only ignores realities, but actually contributes to the active neglect and deterioration of the more diverse and poorer Tel Aviv neighbourhoods of Shapira, Hatikva, and Neve Shaanan. In order to understand this complex relationship between the south neighbourhoods and the northern ones, we must look at how Neve Shaanan was founded and the path that it took to get to where it is today.
Nachum Gutman's painting "Jaffa Orchards" depicts life in the orchards outside Jaffa with the sand dunes of future Tel Aviv and the train to Jerusalem.
In the 1800's and early 1900's, the area that would become Neve Shaanan consisted of orchards owned by various Arab (Jewish and Muslim) farmers from the city of Jaffa. When Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 further to the west, it was initially connected to Jaffa only through the suburban neighbourhoods of Jewish Neve Tzedek and the mixed Manshiyya. Though Tel Aviv was founded as a distinct city from Jaffa, it was essentially is a suburb of the historic and still growing metropolitan.
During the post WWI years, Jaffa became increasingly crowded and tension grew between the Jews, Muslims, and the British. May of 1921 was an especially difficult month in Jaffa where 47 Jews were killed by Muslim fighters and 48 Muslims were killed by British soldiers or Jewish fighters - with over a hundred on each side suffering injuries. Living conditions in Jaffa became unbearable, magnified by an accompanying rise in real estate prices in Tel Aviv.
In response to this growing urban crisis, Yaakov Ferman, a Zionist poet and art collector, gathered a committee of other wealthy Jewish idealists to purchase land just outside Tel Aviv. In November 1921, an invitation leaflet was issued for the homeless and lower class craftsmen of Jaffa to attend a general meeting discussing the purchase of land and the construction of houses on the basis of self-help. Ferman's vision was to establish a rural settlement on the outskirts of the city, which would be home to craftsmen and their factories, while also allowing them to live close to nature and gardens. Members of the association established auxiliary farms near their homes, which provided agricultural produce: milk, eggs and vegetables for their own needs and for the residents of Tel Aviv. Ferman, and those working with him, dreamed of an affordable urban-rural utopia!
In 1922, Neve Shaanan was born amidst this idealistic vision. The name came from a prophetic quote Isaiah (33:20):
חֲזֵה צִיּוֹן, קִרְיַת מוֹעֲדֵנוּ; עֵינֶיךָ תִרְאֶינָה יְרוּשָׁלִַם נָוֶה שַׁאֲנָן, אֹהֶל בַּל-יִצְעָן בַּל-יִסַּע יְתֵדֹתָיו לָנֶצַח, וְכָל-חֲבָלָיו, בַּל-יִנָּתֵקוּ.
"When you gaze upon Zion, our city of assembly, your eyes shall behold Jerusalem as a tranquil home (Neve Shaanan), a tent not to be transported, whose pegs shall never be pulled up, and none of whose ropes shall break."
The original plans of Neve Shaanan in bottom right corner of the map where the menorah outline can be seen.
The thoughtful city planning of Neve Shaanan perfectly matched Ferman's sociological dream of a Jewish utopia. Yosef Tischler, the city planner, designed the neighbourhood to look like a menorah, with Levinsky Street as the central branch and Jerusalem Street (now Har Zion Street) as the meeting point for the tops of the curved branches. The image of the original city plans shows how the right side of the menorah came to fruition, but that the left side, south of Levinsky, remains in dotted lines - a plan that never came about. Abed, the Jaffa farmer who owned that land, never agreed to sell his orchards there to complete the neighbourhood - leaving only half of a menorah to this day.
In 1928, Neve Shaanan was officially incorporated into the growing city of Tel Aviv and with that came a new wave of buildings and people, including most famously, the Bauhaus marvel built by Shimon Levy which is colloquially known as "The Ship House" due to its similarity in its appearance to the bow of a ship. But despite the influx of "White City" into Neve Shaanan, its charms were soon to tarnish moving into the next decade.
