What Will Gentrifying the City Mean for Tel Aviv’s Future?by Emily Gould November 5, 2019
Surrounded by sparkling beaches and peppered with an eclectic mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Western culture, Tel Aviv is one of the most unique cities in the world. There’s nothing quite like fighting your way through the crowded HaCarmel shuk to finally treat yourself to a cool cup of malabi once you find the light on the other side. Or walking down Dizengoff street perusing the shops filled with unequivocally Tel Avivian styles, afterward taking a break for hummus then meeting your friends for a drink at one of the many bars that are open–and full–deep into the night, no matter which day of the week it is. Tel Aviv is home to many people, natives and immigrants alike, all who relish in the shimmering shoreline and delicious cuisine; not to mention the–perhaps euphemistically–charming character of the apartment buildings all over the city.
While the aesthetic of many buildings, especially the interiors, leave much to be desired, they’re part of the foundation of Tel Aviv, literally. Officially established in 1909, Tel Aviv-Yafo is steeped in rich history and near ancient buildings, at least relatively speaking. From the time of the First Aliyah in the 1880s, many homes were created in the European tradition as single-story houses with red tile roofs around the Yafo area. Later, when Yafo became too crowded, immigrants began establishing neighborhoods filled with two-story sandstone buildings in Neve Tzedek. By the 1920’s, an Eclectic Oriental style came into fashion which mixed both Eastern and European traditions with features like arches, domes, and ornamental tiles. Around the same time, many German Jewish architects emigrated from Germany and brought with them Bauhaus architecture, characteristic of white, modern-looking, minimalist buildings which are now, collectively, a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, before their legislative protection and landmark status, many of the Bauhaus buildings were heavily neglected and are now beyond repair. Enter corporate hotels and apartment towers.
Not unique nor new to the area, gentrification is a widespread problem. Thousands of cities feel the wrath of corporations and rich investors buying up dilapidated properties with the intention of tearing them down and building anew. Perhaps those who first spawned the idea were not ill-intentioned; however, the result has wreaked havoc across the world. After renovating (or entirely rebuilding) structures, the price of an area inevitably soars. Many people worldwide have paid the price as such corporate ventures have forced them out of their homes with nowhere to go.
Aside from displacement, gentrification is also eroding cultures and traditions: locally owned stores and restaurants are uprooted in favor of strip malls and chain restaurants. “That’s our biggest concern,” says Ayelet Peres, a Tel Aviv native, “We don’t want to forget our heritage or who we are as Israelis.”
The issue is already pervasive and has been for years. Practically the entire shore is lined with skyscraping hotels that block the view of the residents in much more humble properties who could once glimpse the sea from their kitchens. The lots which haven’t yet been filled will inevitably give way to more towers. In 2010, the Tel Aviv Municipality’s Planning and Construction Committee banned building new skyscrapers within the city center, in favor of creating more in the eastern Financial District. The ban, however, does not include hotels along the beach, thereby making the area even more impacted with tourists and business people.
“Ze be’ayah gedolah, it’s a big problem,” says another born and bred Tel Avivian, Nivi Vardi. “The people don’t want to see their city lose its unique look and culture.” Vardi doesn’t speak just for herself. Walking down Retsif Shmuel street you can easily see those who protest the situation; decrepit houses whose owners still cling to their properties display signs telling real estate corporations to “get lost” (a rough and euphemistic translation).
Even transplants like Hungarian Petra Beck are against the municipal facelifts, “The buildings need to be renovated but Tel Aviv is already so expensive, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to afford to live here soon.” She’s right of course; the majority of apartments in the city are in complete disrepair and the more cost-effective solution is probably to start from scratch. Not to mention that when an investor buys a building, individual apartment owners only see a benefit, as they will essentially receive a brand new apartment for free. Lessees on the other hand, will see the cost of rent skyrocket.
Despite all the negativity surrounding the city’s makeover, the positives are overwhelming. Nicer buildings equal a higher standard of living for Tel Avivians, more companies invested in the city will provide for a stronger economy, and the upgrades will make for a cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing look overall. As the local and federal governments are constantly seeking to make Israel a stronger world power, these aren’t exactly side effects to be overlooked. Gentrifying the city will surely shine a spotlight on Tel Aviv and make it a brighter destination for tourists as well as investors and immigrants.
But what about the current citizens and denizens of Tel Aviv? Shouldn’t they have a say in the matter? After all, it’s their livelihoods, cultures, and traditions that are at stake here. The municipality is planning on expanding the city limits to include Bat Yam by 2023, where high rise buildings are already cropping up on practically every block, especially those along the tayelet (promenade). Adding more commercially owned apartments, chain restaurants and grocery stores (especially those that are foreign-owned), and foreign investors can only degrade the rich and eclectic cultural atmosphere that is Tel Aviv.
At its heart, Tel Aviv is a city that not only houses but embraces and welcomes those with an artistic spirit, passion for food, and come from all over the world. The night life is unparalleled, the fashion on the cutting edge, and the restaurants of the highest caliber. But more important than all of that are the people; I’ve never been to a place with kinder, more welcoming, and good-hearted people who genuinely want to help you feel loved and at home. The influx of a more sterile, corporate environment threatens to destroy the delightfully folksy atmosphere as well as the hundred-years old history of the city itself (not to mention the ancientness of the entire country). While the problem of gentrification is not unique to the area, the uniqueness of the area is certainly something to consider when weighing the pros and cons. I can’t think of any other place that combines Middle Eastern and Western culture and aesthetics so seamlessly, nor have I been to a place so fascinating and fun. I suppose its fate is up to the municipality, but I hope they take into consideration all that the city and its denizens will be paying for.