After more unrest in Jaffa in 1929, the central committee of Tel Aviv realized that it needed to be self-sufficient from Jaffa and no longer act as its northern suburb. Tel Aviv built its own port in the north, new markets (Hatikvah and Carmel), power station (Reading), and a new bus station. Because the western edge of Neve Shaanan was already being used for a bus parking lot, Tel Aviv ominously designated this area to be the location of the central bus station of the city. Upon completion in 1942, what once was the rural area captured in glorious images by Reuven Rubin and Nachum Gutman was drastically transformed into a loud and polluted place that required increasingly more paved roads and parking lots, and sadly fewer orchards. Canadian folk legend Joni Mitchell could have been describing Neve Shaanan when she wrote: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." (This is extra relevant because the word 'paradise' comes from the Persian, and later Hebrew and Arabic, word for orchard - 'pardes.')
But it is not at this bus station that Neve Shaanan focuses its anger, it is the new one that took three decades from its planning to completion and left in its wake a forever changed neighbourhood. The successful cafe owner and entrepreneur, Aryeh Pilz, inquired about the abandoned property that was meant to be the other side of the menorah that was never completed. After the War of Independence, Abed's orchard, like other abandoned Muslim owned properties in the country, was appropriated by the Jewish National Fund. It then became a home for squatters who built temporary homes in and around the orchard - an ironic throw-back to Ferman's vision for Neve Shaanan. While Tel Aviv was considering renovating its central bus station in the late 1950's, Pilz bought the JNF land and convinced the city to let him build there the world's largest bus station.
And so it began. Architect Ram Karmi, one of Israel's most influential architects (sometimes celebrated and sometimes scorned) took on the project. Pilz sold over 750 future stores in order to fund the massive project, instead of leasing finished blocks like an ordinary shopping mall. Because of the many years of delay, special interests propelled the building to grow even larger, and coupled with the inconvenience of its design, these shops lost most of their value within just a few years. Nowadays, the seven floor structure has two fully abandoned floors and countless abandoned shops and areas.
The impact of the bus station was not limited to the shop owners and investors who will never recuperate their losses. The larger scale damage was that done to Neve Shaanan which at this point had lost all of its real estate value and had devolved into the grungiest area of Tel Aviv. Already by 1976, when only the skeleton of the terminal was completed and further construction had stalled, the locals foresaw the future decline and initiated active community protest. They even filed a still ongoing class action lawsuit claiming the damages of their diminished property value. The nickname of the New Central Bus Station, the "White Elephant," echoes its bloated growth and its trampling over what once was the imagination of the Neve Shaanan dream. At the grand opening, when all of the country's dignitaries arrived for the station launch, a white elephant balloon was featured as a way to prove the doubters wrong. But the locals were indeed right. The recently created "Tel Aviv 5000" plan intends for the future of the White Elephant to be a center for business with residential areas as well. It will cease to be a bus station by 2042. Replacing it will be Arlozorov station and Holon Interchange. For more information on this, there is a great deep dive into the bus station on the Israel Story podcast titled: “Stop that Bus!”
Since the bus station debacle, Neve Shaanan has become both famous and infamous for its migrant population. Sudanese and Eritrean refugees began coming to Israel in 2006 through the Egyptian border. After a period of detaining these people for a period, the Israeli government relinquished most without them without any long term plan, thus left them almost by default to reside in the area of the Central Bus Station, perhaps under the assumption that they eventually would spread out to the rest of the country. Due to the low cost of rent, the high chances of finding black-market work, and having no alternative place to go, most refugees stayed by the bus station and searched for family and friends there. Reminiscent of when Jewish Holocaust survivors arrived to Israel, the asylum seekers would post pictures and contact information of relatives on walls in the hopes to reconnect. Today around 60,000 migrants live in Israel, most of them in Neve Shaanan and other proximal areas of south Tel Aviv.
The language used to describe these individuals and their families perfectly demonstrates the changing views of the Israeli government and people towards them: "refugee - פליט" to "asylum seeker - מבקש מקלט" to "infiltrator - מסתנן." To avoid giving them the protective rights granted to official refugees, Israel initially assigned their status as those of asylum seekers. Then Prime Minister Netanyahu began referring to them as ‘infiltrators’. For Israelis, this term harkens back to a 1954 attack on a bus in the Negev Desert where 11 Israelis were shot dead by Palestinians who "infiltrated" from Egypt. In a parallel story to that of Neve Shaanan, these migrants were at first welcomed and embraced and then abandoned and left to fend for themselves. State funds that had been allocated as recently as a few months ago were stuck in committee by the Prime Minister's Office which is always seeking a balance between the demands placed on Israel by the UN and with appeasing the right wing elements of Israelis whose rhetoric plays on the fears of the migrants. The city of Tel Aviv has therefore been left with the brunt of the burden of making sure that the lives of these tens of thousands of people is good, legal, and filled with opportunities with programs like The Platform.
Neve Shaanan is often portrayed as a hotbed of crime, drugs, prostitution, and poverty. But walking around the neighbourhood you get a completely different story.
The distinctive mix of manufactured goods and local shops that once lined the original Neve Shaanan Street has become revived into the most diverse shopping and cultural center in Israel - and maybe in the world. You'll find here many forms of authentic African and Asian foods that don't appear anywhere else in Israel, and definitely not grouped next to each other. This key, available in 16 languages, is used by the reader to help future readers find their perfect book. The last reader gets to categorize it on the appropriate shelf to their feelings.
And though the original orchards don't exist anymore, the green spaces here are filled with life. In 2009 the Levinsky Garden Library emerged with a special mission in mind: bringing thousands of people together and improving lives through reading, adult education and training, and childrens programing. The library has a marker for each of the sixteen different languages found on the shelves and they are mixed together with the purpose of promoting dialogue and connecting people. The catalogue is instead arranged by emotions one feels when reading. Each person who reads a particular book can rate the level and types of emotions it evoked by assigning a different coloured sticker. The inner cover also allows a space for the reader to write a seven word description. The last reader determines on the final classification, but the colours from each previous ranking remain, connecting readers through this shared psycho-sociological ratings trace.
The catalogue of the Levinsky Garden Library showcases with each coloured sticker the emotion the reader felt upon completion.
The physical structure of the library mirrors its psychological space for it is permanent-temporary with no walls, doors, or guards. It is lit up at night and there is a low structure for children to browse on the floor. There is a canopy above for shelter and plenty of places for all to sit and meet with each other. Offering more than just a place to read, now, over 1,000 refugees and migrants have completed the adult education program the library offers.
Art exhibit from 2018 Light Festival mocks Neve Shaanan's incomplete menorah street plan. The Central Bus Station occupies the empty space where the other branches of the menorah should be.
As Neve Shaanan's most recent iteration continues to evolve, so too does the city of Tel Aviv. With each passing year, Tel Aviv becomes wealthier and the cost of living in Tel Aviv continues to rise. One of the effects of this on Neve Shaanan has been the inevitable gentrification that has started. Tel Aviv held here their fifth annual "Festival of Lights", old Bauhaus style buildings have already been renovated, and the real estate prices are steadily rising. Artists and students are moving into the neighbourhood, one of the first signs of gentrification. The more subtle and bigger scale effect has been the visual separation of the neighbourhood from Tel Aviv's most important culture and business area. The large condos and business towers that line Rothschild Blvd have created a wall that in effect blocks "The White City's" view of the so-called "The Black City" of south Tel Aviv. And for Neve Shaanan, where noise, dirt, pollution, and the abandoned Central Bus Station are its claims to fame, those tall buildings make inclusion into regular Tel Aviv life look more impenetrable than ever before.
Yaakov Ferman could not have picked a more apt verse from the Bible to choose the name for his neighbourhood. "When you gaze upon Zion, our city of assembly, your eyes shall behold Jerusalem as a tranquil home (Neve Shaanan), a tent not to be transported, whose pegs shall never be pulled up, and none of whose ropes shall break." Neve Shaanan began as a simple 'tranquil home' in the orchards for those who couldn't afford living in the big city. It later became the safe haven for thousands of people who have never had the chance to dream of anything more than survival. Their Zion isn't Jerusalem, it is freedom and happiness. And in an unexpected way, it is the most recent look of Neve Shaanan that has brought it closer to its original goals than it has been since those first few years - a peaceful place for those who can't afford any other.